What Is the Difference Between Arabica and Robusta Coffee Beans?
Background and General Differences
There are two main types of coffee grown in the world, arabica (coffea arabica) and robusta (coffea canephora).
Generally speaking, the differences between the two types of coffee center around taste, strength, body, expense, the locations and conditions of their growth, and the methods associated with their cultivation and harvest.
Of the two types, arabica is held in higher esteem than robusta, as it tends to have more flavor and be less bitter (arabica has a sweeter, smoother taste, with slightly fruity tones, whereas robusta is more harsh with a grainy tone)
For this reason, over 75% of all coffee grown worldwide is arabica. Robusta does have more body than arabica, however, as well as a much higher caffeine content.
The Main Differences Between Arabica and Robust Coffee
- Arabica is weaker in strength, containing around half as much caffeine as robusta.
- Arabica tastes sweeter and smoother, whereas robusta is generally more bitter and harsher.
- Robusta has more body than arabica.
- Arabica is more expensive than robusta to buy.
- Arabica plants require much more semi-skilled manual work during cultivation, because they grow on high slopes and do not like rough handling. The process with robusta is much more mechanized because it can be grown on flat plains.
- Robusta plants are hardier. Arabica plants are far more vulnerable to pests and diseases.
- Arabica was discovered in Ethiopia. Robusta was discovered in Zaire.
I will explain each point in more detail below.
The Story of Coffee
Arabica coffee was first found and consumed in Ethiopia. According to local legend, people began cultivating the plant over a thousand years ago after noticing that goats became frisky after eating the leaves and fruits. Its effects of maintaining alertness and wakefulness were later noted by Arabian scholars.
The first robusta strain to be collected for commercial use was from Lomani in Zaire in 1890 and taken to Brussels. From there, robusta was taken to Java in 1900, where it was improved and then grown in plantations internationally.
Arabica costs the most. This is because the plants are harder to grow (they require high altitudes and more manual labor), take longer to mature, yield less, and are more susceptible to pests and bad weather conditions.
In Western countries like America, you will usually find arabica in coffee stores and specialist shops.
Cheaper coffee tends to be a blend of the two types of coffee beans, or contains robusta and chickory. Instant coffee is pretty much exclusively robusta, or a robusta blend.
In Italy, the expensive espresso is usually made up entirely of arabica coffee. The cheaper espresso generally has robusta blended with the arabica.
However, as well as lowering the cost, robusta can also sometimes be added in order to give espresso coffee extra body, strength, as well as improve its foam head (known as the "crema").
Differences in Taste
Robusta, as the name implies, is stronger than arabica coffee. The beans contain about twice as much caffeine and it is the excess of caffeine which causes much of the bitter taste.
This is why robusta coffee is often blended either with arabica coffee, or with chickory to weaken the strength and offset the bitterness.
How is Coffee Grown?
Arabica coffee plants are normally grown on high slopes, they like sunlight but not high temperatures. They also react badly to rough handling. This means that they need a relatively skilled workforce to handpick the beans.
Robusta on the other hand, can be grown on hot plains and much of the picking can be mechanized. Land set over to produce this type of coffee is therefore more attractive to growers, as more pounds per acre can be produced, with resulting costs being lower.
Which Countries Grow Each Type
Arabica coffee is mainly grown in Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, Honduras, Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica.
Robusta coffee is mainly grown in Vietnam, Brazil, Indonesia, India, Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda, Malaysia, Thailand, Cameroon, and Togo.
Where do Coffee Beans Come From?
Which Type of Coffee Plant is Hardier?
Another difference between the two types of coffee beans is that arabica is particularly vulnerable to pests and plant diseases, such as coffee leaf rust. It is also more sensitive to bad weather conditions than robusta.
Robusta's hardiness makes it easier and therefore cheaper for producers to grow.
The Ethics of Arabica vs Robusta
Some people argue that out of the two types of coffee beans, arabica coffee is ethically preferable to robusta, because of the cultivation methods, which mean that employment is provided for local people in traditional livelihoods (because arabica plants are sensitive and grow at high altitudes, they have to be picked by experienced workers).
Robusta cultivation is much more mechanized, on the other hand, and requires far less workers. It can therefore potentially be more damaging to the local social infrastructure and environment.
- Fussell, Betty (5 September 1999). "The World Before Starbucks". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 July 2008.
- Söndahl, M. R.; van der Vossen, H. A. M. (2005). "The plant: Origin, production and botany". In Illy, Andrea; Viani, Rinantonio. Espresso Coffee: The Science of Quality(Second ed.). Elsevier Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-370371-9.
- "Coffea arabica (PIER species info)". Retrieved 15 July 2011.
- Reynolds, Richard (February 1, 2006). "Robusta's Rehab". CoffeeGeek. Coffee Geek. Retrieved January 5, 2010.
© 2014 Paul Goodman