You may have heard of coffee shops and restaurants using 100% Arabica beans in their coffee. But what does that mean? And what are the alternatives? In this post, we’ll explain the difference between Arabica and Robusta coffee, and why it’s important to understand them.
More than just coffee
There are actually dozens of different varieties of coffee beans. When it comes to your daily cup, though, there are really only two that matter: Arabica and Robusta. These are the two primary types of coffee cultivated for drinking.
Robusta and Arabica beans also have their own varieties. For example, the best known Arabica varietals are Arabica Typica and Arabica Bourbon, which have their own unique sets of aromas and flavours. This is where it can get a bit complicated, but if you want to learn more, here’s a site that explains the difference between some of the Arabica varieties.
Arabica makes up a huge 75% of the world’s coffee production today.
Taste: Arabica beans are absolutely superior in taste to Robusta beans. Arabica tends to have smoother, sweeter flavours, with common notes of chocolate, citrus and sugar. One of the reasons for Arabica’s nuanced flavours is because these coffee beans contain almost 60% more lipids and almost twice the concentration of sugar than Robusta.
Caffeine: While Arabica beans are still packed with caffeine, they have 1.5% caffeine content, whereas Robusta has 2.7%.
How it’s used: Most artisan roasters, coffee shops and cafes use high-quality Arabica beans. They can be used in any sort of coffee drink including filter coffee and espresso. All of our speciality coffees use Arabica beans.
Shape: Coffee beans from the Arabica species are generally oval and are larger than Robusta beans. They also tend to have a signature ‘S’ shaped crease, which is more pronounced.
Farming: When compared to Robusta, Arabica coffee plants are lot more delicate. They are more susceptible to pests and disease, and therefore requires more attention and care.
They’re also grown at higher average elevations than Robusta – around 1,300 – 1,500m to Robusta’s 900 – 1,000m. This actually makes a huge difference to the flavour of the coffee. This is because, when growing coffee, it’s important to have low temperatures as well as a hot climate. The cooler it is, the slower the coffee will ripen, which will allow the sugars and flavours to develop and become more nuanced.
This is one of the reasons why we always include the altitude on our coffee bags! Higher altitudes are a good reference point for high-quality coffee. If you’re interested in learning more about why elevation is important, we’d recommend this video guide.
Location: Arabica coffee tends to come from South America or Africa, with the largest producer being Brazil.
Robusta coffee makes up the last 25% of coffee on the market.
Taste: Robusta has a strong, harsh and bitter taste with grainy or rubbery overtones. This is because Robusta coffee beans have more chlorogenic acids as a result of the plant’s way to ward off pests and disease. When present at low levels, chlorogenic acids can elevate the coffee to new flavour heights! However, Robusta contains very high levels of these acids, which then introduce unwanted flavours.
Caffeine: One of the reasons why Robusta is still used (despite it’s frankly horrible flavour) is because it contains 25% more caffeine than Arabica. This is also a result of the plant’s hardiness.
How it’s used: If you buy coffee from the supermarket, it is often Robusta. And if you (for some reason!) buy cheap instant coffee, that is absolutely Robusta. This type of coffee is sometimes used in espresso blends, as it is reported to create a better crema than an exclusively Arabica blend. However, we would never use Robusta coffee beans in any of our blends. The chance of a better crema just isn’t worth the hit to the flavour, in our opinion!
And while there are some high-quality Robustas, they’re few and far between, as they are predominantly used to reduce costs in the end product, which is not our philosophy at all here at Balance Coffee.
Shape: You can generally see the difference between Arabica and Robusta because Robusta beans are usually smaller, more circular, paler, and with a less pronounced crease.
Farming: We’ve talked about the hardiness of the Robusta plant, but what does that mean for farmers? Well, Robusta coffee is able to grow in areas where Arabica would be destroyed by diseases and pests. They’re able to grow at lower altitudes (as we discussed above) and produce fruit much more quickly than Arabica – 2 years to Arabica’s 4. They also yield more fruit per tree.
This means that Robusta is less expensive to grow, but it also sells for less too. This means that there’s always a trade-off for farmers, as they will never be able to earn the rates that they could when growing speciality Arabica.
Location: Robusta coffee grows exclusively in the Eastern Hemisphere where the main producer is Vietnam.
Why they’re important
Knowing the difference between Arabica and Robusta coffee is crucial! You do not want to end up buying low-quality Robusta coffee, even though it contains more caffeine. So make sure that when you’re next buying an espresso blend, you check to see what coffees are included.
However, although it’s important to know the difference between the two, don’t let the label of Arabica fool you! Just because a coffee uses Arabica beans doesn’t mean that it will be good. It’s also important to ensure that the Arabica beans are high-quality (also known as speciality grade). Even coffees that claim to be 100% Arabica won’t necessarily taste good if they’re not high-quality. You can check for the quality by looking for elevation, specific sourcing information, and by asking a barista or coffee roaster if the beans are speciality-grade.
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