Paul's passion for making and consuming coffee extends back over thirty years. An extensive traveler, he currently lives in Florida.
Background and General Differences
The two most common types of coffee grown in the world are arabica (Coffea arabica) and robusta (Coffea canephora).
Generally speaking, the differences between these two varieties 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. However, robusta does have more body than arabica, as well as a much higher caffeine content.
7 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 cultivation process for robusta is generally 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 the differences in more detail below.
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 upon 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 either a blend of the two types of coffee beans, or a mixture of 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. As well as being added to lower the cost, robusta can also be added in order to give espresso coffee extra body and strength, and to improve its foam head (known as the "crema").
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 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.
This is because of the cultivation methods.
Arabica plants are sensitive and grow at high altitudes, so they have to be picked by experienced workers who live nearby, thereby ensuring that employment is provided for local people in traditional livelihoods.
By contrast, Robusta cultivation is much more mechanized and requires far fewer workers. It can therefore be potentially more damaging to the local social infrastructure and environment.
Sources and Further Reading
- 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