“100% Arabica Beans!” The coffee ad yells. You appreciate the enthusiasm, but aren’t quite sure what it means.
There are a lot of ways to categorize coffee. When it comes to finding beans and determining preferences, we’ve already spoken at length about finding fresh beans and choosing the right roast level, but what about those two latin names we’ve been inundated with our whole coffee-drinking careers — robusta and arabica?
Photo Credit: Parlor Coffee
Simply put, robusta coffee (Coffea canephora) and arabica coffee (Coffea arabica) are two different species of flowering plants in the coffee family. OK cool, that’s it! Thanks for stopping by!
Just kidding! There’s definitely more to it than that.
When you’re shopping around for beans and see “100% Arabica” or “All Robusta Blend” printed in big letters on the bag, here’s the real meaning and metrics behind the marketing:
Given that Robusta accounts for about 25% of the world’s coffee production, whereas Arabica accounts for around 70%,1 you might think that Arabica is just easier to grow. Actually, the opposite is true. “Robusta” refers (in part) to the robust integrity of the plant — It’s less susceptible to disease and pests and even produces more beans than its counterpart.
The Arabica plant can actually only be grown at altitudes of between 1,000 and 2,000 meters. Another bonus of Robusta beans? They typically contain twice the amount of caffeine versus Arabica beans.
Photo Credit: Parlor Coffee
Okay, So What’s The Deal? Robusta is Clearly Better, Right? Well, not exactly.
While it is true that Robusta plants are more resilient and pack more of a caffeinated punch, they do have some drawbacks. For one, Arabica plants are the only species of coffee that can self-pollinate, compared to the Robusta, which requires cross pollination from wind, bees, and other insects. Second, those caffeine levels in Robusta might also affect flavor. More caffeine carries with it more acid (specifically, the antioxidant chlorogenic acids, known as CQAs), and while “there is not a lot of evidence as to how chlorogenic acids affect the flavor of coffee,”2 there is a “characteristic bitter, salty, and rubbery notes associated with most commercial [Robusta] coffees.”3
While Robusta may have a reputation for being “beneath” Arabica, many coffee scientists are revisiting that notion completely. In fact, the Arabica species is currently endangered. With its conservation status hanging in the balance, there’s more reason than ever to return to the mighty Robusta crop and find new methods of selective breeding for different flavors, oil levels, and more.
While we’re excited to see science and coffee intersect in new ways, we’ll leave you with this:
While the coffee world has a preference for Arabica (and most quality roasters do indeed choose to stick with Arabica), the most important factor is how your beans are treated. One thing remains true, no matter what bean you go with, the roasting process is key. How the beans are sourced and processed ultimately makes all the difference in the world.
In that spirit, drink the coffee you like; don’t let anyone tell you one is better than the other (so long as you start with fresh whole beans, of course).
1“Arabica vs. Robusta – Quality vs. Quantity.” Partners Coffee, 20 Mar. 2019, www.partnerscoffee.com/blogs/news/arabica-vs-robusta
2Sage, Emma. “Coffee Roasting Chemistry: Chlorogenic Acids | Specialty Coffee Association News.” Https://Scanews.coffee/, 11 July 2014, www.scanews.coffee/2014/07/11/coffee-roasting-chemistry-chlorogenic-acids/
3SCA Staff. “Beyond Coffea Arabica: Opportunities for Specialty Coffee with Coffea Canephora.” Specialty Coffee Association, 24 Sept. 2020, www.sca.coffee/sca-news/read/beyond-coffea-arabica-opportunities-for-specialty-coffee-with-coffea-canephora