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Coffee Canephora: the 'R' word.

Robusta coffee was discovered growing wild in The Belgian Congo in 1898, by Emil Laurent, who named the lush coffee fruit bearing plant after himself; C. laurentii. Poor man; his name, which he tried to immortalize in his discovery of a new specie is almost forgotten today. The name Robusta was orginally the trade style of a Belgian horticultural house who marketed the specie early in the 20th century. Today Robusta is accepted as the trading designation for all C. Canephora. In actuality though Robusta is only one of two commercial varieties of C. Canephora found in the American trade. The other variety is C. Canephora typica (Kouillou, or Quillou). This varietal more commonly known as Conillon, a bastardization of its real name, is indigenous to the Congo Basin but has become famous (or infamous) in recent years because of its massive introduction into Brazil. It is also produced in the Ivory Coast, Madagascar and elsewhere.

Robustas produce larger yields per hectare than Arabica plants. They are easier to care for, and are hardier than Arabica coffee being more resistant to diseases and less prone to frost damage. Because they thrive at low altitudes and on coastal plains and can bear fruit in their second year (Arabicas do not bear fruit until year five) they are easier to realize and bring to market than the high grown Arabicas. They have everything going for them except taste. Even so it is understandable why many farmers prefer to cultivate Robusta coffees to Arabicas. The economics of the no quota marketplace, however, during recent seasons have played against the Robusta grower. Fair market value reflects the value that a willing seller will accept and that a willing buyer will pay for the goods offered for sale. It is not worth the farmer's efforts to bring the coffee to market with values at current levels.

The coffee student can distinguish new crop Robustas from C. Arabica with some practical experience. The plant often develops as a naturally multi-trunked tree. The Arabica develops naturally as a single trunk tree. The branches of the Robusta tree grow horizontally, hanging down as they become heavy with fruit. Arabica branches grow upward and rarely become so laden with fruit that they hang vertically.

Leaf shape varies between the two species with the Robusta leaf being longer, wider and shaped more often by the vein pattern of the leaf than most C. Arabica varieties whose leaf design is more delicate (narrower and smaller).

The shape of the fruit of Robusta is smaller and rounder than most Arabica varieties. The shape and multitude of flowering on Robusta is much heavier than Arabica coffees.

The heavy flowering of C. Canephora results in a profusion of berry clusters not seen in Arabica. As with the fruit the shape of the seed (bean) of Robusta is smaller and rounder in both face and profile than C. Arabica. Robusta beans, in the green, lean toward the yellow and brown color families rather than the green/blue color family of new crop Arabica coffees.

My experimentation indicates that Robustas give off more chaff in dry sample-roasting than do Arabica coffees. The same samplings suggest that Robustas produce an uneven to motley roast in comparison to Arabica.

Washed Arabica coffees of small bean size that have been in warehouse for some time, and are therefore substantially "Off the Green," are difficult to distinguish from some washed Robusta coffees in color.

Arabica beans have the acidity, aromatic quality and full body so desirable when blending to the Northern European drip drewing tradition that most Americans follow. The Arabica taste range is wide. Many Arabica varieties have excellent acidity in the cup. They can be roasted to present distinctly different attractive tasting liquors at different degrees of roast. Their liquors are brown/red in the cup; turning to tan with the addition of cream or milk. The taste range of Arabica coffee is from aqueous to wine-like.

The beverage derived from the fruit of C. Canephora coffee lacks a quality coffee flavor. It is often dirty or earthy tasting, occasionally harsh, with low to no acidity in the cup. This is why it is generally found blended with at least some Arabica. Robustas are desirable to commercial roasters in blends for two primary reasons; concentrations of soluble solids and price. Robustas yield heavier levels of soluble solids in solution than do Arabica coffees. Robustas can produce a coffee-like beverage at substantially lower concentrations. At 1.5 ounces of coffee per 60 ounces of water Arabica coffee looks like tea. Robusta coffee still resembles coffee at least in color. The liquor is darker and less red in the cup than Coffea Arabica; turning grey/olive with the addition of cream or milk. Neutral is the highest accolade Robusta coffee aspires to. Yet, even when its cup is neutral, Robusta has a decidedly unattractive "Oaty" nose. Robusta coffees are generally offered at a discount of from one-third to one-half off the price of Arabica beans.

Today Robustas are found in their highest concentrations primarily in instant coffee products and other foods that use instant coffee as an ingredient, supermarket private-label packages, large national and local brand name coffees, and mid range to low-end institutional and restaurant brands. There are few honorable application of Robustas in America's specialty coffees.

Robusta beans have twice the caffeine content of Arabica Beans. Decaffeinated coffee has 97% of its natural caffeine content removed. After decaffeinating C. Canephora still has twice the caffeine content of a like-decaffeinated Arabica coffee. This distinct advantage of an all Arabica coffee blend is obscured by labeling that addresses only the percentage of caffeine removed rather than the amount of caffeine remaining in a decaffeinated coffee product.

In my lifetime African Robusta bean exports have grown from almost nothing to about 1/3rd of the world's crop. The good qualities of Arabica coffees are delicate in nature. The introduction of as little as 10-15% good washed Robusta with good quality washed Arabica beans compromises the taste of the resulting beverage appreciably. The taste and eye appeal of coffee beverage deteriorates at an alarming rate as the percentage of Robusta coffee in the blends in increased. It is not unusual to find coffee blends prepared for foodservice that are upwards of 50% Robusta in the U.S.. For the most part these are Robustas of poor quality, to boot.
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Title Annotation:Robusta variety; part 2
Author:Schoenholt, Donald
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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