The adventures of a coffee trainer by Emma Haines
Coffea is a complex plant. We know of over 125 species worldwide of this intriguing botanic beauty.
However, from these 125 species, there are currently only four species grown, with two of those four being the most commonly enjoyed.
Those two are; Arabica and Canephora (more commonly known as Robusta)
As most coffee connoisseurs will tell you, robusta is true to its name. It’s robust in body, flavour and mouthfeel and is a hardier species all round. With twice the level of caffeine than that of its lighter, more delicate cousin Arabica, these beans certainly pack a punch. That said it’s usually to the detriment of its flavour. Anyone who’s serious about coffee is quick to discount robusta due to its overwhelming bitter flavour, and unrefined final cup.
If you visit a specialty coffee shop, you’ll hardly ever (never) see robusta on the menu board. You will see a vast selection of exciting, exotic sounding coffees from far-flung parts of the world. You’ll usually see information on the roast profile and how it’s best suited to drinking, you’ll see variety, origin, farm name and flavour notes. You’ll often even see the height that the specialty Arabica was grown at (altitude impacts the final cup) but you will be really hard pushed to see any mention of robusta, the lesser desired of the two species.
Due to its hardier nature, robusta is a cheaper bean to purchase. It does well growing at a lower altitude, meaning there is more available land, and it’s easier to harvest. It yields more fruit than the arabica plant too. Therefore, robusta has always been the ‘stack it high, sell it cheap’ option. Due to the biology of robusta, and its growing conditions, it fails to have the intricacies that arabica varieties have. We cannot pick out the heightened acidity we seek, nor any delicate tea-like or floral notes we may associate with a premium, high grown arabica. Instead robusta is lucky if it’s referred to as chocolate lay or spicy. Many people I know refer to it simply as tasting burnt, bitter or smoky, all notes that we prefer to stay clear of.
But, much as I tell all of my students, robusta should not be discounted. We know the current state of the coffee market and how arabica is in crisis due to global warming so for the last decade or so, there’s been some dedicated researchers and farmers looking at improving robusta.
Robusta doesn’t have it easy. Due to its low price, it is often harvested in the quickest, cheapest way. Strip picked, with many cherries still completely green. Specialty arabica on the other hand will be subject to selective picking, making sure only the ripest cherries are collected and then processed with precision and utmost detail to ensure they fetch the highest price.
Robusta has none of this, or at least, it didn’t have until more recently.
With news of Colombia experimenting with growing robusta, alongside a real push to improve robusta quality across other growing regions, it looks like the fortune of this humble little (big) plant may be set to change.
By applying specialty principles to robusta (nearly all robusta is currently naturally processed) we are starting to see results that are astounding in the cup. Better harvesting and processing = better tasting coffee.
The Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) run Q Robusta grading courses which focuses on sourcing high quality, premium robustas, as well as adding clout to the fact that there are robustas out there that work well as stand-alone coffees, rather than just as instant coffee or commercial coffee blends. They talk of robustas that are fruity, floral and fragrant, whilst retaining body and boldness.
So although they may still be harder to find, there’s lots of excitement out there about high grade, specialty robusta and seeing those options on the menu board may not be that far off…
- Emma has worked in hospitality and catering training for the last 10 years. For the last five years, she has focused on coffee training, in particular specialty coffee training, and how to incorporate specialty elements into commercial environments. She works all over Europe and beyond, and is a resident trainer at London School of Coffee.