Even if you’ve only had a passing interest in coffee, chances are you’ve heard the terms “Arabica” and “Robusta” mentioned in relation to coffee. Far from being a single crop, there are in fact two distinct species of coffee beans each with their own unique characteristics.
There’s a reason coffee companies will proudly declare that their beans are 100% Arabica, this is due to the fact that Arabica beans are considered to be the higher quality of the two. This isn’t an arbitrary distinction as there are many factors that contribute to Arabica’s popularity among coffee fans.
Arabica beans account for about 75% of the world’s coffee production. Ironically, however, Arabica beans are considerably more difficult to grow than Robusta. Arabica coffee trees are only able to grow at elevations in excess of 600 meters above sea level. Additionally, the trees require shade in order to grow effectively. Arabica beans are also less hardy than Robusta, are extremely susceptible to disease, and can be severely damaged by extreme weather conditions.
The extra effort required to cultivate Arabica is worth it in the end, and the beans are highly prized. Arabica beans are considered to be the tastier of the two. The beans are fairly sweet, have a high amount of acidity compared with Robusta and tend to have flavors of fruit, flowers, herbs, chocolate, and nuts. Furthermore, depending on where they are grown, single origin Arabica beans offer a wide range of differing tastes, flavors, and aromas.
Robusta accounts for a considerably smaller amount of worldwide coffee production. About 25% of coffee beans are Robusta, and the majority of these beans are grown in Vietnam. Robusta is a far more resilient plant than Arabica and is able to grow at elevations as low as 200 meters above sea level. The plant is also hardy and resistant to pests and disease and can withstand more severe weather than the delicate Arabica tree. Robusta trees also produce more coffee cherries than Arabica, making it a far more cost-effective plant.
This ease of growth comes at a cost, however. Robusta lacks the subtlety and variety of flavors of Arabica. As a result, this coffee is not in the least bit prized by aficionados and is often used to make instant coffee blends. Robusta beans are less acidic than Arabica and the resulting coffee is described as having a woody, burnt rubber taste. The coffee is also noticeably more bitter than the coffee produced by Arabica beans.
One benefit of Robusta beans, aside from their relatively low cost, is their caffeine content. Robusta beans have about 25% more caffeine than Arabica beans, making them a good option for those who just want that morning coffee buzz and don’t really care about the taste. The higher caffeine content and lack of subtlety make Robusta beans ideal for espresso.