The Coffee Bean Basics:
If you’re not yet very well-versed in the world of coffee, then you might not even know that more than one type of coffee bean even exists! In reality, there are over 120 distinct species of coffee beans and plants being grown today, although only a small number of those species make up the bulk of the world’s coffee production and consumption.
Today, we’re going to be focusing on the two most popular and common varieties, Arabica and Robusta and what is the difference between the two.
Although both Arabica and Robusta belong to the overarching Coffea genus, there are key differences between both types of beans that manifest themselves in every step of the coffee growing, roasting, and consumption processes.
What Exactly is Arabica Coffee?
Coffea Arabica is the oldest and most dominant species of coffee, representing about 60% of the entire world’s coffee production and consumption.
Arabica beans are originally native to Yemen, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, where they’ve been grown and cultivated since the 12th century. Nowadays, Arabica beans are grown all over the world, from Africa to Latin America to Asia to the Caribbean.
Arabica plants generally resemble trees or very large bushes, with white flowers and bright red berries. Each berry contains two seeds, which eventually become coffee beans.
The biggest drawback to planting and harvesting Arabica plants is that they take about seven years to fully mature and begin to produce fruit. For those first seven years of growth, no coffee can be harvested.
Additionally, Arabica plants are more fragile than Robusta plants. They’re generally more susceptible to damage from pests, shifts in climate, and disease.
Ok … So What Exactly is Robusta Coffee?
Coffea robusta makes up the other 40% of the world’s coffee production and consumption. Robusta plants are originally native to Western and Central Africa, growing indigenously in countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania, Liberia, and Angola.
In modern times, Vietnam, Brazil, India, and Indonesia are the world’s top exporters of Robusta beans.
Unlike Arabica plants, which look like trees or large bushes, Robusta plants look more like vines or wild shrubs. Robusta plants are generally much tougher and more resilient than Arabica plants, which means that they don’t require as much herbicide, pesticide, or general upkeep as their more fragile counterparts.
This is because of Robusta beans’ higher chlorogenic acid (CGA) content. Although CGA doesn’t do anything to affect coffee’s taste, it does play a big part in the overall health of a coffee plant, providing natural antioxidant and insect-repelling properties.
Finally, compared to one Arabica plant, one Robusta plant can yield many more coffee beans much more quickly.
The Key Differences of Arabica and Robusta
Regardless of what type of bean is being used, the coffee production process itself remains largely the same. Coffee berries are generally picked off of their plants by hand.
Once a crop is harvested, they go through a machine that removes the flesh of the berries from the seeds, which are the only component of a coffee plant that actually becomes coffee.
Then, the seeds undergo a fermentation and rinsing process that removes any remaining mucous membranes still clinging on. Next, the beans are dried using drying tables.
Finally, the fermented, dried beans, also known as “green coffee,” get roasted. Most of the time, coffee manufacturers roast their own coffee beans, but it is possible to buy green coffee beans and roast them yourself, at home.
The roasting process is what gives coffee its distinct flavor. The type of roast depends on the highest internal temperature that the bean reaches during the roasting process. Beans at a light roast level only reach about 385°F to 400°F and have a more acidic taste.
Beans at a dark roast level reach anywhere between 435°F and 475°F and have an aromatic, bittersweet taste.
However, all roasted coffee beans still retain some of the characteristics unique to their species, no matter how darkly they’ve been roasted.
After the roasting process is complete, more differences between Arabica and Robusta become evident.
Once roasted, Robusta beans are much more circular-shaped than Arabica beans, which are generally more oval-shaped. The actual caffeine, lipid, and sugar contents of roasted Arabica and roasted Robusta beans are also quite different.
Robusta beans have almost double the caffeine content of Arabica beans. If you’re drinking coffee for the sole purpose of getting a big burst of caffeinated energy, a Robusta blend is definitely the way to go.
However, Arabica beans have 60% more lipids and almost double the sugar content of Robusta beans, which means that most people find their taste much more pleasant.
The biggest differences between Arabica and Robusta coffees are their overall taste profiles, which emerge after the roasting process has been completed.
A high-quality Arabica bean has a bright, slightly acidic flavor profile with many layers of aromatic sugar, fruit, floral, and berry notes.
On the other hand, a high-quality Robusta bean has a heavy, earthy, bitter flavor profile with much less acidity and an almost peanut-like aftertaste. However, not all Robusta beans are high-quality.
Because Robusta plants are so hardy, many farmers can get away with growing them in less-than-ideal climates, which end up producing less-than-ideal coffee.
A lower-quality Robusta bean might taste flat, rubbery, or burnt. Unfortunately, many grocery store coffee brands use these low-quality Robusta beans as filler, since they’re easier to obtain in bulk and are generally much more cost-effective than Arabica beans.
Which is better – Arabica or Robusta?
At face value, it might seem like Arabica is obviously the superior species of coffee bean when it comes to flavor profile and quality. However, that’s not necessarily 100% true.
Although Robusta beans are generally much more bitter than Arabica beans, a high-quality Robusta coffee will still taste much better than a low-quality Arabica coffee.
Additionally, many coffee experts recommend brewing a blend of 10% Robusta and 90% Arabica for a delicious cup of coffee that balances earthy, bitter notes with floral, aromatic notes.
That being said, the overall species of coffee bean that’s best for you will probably depend on your own personal coffee-drinking preferences.
If you enjoy a lot of cream and sugar in your coffee, Robusta beans might actually be better for you.
Because they’re so bitter and earthy, they can stand up to the addition of sweeteners better than Arabica beans can. Robusta beans are also more commonly used in iced coffee, again, because of their strong, potent flavor.
Vietnamese iced coffee, a South Asian delicacy enjoyed by many people worldwide, is generally made exclusively with Robusta beans. Vietnamese iced coffee is prepared using dark roasted Robusta beans fed through a drip filter and then poured over ice and sweetened condensed milk.
It’s a delicious treat that can be ordered at many Vietnamese and Thai restaurants, as well as some specialty coffee shops.
Interestingly, Vietnam is currently the world’s top producer of Robusta beans, which might explain why Vietnamese iced coffee only uses Robusta. Traditionally, Italian espressos also use exclusively Robusta beans.
Proponents of Robusta espresso claim that the inclusion of Robusta beans creates the best environment for the production of crema, which is like the holy grail for espresso enthusiasts.
Crema is a light, frothy, beigey-caramel-colored liquid that settles on top of a freshly-extracted cup of espresso and is widely believed to be the mark of perfect espresso.
According to Robusta’s biggest defenders, Arabica beans just aren’t able to produce the proper amount, texture, and color of crema.
If your favorite way to prepare coffee is using the pour-over or drip coffee method, Arabica beans are perfect for you. Serious coffee enthusiasts believe that the overall flavor and aroma of Arabica coffee decreases if you add creamer or serve it as iced coffee.
If you’re a sweetener or iced coffee lover, the complexity of Arabica beans might be lost on you.
However, if you like black coffee and are looking for beans that will give you interesting, layered, and complex notes, seek out a high-quality Arabica blend.
Buying Arabica Coffee
When you’re shopping for Arabica coffee, look for beans that were grown in places like the Jamaican Blue Mountains, Kona Coffee From Hawaii, Tarrazú in Costa Rica, or Sidamo and Yirgacheffe in Ethiopia. These high-altitude regions are well-known for producing some of the best Arabica coffee beans in the world.
Unfortunately, if you’re a coffee “pro” looking for a high-quality Arabica blend, you should prepare yourself to shell out more for your coffee than someone who prefers Robusta.
100% Arabica blends are almost always more expensive than 100% Robusta blends, or even blends that are part Robusta and part Arabica.
Again, this is due to the fact that Arabica plants are more delicate than Robusta plants, and generally yield fewer coffee beans per plant.
The Key Differences Between Arabica and Robusta:
Although Arabica and Robusta beans might resemble each other at first glance, they actually couldn’t be more different.
- They belong to two entirely different species of the Coffea genus.
- They vary in caffeine, sugar, lipid, and antioxidant content.
- Their flavor profiles are very different. Arabica beans are generally much lighter, fruitier, acidic, and more floral in taste and aroma.
- Robusta beans are heavier, woodsier, earthier, and much more bitter.
- Each type of bean is better-suited to a specific kind of coffee. Robusta beans are best put to use in iced coffees, Italian espressos, and blends with a high caffeine content. Arabica beans are great for drip or pour-over coffees, which maximize the effects of their complex flavor profiles and aromaticity.
Given all that you have read you now have to decide: What’s your favorite kind of coffee bean Arabica or Robusta?