Arabica vs Robusta coffee beans. What is the difference?
Arabica coffee is most often found in the cappuccino you order from a restaurant or coffee shop. Quite a few of the packets of pre-ground coffee you find on your local supermarket shelf are pure Arabica coffee, although there might be a few Arabica-Robusta blends in-between.
Although Robusta is cheaper to produce as it is more resistant to diseases, in general the market prefers Arabica coffee because it is considered to provide better tasting coffee.
Robusta coffee beans are used in some espresso blends and have a higher caffeine percentage than Arabica. They also produce a lot of crema, but it won’t ever be more than 25% of the blend. Usually it is somewhere between 15 to 20%.
What are the differences between the Arabica and Robusta coffee species?
Robusta plants are easier to grow, they can thrive at lower altitudes than Arabica plants, are much less vulnerable to pests and weather conditions, and also produce fruit quicker. The Arabica plants need several years to come into maturity. The Robusta plants are easier to farm and have a much higher yield.
Robusta is exclusively grown in the Eastern Hemisphere, mostly in Africa and Indonesia. Arabica on the other hand is grown in Africa, Papua New Guinea, and mainly in Latin America. For instance, Colombia only produces Arabica coffee. Some countries, such as Brazil and India, produce both.
Because Arabica coffee beans are a bit more scarce yet highly sought-after, they end up being pricier. Lots of supermarket coffees are exclusively Robusta, as well as instant and cheap ground coffees.
Arabica plants make up roughly 75% of the world’s coffee production, while Robusta plants make up the remaining 25%. The most significant Arabica coffee producer is Brazil, while Vietnam is known mostly for its Robusta coffee production.
The flavor of coffee produced from a coffee bean can be influenced by the soil quality, the altitude and other climatic factors. The coffee plant is mainly grown between the Tropic of Cancer and Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere, with around 65 coffee producing countries in this region, gaining the name ‘The Coffee Belt’. There are also a multitude of coffee varieties within each country, for example, Ethiopia has 10,000 on its own!
How does the taste compare between Arabica and Robusta?
The two main types of coffee species, Arabica and Robusta, differ in taste due to many factors including growing conditions. They can also differ widely in price. Arabica coffee tends to be sweeter with a softer taste and undertones of sugar, fruit and berries. It has a stronger coffee smell with a higher acidity level giving the coffee a winey taste.
Robusta coffee has a stronger and harsher taste, a grain-like overtone and peanut aftertaste. The beans contain twice as much caffeine as Arabica coffee beans and are generally considered of inferior quality. Some Robusta’s are of high quality and valued in espressos for their deep flavor and long lasting crema.
Robusta beans produce a very full-bodied, strong coffee and are known for their earthy flavors. They are usually used in Italian style blends to achieve a strong cup of coffee.
Pure Arabica coffees are sometimes too floral. A bit of the rich, dark harshness of Robusta coffee can balance this out nicely in a blend. Remember when you grab a packet off the supermarket shelf that Robusta coffee has almost twice as much caffeine as Arabica coffee, so be careful if you are sensitive to caffeine (On average Robusta coffee has a 2.7% caffeine content compared to the 1.5% of Arabica coffee.).
The high caffeine content of Robusta coffee definitely affects the taste, with some people describing it as rubbery or tasting like burnt tyres. Caffeine has a bitter taste which can make it an unpleasant drink if the percentage is too high.
Lipids are a group of naturally occurring molecules including fats, waxes, sterol, fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E and K, monoglycerides, diglycerides, triglycerides, phospholipids and more. Arabica coffee contains almost 60% more lipids than Robusta coffee. The Arabica coffee also has almost twice the concentration of sugar. These two factors play a big role in explaining why most people prefer the taste of Arabica coffee.
Did you know: in the 1900’s the quality of coffee slowly deteriorated because so many roasters used to add Robusta beans to their blends in an effort to increase their profit margin.
What makes Arabica coffee beans so special?
The name Coffea Arabica was assigned to the coffee tree species in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist. He found the coffee species growing on the Arabian Peninsula which made him decide on the name Arabica coffee, derived from Arabian coffee.
It was the earliest cultivated coffee tree, found in Yemen, and it has remained the most common coffee species grown for commercial use. Recently DNA research has discovered that the origins of Coffea Arabica were actually in the Great Rift Valley forests of the western side of Ethiopia, which was previously known as Abyssinia.
Arabica coffee often tastes chocolatey, with a caramel aftertaste and a mild hint of bitterness. Arabica plants thrive best in tropical and equatorial regions where temperatures fluctuate between spring and summer vibes rather than harsh winters. The change of climate, such as the start of the rainy season, triggers the plant to begin flowering.
When grown at higher altitudes, the Arabica coffee that is produced offers higher quality characteristics during roasting. This is the only coffee species with 44 chromosomes of Coffea.
Arabica coffee accounts for roughly 80% of the world’s coffee production volume but it produces a significantly lower yield; on average each tree only produces between 1 to 11 lbs (0.5 to 5kg). The plant is also more difficult to cultivate due it being more sensitive to frost and diseases.
Arabica beans are very versatile and a number of delicious single origin blends have been produced, highlighting the particular characteristics of a specific region where it was grown. The results are well-rounded, full bodied coffee, perfect for espressos or filter coffee.
Interesting fact: there are more than 70 different Coffea genus species, but only Arabica beans and Robusta beans produce really delicious coffee.
Arabica coffees have a high concentration of aldehydes, which is responsible for the delicate and volatile aroma compounds found in roasted coffee. This is what makes the coffee so popular worldwide and gives the coffee its desirable sweet, fruit and floral-like aromas.
Arabica Coffee Cultivars
A cultivar or cultivated variety is any variety produced by horticultural or agricultural techniques that are not normally found in the natural populations. Most speciality coffee varieties are in fact cultivars. Below a few of the most popular Arabica bean cultivars:
Acaiá | Arabica | Bourbon | Catuai | Colombia | Gesha | Guatemalan Typica | Mokka | Mundo Novo |
Arabica Coffee Varieties
A coffee variety is the difference between plants that are smaller than a subspecies but larger than its original form. The variety will retain most of the characteristics of the main plant species, but it differs in some subtle ways. Below a few of the most popular Arabica bean varieties:
Arabica | Blue Mountain | Bourbon | Catuai Amarelo | Catuai Vermelho | Columnaris | Erecta | Mokka Maragogype | Mundo Novo | Purpurascens | San Ramon | Typica
Blue Mountain is the most famous variety. Originally it was planted in Jamaica on a mountain with the same name. It is very popular because of its nutty aroma, its bright acidity and unique flavor, with a hint of beef-bullion.
The oldest variety is Typica, originating in Ethiopia. It is known for its sweet, full and clear taste.
Bourbon was the earliest mutation of Typica. It was originally planted on the Réunion Island. It has a complex acidity and it is deliciously balanced with a winey, sweet aftertaste.
It is quite fascinating that one type of coffee bean has managed to enthral such a variety of pallets across the globe. From Asian to America and from Africa to Australia – coffee lovers worldwide agree on one thing, when it comes to the Arabica vs Robusta debate, Arabica coffee wins hands down! What do you think?