My friend Stuart McCook, a historian who studies coffee cultivation and blogs about it at Coffee Cultures, has been called an “apologist for Robusta coffee.”
Robusta is a species of coffee plant (Coffea canephora) distinct from the more widely cultivated Arabica species (Coffea arabica). Robusta is estimated to make up anywhere from 20% to 30% of the global coffee market, with significant representation in Brazil and Vietnam.
“Apologist” was the term chosen because Robusta is considered to be the black sheep of coffee. Why? In a word, taste: if you ask most people in the specialty coffee industry, they will tell you that the taste of Arabica coffee is objectively superior to Robusta.
Stuart’s belief is that taste is not as objective as it is often made out to be, and he points to the fact that, in areas where Robusta coffee is grown, coffee drinkers develop a taste for it. Moreover, the historical record suggests even Arabica coffee is an acquired taste.
But I had never tasted a cup of pure Robusta before, and chances are you haven’t either. It’s almost always sold blended with Arabica beans, often to cut costs (Robusta is substantially cheaper). It’s particularly found in some traditional Italian espresso blends, where it contributes additional caffeine, body and, especially, crema.
As an experiment, and at Stuart’s request, I picked up a half-pound of Ugandan dry-processed Robusta green beans from Green Beanery. I roasted fairly light, just a little past first crack, let them rest for two days, then brewed them in a French press. Given Robusta’s reputation, I was surprised at how inoffensive the cup was… which is not to say that it was especially tasty. The aroma, in particular, came across as “burnt bark” (not in a good way), but the palate was much nicer, with a fairly pleasant woody taste and a long finish that I wanted to compare to walnut skins. Stuart commented that if you avoided thinking of it as “coffee,” but as “a hot beverage made from the dried and roasted seeds of a tropical plant,” it was actually reasonably good. (Of course, with the additional caffeine, I regretted drinking it after dinner when I had serious trouble falling asleep that night.)
Of course, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions. The nature of the market means that finding high-quality Robusta, especially wet-processed, is difficult. At a certain point, it becomes a vicious cycle: no one grows and processes top-quality Robusta, so the buyers all say Robusta is bad, so the growers have no incentive to treat Robusta as anything but a commodity. I will continue to drink Arabica coffee almost exclusively, but it was an interesting thing to try, and if offered a cup of Robusta, I wouldn’t turn it down.