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The Difference Between Arabica and Robusta?

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If you’ve just ventured into the vast world of home coffee brewing, you have probably noticed that some bags of beans boast about being 100% Arabica or even 100% Robusta or a blend of the two. So what are Robusta and Arabica, and what exactly does this all mean?

​Once roasted, pretty much all coffee beans look the same. That being said, I bet you didn’t realize that there are over 100 different species of coffee, but when it comes to your daily brew, there are only two coffee beans that really matter.

​The Robusta and Arabica (three – Liberica (1), grown in the Philippines but rarely exported). Out of all the varieties, it’s only these two that are cultivated for coffee brewing.

Okay, but what’s the actual difference between Arabica and Robusta coffee beans, and does it make a difference in which kind of coffee bean you use?

​So now you have a better understanding, let’s delve deeper and take a closer look at these two popular coffee beans and what makes them unique and different in the world of coffee brewing.

Characteristics of Arabica and Robusta

​For many coffee drinkers, Robusta and Arabica taste the same; after all, they’re both coffee, right? However, there are a handful of distinctive characteristics that do separate these two coffee beans.

Arabica Coffee BeansFor starters, when you stop and take note of what you are drinking, you’ll quickly be able to pick out that Arabic is much sweeter than the Robusta.

​Arabica tends to have more sugary overtones, which many coffee drinkers prefer (if they know it or not) compared to Robusta’s stronger, sharper flavor.

​Arabica also has far more nuanced flavors when put side by side with Robusta. It is also common for Arabica to taste a bit nutty, fruity, and chocolaty, along with other subtle notes. These additional flavors rarely appear in Robusta beans, if ever at all.

​Another distinctive trait that Robusta has over Arabica is the amount of caffeine found in the bean. Arabica actually has about half as much caffeine as Robusta.

​Robusta beans contain 2.7% caffeine content compared with the 1.5% caffeine content found in Arabica beans. As you can see, Robusta, with almost double the caffeine content, is perfectly tailor-made for those of us that love that extra boost in the morning that caffeine gives us.

Robusta Coffee BeansIt’s also worth pointing out that caffeine is a natural pest control and helps fend off pests and critters during the most crucial time of the coffee plants’ life. This is probably one of the reasons why the Robusta variety is a lot cheaper to buy, as it’s a lot more “hardy” to pests and easier to grow.

​The only downside of the Robusta bean is that it tastes bitter; this is primarily due to the higher caffeine content. So it’s not uncommon the find a blended coffee that includes both Arabica and Robusta – the best of both worlds, you could say.

​Lastly, both of these coffee bean varieties grow at different altitudes. Arabica grows at higher elevations, and at these higher elevations, the climate is a lot harsher, so the coffee plants grow slower. Due to the slower-growing cycle, more refined flavors are produced once the beans have been processed, roasted, and ground for brewing.

​The Two Coffee Bean Shapes

​Another difference between Robusta and Arabica, which I want to touch on quickly, is the coffee beans’ size; they are different.

​Arabica coffee beans have a slightly larger, more elliptical shape when compared to the smaller, more rounded Robusta beans.

coffee beans side-by-side

There are also very slight structural differences between the two, which probably explains why both coffee bean varieties roast slightly differently under identical roasting conditions.

​Plants and Cultivation

​As I briefly touched on above, Robusta beans are much easier to grow and cultivate vs. Arabica. Arabica plants can grow up to about 4.5 meters tall. And as per the above illustration, the beans themselves are far more oval when compared to the Robusta bean.

​On the other hand, Robusta plants can grow up to about 6 meters tall, and the beans have a more rounded shape.

​Due to the popularity of the Arabica coffee bean, there’s much more produced. In fact, about 75% of the coffee produced belongs to the Arabica variety, with only 25% going to Robusta. At the time of writing, Brazil is in the number one spot as the largest grower of Arabica. Vietnam, on the other hand, is the top producer of the Robusta variety.

​Antioxidants and Sugars

​Also, just like the difference in the growth of these coffee plants, there are subtle differences in the levels of minerals and other chemical compounds found in Arabica and Robusta coffee beans.

​For starters, Arabica contains roughly double the number of sugars and nearly 60% more lipids when compared to Robusta beans. These differences definitely impact the taste of the coffee.

​Did you know that coffee is packed full of much-needed antioxidants? In fact, Americans get more antioxidants (2) from coffee than any other beverage or food, but did you know that the amount of antioxidants differs between coffee varieties?

​Arabica coffee beans contain about 5.5% up to 8% of Chlorogenic acid, whereas Robusta has 7% to 10%.

​I have only touched on the surface of the differences when it comes to sugars and antioxidants, but as you can already see, the chemical makeup of both of these coffee beans is unique.

Where are Arabica and Robusta Beans Used?

Among the two coffee varieties, Arabica is the most desirable species for coffee drinkers. However, Robusta does have its place in the coffee-drinking world, and you’ll be surprised to hear that Robusta is in some of the least desirable and some of the most prized brews in the world.

​For example, almost all of the cheap instant coffee is made from Robusta coffee beans. This is understandable, seeing as Robusta is the cheaper bean and sells for less than Arabica because it’s less fragile and has a longer harvest season.

​But on the other end of the scale, Robusta is also the go-to bean of choice for some of the most revered Italian espressos.

​When Robusta is brewed in an espresso machine, it wins hands down compared to Arabica; there is no competition. The Robusta bean produces a thick, rich espresso crema. So it’s not uncommon to find Robusta as the primary bean in almost all of the best Italian espresso coffee blends.

​Arabica is the American number one choice for brewed coffee. I think part of that is because nearly all Americans dislike instant coffee, which, remember, is primarily made from Robusta beans.

​This trend is nothing new, and in fact, the “gourmet coffee movement” of the past 30 plus years has had a lot to do with the change from Robusta over to Arabica. It’s not uncommon to find small to medium coffee roasters putting all their efforts into Arabica over Robusta due to the high demand.

References
(1) Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffea_liberica
(2) WebMD LLC. https://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20050808/coffee-is-no-1-source-of-antioxidants

Mark Morphew

Mark is the editor and writer of the popular coffee blog Bean Ground. He's been active in the catering and hospitality industry for many years. When he's not fiddling around with a new coffee gadget, you'll find him busy doing DIY projects around the home and taking his German Shepherd for a walk, who funnily enough is called Kona! You can discover more about Mark here.