Will Robusta One Day Replace Arabica?



How our coffee-drinking habits could be set to change 

With climate change set to have a big effect on coffee production, the humble Robusta bean could soon challenge the Arabica species in the popularity stakes.

In the last decade or two, coffee has seen a huge surge of popularity in the UK, arguably overtaking tea as our national drink. As a nation, we consume over 70 million cups of the good stuff each day and almost every high street is home to at least one coffee shop. Our obsession with coffee has even gone mobile with coffee bar hire available for parties and festivals, enabling us to get hold of our favourite brew wherever we may be.

Many of us now consider ourselves to be coffee connoisseurs and, when it comes to coffee varieties, there seems to be a clear favourite with the Arabica bean taking top spot over its rival the Canephora or ‘Robusta’ bean. However, some coffee experts are predicting that, for a number of reasons, we might soon see Robusta overtaking Arabica as the coffee of choice.

What’s in a bean?

So what is the difference between Arabica and Robusta beans, and why is the former so much more popular than the latter?

It seems like the main differences between the two come down to flavour and genetics. The Arabica plant has 44 chromosomes, enabling it to develop more characteristic flavour profiles than the Robusta which only has 22 chromosomes. This in turn means that Arabica offers a much greater range of flavours, from caramel and chocolate accents, to floral, citrus and berry notes.

However, that’s not to say that Robusta beans are lacking in flavour – far from it in fact! While Robusta beans may not boast the same diverse range of flavours as their Arabica cousins, what they lack in variety, they make up for with a distinctive, full-bodied and aromatic taste. Robusta also boasts a thick crema and higher caffeine content, making it the perfect choice for espressos.

The climate change effect

The genetic differences between the different coffee types might also come into play as we begin to see the effects of climate change on coffee production across the world.

The Director of the World Coffee Research Institute has warned that climate change will severely threaten the supply of high-quality coffee, with drought, high temperatures and other extreme weather conditions causing low harvests in traditional coffee-growing regions.

In order to combat this, coffee farmers are having to consider implementing adaptation measures, such as better irrigation, shade management, or shifting to another coffee species. And this is where Robusta beans have an advantage over the Arabica variety. As the name suggests, the Robusta plant is genetically more robust and can survive in harsher conditions, making it more likely to cope with the challenges thrown up by climate change.

Preparation is key

When it comes to getting the best out of Robusta beans, it all comes down to how they are prepared and served. Robusta beans contain more caffeine and chlorogenic acid, but less sugar, than the Arabica species, meaning that they need to be roasted for longer in order to realise the full flavour of the coffee. Unfortunately this does not always happen, giving Robusta coffee a largely undeserved reputation for being too bitter. When prepared properly, Robusta beans can actually produce a very decent coffee – just ask the Italians!

Arabica is firmly entrenched as the favourite coffee bean variety, at least in the UK, so predicting that it could be replaced by Robusta is maybe a step too far. However, with a changed mind-set, improved processing methods and the spectre of climate change on the horizon we could certainly begin to see a rise in popularity in this somewhat underrated coffee bean.