Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in the world, with 174.3 million 60-kilogram bags of it being produced worldwide in 2023. While there are over 100 species of coffee, only two are widely cultivated and consumed: Arabica and Robusta.
If you’ve ever walked down the coffee aisle of a grocery store or picked up a bag of beans from your local coffee shop, you’ve probably come across these terms a time or two. But did you know there’s actually a difference between Arabica and Robusta coffee?
In this article, we explore the unique characteristics of Arabica and Robusta coffee beans as well as highlight their main differences with the goal of helping you understand which one’s best suited for your preferences and purposes.
Table of Contents
What Is Arabica Coffee?
When most people talk about coffee they are typically referring to one specific species: Coffea Arabica.
While Arabica’s roots go all the way back to approximately 1000 BC in the highlands of Ethiopia, it wasn’t until the 15th century that it was cultivated commercially. Today, it accounts for roughly 60% of global coffee production.
Arabica is grown between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn but thrives at higher altitudes and in cooler climates. It’s characterized by its smoother, sweeter flavor profile that often contains notes of sugar, fruit, and berries. Arabica beans also tend to be more acidic.
Arabica is grown in numerous coffee producing countries around the world. Some of the more notable known for their excellent Arabica production are Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, and Honduras.
Within these countries are different growing regions. Each contributes its own unique characteristics, flavors, and aromas, as well as produces different varieties. Some of the more popular Arabica varieties include Typica, Bourbon, Geisha, and Caturra.
What Is Robusta Coffee?
The second most cultivated and consumed species of coffee is Coffea Canephora, or as it’s most commonly referred to, Robusta.
Although Robusta has long been thought to be a sibling or cousin of Arabica, it actually appears instead to be a parent.
Robusta was first discovered in the Congo in the late 19th century and quickly gained popularity for its hardiness and ease of cultivation. Today, it accounts for almost 40% of global coffee production.
Robusta is grown in both tropical and subtropical climates. Unlike Arabica, it thrives at lower altitudes and in warmer temperatures, making it a much more resilient crop. It’s characterized by its bold, harsh taste and is often described as having woody or burnt-rubber overtones. Robusta beans also tend to be more bitter.
As with Arabica, Robusta is grown in a number of different countries throughout the world. The most predominant being Vietnam, Indonesia, India, and Uganda. Common varieties include Canephora, Conilon, Erecta, and Nganda.
What’s the Difference Between Arabica and Robusta Coffee Beans?
Although both Arabica and Robusta are species of the Coffea tree and are ultimately harvested and roasted to produce our daily cup (or cups) of coffee, there’s actually very little they share in common.
Here are the 7 most notable differences between Arabica and Robusta coffee beans:
As mentioned above, Arabica beans are known for their smooth, sweet flavor and higher acidity. They often have notes of sugar, fruits, and berries and can even include hints of chocolate, nuts, or caramel.
In contrast, Robusta beans have a much stronger, bitter flavor. They also typically have more of an earthy, grain-like taste that can include nutty or woody notes.
Robusta has a significantly higher caffeine content, averaging 2.7%. Arabica, on the other hand, contains almost half the amount of caffeine of Robusta at 1.5%.
This higher level of caffeine is a key factor in giving Robusta its stronger, more bitter taste. It’s also a major reason why Robusta is more resilient to pests, as the caffeine acts as a natural pesticide.
Fats & Sugars
Arabica contains nearly double the sugar and roughly 60% more lipids or fats than Robusta.
This higher concentration of fats and sugars in Arabica is a significant contributor to its sweeter, more nuanced flavor profile. Both are also likely factors that play a notable role in consumer preference for Arabica.
Similar to caffeine, Robusta contains higher levels of CGA, typically ranging from 7% to 10%. Conversely, Arabica averages between 5.5% and 8%.
Arabica is typically grown at higher altitudes, often between 2,000 and 6,500 feet (600 and 2,000 meters). This, along with cooler temperatures, contributes to its slower maturation and development of more complex flavors.
Arabica is also more susceptible to pests and diseases. This requires more attentive and vigilant farming practices to protect it.
Robusta, on the other hand, thrives at lower altitudes, usually below 2,000 feet (600 meters). It prefers warmer climates and is more resistant to pests and harsh conditions, including direct sunlight.
Robusta’s hardier nature makes it easier and less costly to cultivate. It also allows for higher yields and makes it a much more profitable crop.
While size and shape can vary depending on the specific variety and growing conditions, Arabica beans are generally larger and more elongated than Robusta beans. Arabica beans also possess a characteristic oval shape and curved crease down the center.
In contrast, Robusta beans are smaller and more compact, with a rounder shape and a much straighter crease.
Arabica is typically more expensive than Robusta. This is generally attributed to its more complex and desirable flavor profile, higher labor costs due to the delicate nature of the plants, and the specific environmental conditions required for its cultivation. Additionally, since Arabica is grown at higher altitudes, farming is often more challenging and labor-intensive.
Conversely, Robusta can thrive in a wider range of environments and is more resistant to pests and diseases, leading to higher yields and lower production costs. Additionally, because of its stronger, more bitter flavor, it’s generally less desirable, which also contributes to its lower price point.
Which Is Better: Arabica or Robusta?
If you ask most coffee enthusiasts, they’ll tell you that the question of which is better, Arabica or Robusta isn’t even close. That Arabica is easily the hands-down winner.
However, individuals on the other side of the debate will tell you that Robusta is just misunderstood, and the reason for its inferior quality is that it’s grown with the purpose of ending up as instant coffee. That when Robusta is grown with the same care and intention as Arabica, it can produce an interesting and tasty brew.
While Arabica is almost always preferred over Robusta, which is better ultimately comes down to individual preference.
If you enjoy a coffee with a more complex, delicate flavor profile, Arabica is the way to go. If you prefer one with a strong, bitter taste, Robusta might be a better option.
If maximizing your caffeine intake is the ultimate goal (just remember, there is such a thing as consuming too much caffeine), Robusta will be the bean of choice.
Additionally, your chosen brewing method can also make a difference in which is better. For example, Arabica partners well with the pour-over as this method is designed to bring out the subtle nuances and flavor notes of the bean’s origin. However, if espresso is your go-to, Robusta will produce a more intense shot with a thicker layer of crema.
If after reading this article you’re still not sure which is the best option for you, grab a few different bags of each and experiment. Half the fun of brewing and drinking coffee is experiencing the many different flavors and aromas it has to offer.
While the difference between Arabica and Robusta coffee is quite significant, each has its own unique characteristics that can make it an ideal fit for different palates and purposes. By spending time with each, you can better appreciate the rich flavors and aromas of your morning cup in a whole new way.
Frequently Asked Questions
While Arabica and Robusta are by far and away the most common, there are two other species that are occasionally used for brewing coffee. One is Coffea Liberica, known for its strong, unique flavor profile that has both floral and spicy undertones. The other is Coffea Excelsa, which has a dark, tart, fruity taste. Both species are less widely cultivated but provide distinctive flavor experiences and are sometimes sought after for gourmet or specialty coffee blends.
Yes, blending Arabica and Robusta beans is common, especially in espresso blends. This combination aims to balance the smooth, nuanced flavors of Arabica with the strong, bold characteristics of Robusta, creating a coffee with rich crema, balanced flavor, body, and acidity.
Yes, Arabica and Robusta beans are typically roasted differently due to their distinct properties. Arabica beans require careful, controlled roasting to highlight their complex flavors. Robusta beans, on the other hand, can be roasted more intensely to reduce bitterness and enhance their strong, bold character. The roasting process is crucial in bringing out the best in each bean type, influencing the final taste and aroma of the coffee.