Of more than 100 species of coffee bean, there are two that garner most of the press:
Today, we’ll walk you through each of these popular coffee beans in turn then we’ll look at some key differences between them.
First up then, what’s Arabica?
What Is Arabica?
Arabica is the most popular kind of bean accounting for over 60% of global production.
Originating in the Ethiopian highlands, the beans went from Ethiopia to Arabia back in the 7th century. While in Ethiopia, the beans were smashed up and then consumed with fat as a stimulant. Once in Arabia, coffee as a beverage was introduced as a means of working longer hours.
What Does Arabica Taste Like?
A top-notch Arabica will be slightly sweet with traces of chocolate, caramel and nuts. Often, you’ll also get hints of fruit and berries.
Acidity is negligible and pleasant while you should expect a little bitterness.
The sweetness is further amplified by the cold brew method.
The roast influences how noticeable the flavors are while the growing area and soil composition also impact the balance of flavors. Proper storage will also play a part in how flavors are preserved.
How Is Arabica Grown?
The Coffea Arabica plant doesn’t tolerate harsh climates. While the plant thrives on humidity it doesn’t cope well with frost.
This plants grows best in temperatures between 59 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Arabica responds best to growing in the shade in sub-tropical climates.
Normally grown at around 1900 feet or more above sea level, Arabica flourishes on hillsides.
The plant matures at the age of 7.
Arabica plants grow from to 30 to 40 feet tall in the wild. Commercially-grown plants can hit 15 feet but are usually kept at 6 or 7 feet to simplify harvesting.
The small, white flowers smell like jasmine.
The beans are located inside the berries. These are harvested when they are colored from deep red to dark purple. Each berry normally contains 2 beans. Berries are best picked by hand.
Where Is Arabica Grown?
Arabica prefers tropical climates in and around the equator.
You can find great Arabica in the following countries:
- Costa Rica
Brazil is by far the largest producer of Arabica but how about Robusta?
What is Robusta?
Robusta coffee comes from the beans of the Coffea canephora plant.
Originating in sub-Saharan Africa, Robusta is the world’s second most popular coffee bean accounting for roughly 40% of production worldwide.
Today, Vietnam is the largest producer of Robusta and it’s mainly grown in the eastern hemisphere, particularly in Indonesia and Africa.
Robusta beans are often added to Arabica beans as a filler and also to achieve the specific flavor notes it possesses.
What Does Robusta Taste Like?
Robusta is frequently used in instant coffee and it’s also commonly found in espresso blends.
This coffee has an earthy taste and there’s also a bitterness which verges on rubbery. There’s a distinct nutty aftertaste.
With more caffeine in than Arabica beans and less sugar, the overall taste is both stronger and harsher.
High quality Robusta is often used to add a depth of flavor and cream to an espresso blend. Poor quality Robusta, on the other hand, has a reputation for tasting like burning rubber.
How Is Robusta Grown?
The Robusta plant is resilient and deals well in hot temperatures of 90 degrees Fahrenheit and above.
These beans respond best to low altitudes from sea level up to around 1900 feet. Resistant to insects and to disease, make sure Robusta plants get ample hydration.
Growing up to 30 feet when left unfettered, commercially-grown Robusta plants are normally pruned to less than 15 feet to streamline harvesting.
With white flowers that smell sweet, the fruit of the Robusta plant becomes deep red as it starts to ripen. The ripening process takes anywhere from 6 to 8 months. Not all fruits ripen at the same time which is why picking the beans by hand is recommended.
Where Is Robusta Grown?
Robusta coffee beans are grown in the following countries:
- Côte d’Ivoire
Now you’ve got a solid overview of what differentiates Arabica and Robusta, we’ll highlight some of the key areas where they differ to round out.
Arabica vs Robusta
Robusta has a characteristic taste which is often likened to rubber or burning tires. While this might not sound particularly appetizing, many people actually enjoy this unusual taste sensation.
The reason for this taste is explained in the second core difference between Arabica and Robusta: the caffeine content…
While many coffee fiends seem to hunt out coffee with the most caffeine in it and there are plenty of options out there – Death Wish Coffee, we’re looking at you! – caffeine has a distinct and bitter taste.
Arabica beans normally pack around 1.5% caffeine content while Robusta contains practically double at 2.7%.
You’ll certainly get a kick with Robusta, then, but it comes at the expense of a rather less refined taste.
Sugar and Lipid Content
Arabica has 60% more lipid content and nearly double the amount of sugar as Robusta.
Both of these factors combine to give Arabica a taste that’s much more palatable.
CGA (Chlorogenic Acid) Content
Robusta has a higher CGA content than Arabica but what is CGA?
Well, this powerful antioxidant repels insects so more is a good thing and this category sees a win for Robusta.
Green Robusta beans cost half what you’d expect to pay for Arabica beans on the open market.
Robusta is also much easier to farm and harvest. The yield is superior while it’s also not too sensitive to bugs. The caffeine content and CGA content both serve to keep insects away.
Robusta also matures more rapidly, again ideal for the bottom line. Where a Robusta plant will yield fruit in 2 years, an Arabica takes a full 4 years.
Given the prevailing economics, grower have historically added Robusta to beans to bags of Arabica bins as a cost-effective bulking agent, albeit at the expense of quality. The notable exception to this is when Robusta beans are added to an espresso blend. As mentioned, you’ll get a fine and silky crema from these beans.
Robusta is seldom found in coffee blends today outside of espresso and, of course, instant coffee.
When it comes to the discrepancy in quality between Arabica and Robusta, this needs a little clarification.
Arabica has long held a reputation as the superior coffee and this is certainly true if you’re comparing high-end Arabica to a random Robusta. That said, the finest Robustas can certainly outperform a low-end Arabica. You really need to compare like for like and you also need to account for personal taste differences.
Shape of Beans
Arabica beans tend to be oval while Robusta are circular.
Arabica plants tend to grow only half the height of Robusta plants.
While the Arabica plant is self-pollinating, Robusta plants need to be pollinated with the pollen from plants of different composition.
Robusta plants are much more rugged. They can cope with high temperatures and they thrive even in direct sunlight.
The caffeine and CGA content both combine to ward off pests, too.
Roughly 75% of global coffee production is Arabica with the remainder Robusta. These figures vary from source to source but that’s a reasonably accepted estimate.
Brazil is the primary Arabica producer while Vietnam produces most Robusta.
Robusta is a more recent discovery than the original guard, Arabica. Robusta didn’t make an appearance for a century or so after Arabica had become popular.
Well, you should now be brimming with information about this pair of coffee beans and well placed to tell the difference between them.
While Robusta gets a bad rep and is objectively inferior, it does serve its place. For manufacturers, it’s routinely added to Arabica as a cheap filler. This, clearly, is not in your interests as a consumer but remember that Robusta does have its place. For some, that smoky taste is pleasant while for others hunting for a great crema on espresso, the beans deliver on this front, too.
In general, you’ll want to look out for Robusta mixed with Arabica as a straight-up Robusta, unless of exceptional quality, is highly likely to disappoint. Check out some of the best espresso beans with Robusta if you’re stuck for ideas. Many of these blends deliver show-stopping coffee by mixing Arabica and Robusta.
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