Types of Coffee Beans: Arabica vs. Robusta
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If you have ever shopped for coffee beans, you may have been overwhelmed by the huge selection. Do you want to know how many types of coffee beans there are and what makes them different? Have you seen coffee beans described as 100% arabica and wondered what this means exactly? Coffee companies describe their beans in many ways. They can talk about the different roast levels and the flavor notes. But, when it comes to the type of coffee beans itself there are actually only 2 types that we should know about: arabica and robusta.
In this article, we will explain the 2 different types of coffee beans. We will talk about what makes each type unique and we will share some tips on how to choose the best coffee beans for you.
How many types of coffee beans exist?
There are over 100 species of coffee plants that grow in the wild. But, only 2 of these are produced, exported and consumed worldwide: arabica (coffea arabica) and robusta (coffea canephora).
Arabica coffee beans
Arabica is the most popular type of coffee making up 60% of the worldwide production. These coffee beans originated in Ethiopia but are now grown in many countries in the “coffee belt”.
The coffee belt: The region between the Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer where coffee is more easily grown.
Arabica coffee beans are considered higher quality than Robusta. But, the downside is that they require special care to grow properly such as extra shade, lots of water and the right altitude. These beans are also more susceptible to coffee fungal diseases. Because Arabica coffee is hard to grow, these beans are more coveted and more expensive than Robusta beans.
Most people prefer Arabica coffee over Robusta. Coffee made with Arabica beans is generally described as sweet and as having more complex flavors. However, there are many varieties of arabica coffee. We do not know much about how the specific variety can impact the taste of the cup of coffee because most of the coffee beans are traded by origin. For example, we may know a bag of coffee beans came from Colombia but they came from different farms that grow different varieties. There are many varieties in the world of arabica coffee but the 2 most popular ones are typica and bourbon.
Variety: A genetic variation within a plant species that develops naturally in the environment. It retains most of the characteristics of the species, but differs in some way.
Typica was the original variety of Arabica. The first one to be spread around the world for commercial purposes. It can produce a really high quality cup of coffee but it has a small yield compared to other varieties. Generally, coffee made with Typica beans are described as sweet and full-bodied. Have you heard about Kona coffee? It is actually the brand name for the Typica coffee grown in the Kona region in Hawaii.
A mutation of Typica that appeared in the island of Bourbon (now La Réunion) in France. It is now grown all over the world, especially in South American countries. It is known for being sweet, buttery and with a crisp acidity.
Robusta coffee beans
The robusta coffee species was discovered in the Belgian Congo in the 19th century. It became popular because of its commercial potential. The Robusta plant is able to grow at lower altitude than Arabica beans and it is more resistant to diseases. Robusta beans make up about 40% of the current worldwide production. The Robusta trees yield twice as much coffee as the Arabica species and are easier to grow which makes Robusta beans cheaper. But, the downside is that they don’t taste as good.
Robusta coffee beans are described as having a burnt rubber taste which of course does not sound pleasant. The low quality mass produced beans are mainly used for instant coffee as price is more important than flavor in this industry.
Of course, there are higher quality robusta beans. The higher quality Robusta beans are popular in espresso blends. They provide a bolder flavor, extra caffeine and it is believed that they improve the crema.
One thing to notice is that Robusta has about twice the caffeine content of Arabica. For example, Death Wish coffee that is advertised as the strongest coffee in the world is a blend of Arabica and Robusta beans. We think the Robusta content may be pretty high to result in that caffeine content.
Arabica vs Robusta: Types of coffee beans compared
The main differences between Arabica and Robusta
- Taste: Arabica coffee is known for its delicate and nuanced flavor profile with a wide range of tastes such as fruity, floral, and acidic notes. In contrast, Robusta coffee has a strong, bitter taste with a woody or earthy flavor and higher acidity.
- Caffeine Content: Robusta beans have almost double the caffeine content of Arabica beans. A typical cup of Robusta coffee contains about 100-150 mg of caffeine, while a typical cup of Arabica coffee contains about 50-100 mg of caffeine.
- Growing Conditions: Arabica beans grow at higher elevations, typically between 600 to 2000 meters above sea level. It requires a cool and humid climate with well-draining soil. In contrast, Robusta grows at lower elevations, typically between 0 to 800 meters above sea level. It can grow in hotter and drier climates with more resistance to pests and diseases.
- Cost: Arabica coffee is generally more expensive than Robusta coffee due to its superior taste and the more challenging growing conditions. It is also more in demand globally.
- Processing: Arabica beans are typically wet-processed, which involves removing the fruit and washing the beans before drying. Robusta beans are often dry-processed or semi-dry processed, which involves drying the whole fruit before removing the outer layers to get the bean.
The third coffee species: Liberica
If you have been learning about coffee beans, you may have seen that Arabica and Robusta are not the only species of coffee. They are just the most popular and widely produced. There is a third coffee species that makes up less than 2% of the worldwide production. We are talking about the Liberica species. Currently, it is mainly grown in Malaysia and the Philippines. Liberica is a big part of Philippine culture. They colloquially call it “barako” which means “macho” making reference to the bold taste associated with these beans. Even though Liberica is very popular in the Philippines, very few people in the rest of the world know about it.
When processed properly, Liberica can be very sweet and fruity. However, farmers have not yet perfected the process to get a stable flavor for Liberica. The difficulty of the processing and the lack of popularity of these beans are probably some of the reasons why Liberica is not widely exported. It is possible to find some Liberica beans for sale online. Yet, it usually comes with a high markup and the quality of the beans you will get is a hit or miss. We still think it is worth giving them a try to have a unique coffee experience.
How to choose the best coffee beans
If you are looking for a naturally sweet coffee and you do not mind paying a premium for them, look for coffee beans labeled as 100% Arabica. If you are looking for some extra bitterness or a higher caffeine content, look for Arabica and Robusta blends. These are especially good for espresso. Are you looking to try something different? You may get lucky and find some good Liberica beans.
Most of the coffee beans options out there are either 100% Arabica or Arabica and Robusta blends. Like we mentioned before, even though Arabica and Robusta have specific characteristics, it is not possible to tell you exactly how coffee will taste just based on the coffee bean type. Flavor depends on many factors such as growing conditions, roast level and brewing method. When you are shopping for coffee beans, try to read the package descriptions. There are 2 main characteristics that will determine whether you like a cup of coffee or not: texture and acidity level.