Arabica vs. Robusta: What’s The Difference?

Coffee Education
Kirkland Gee
July 26, 2023

Spend enough time in our universe and you'll start to notice a lot of companies advertising their “100% Arabica” coffee. But what does that actually mean? 

Arabica is a varietal of the coffee plant, along with Robusta and a few others. But these two coffee types, Arabica and Robusta, are the keystones of coffee production around the globe. They offer remarkably different flavor profiles and cultivation characteristics, but both are commonly used every day.

Arabica, the more delicate of the two, is praised for its nuanced flavors and widespread popularity, representing over 60% of the world's coffee consumption. On the flip side, Robusta, with its robust nature and higher caffeine content, presents a more hardy, albeit bitter, alternative. 

Unpacking the contrasts between Arabica and Robusta isn't just an exercise for the taste buds; it's also a journey into varying cultivation practices, environmental impacts, and economic factors that influence what coffees you drink each day.

What Is Arabica Coffee?

Arabica coffee is derived from the beans of the Coffea arabica plant, which is believed to have originated in Ethiopia. It is, without doubt, the most commonly consumed coffee worldwide, making up over 60% of global coffee production. Several well-known varieties of Arabica coffee include Typica, Caturra, Kona, Pacamara, and Villalobos, among others.

What sets Arabica coffee apart is its taste profile. Arabica coffee is widely appreciated for its wide spectrum of flavors, which can range from sweet and soft to sharp and tangy, largely depending on the specific varietal. Before roasting, Arabica beans often give off a fruitier aroma, which, once roasted, develops into a more complex, perfumed fragrance, complete with fruity and sugary notes.

Arabica coffee is somewhat finicky when it comes to growing conditions. The plants require a cool, subtropical climate, abundant moisture, fertile soil, and a balance of sun and shade. Arabica plants are generally grown at high elevations, between 600 and 2000 meters above sea level. This demand for specific conditions makes Arabica plants more susceptible to pests and damage due to poor handling or cold temperatures.

Given the challenges involved in growing Arabica coffee, it is typically more expensive than Robusta. That said—almost every specialty coffee you drink is an Arabica. Whether it’s an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, something from the Nyeri region of Kenya, or just a high-altitude Colombian coffee from Risaralda, you’ll find Arabica is everywhere in the specialty world. 

What Is Robusta Coffee?

Robusta coffee, on the other hand, comes from the beans of the Coffea canephora plant, native to Africa. This type of coffee has a reputation for being rather bitter and is often used in instant coffee, espresso, and certain ground coffee blends as a filler.

In terms of taste, Robusta is frequently described as having a harsh, oatmeal-like flavor. The unroasted beans have a raw, peanut-like scent. However, it's important to note that these flavor profiles can vary greatly depending on factors such as the specific growing conditions and the quality of the beans.

One of the main advantages of Robusta coffee is its resilience. The Robusta plant can tolerate lower altitudes (200-800 meters) and is less vulnerable to pest damage. It also produces a higher yield per acre and incurs lower production costs, which is why Robusta coffee is generally cheaper than Arabica.

However, the cultivation of Robusta coffee often involves mono-cropping, a practice of growing the same crop year after year in the same location. While this process can maximize short-term yield, it can also lead to soil degradation and other environmental issues over time.

There are some companies doing specialty robusta (Nguyen Coffee Supply is one of the more prominent), but this is not because it “tastes better.” Instead, the goal is to elevate farmers who don’t have access to the resources to grow more difficult varietals like Arabica. 

Key Points to Remember

  • Robusta contains more caffeine compared to Arabica, which can result in a stronger or more bitter taste.
  • Arabica has almost twice the sugar content, contributing to a sweeter and more nuanced flavor profile.
  • Arabica contains more lipids, which can give the coffee a fuller mouthfeel.
  • Robusta has less acidity, which can make it easier on the stomach for some individuals.

Arabica vs. Robusta: Which is Better?

The answer to this question largely depends on individual taste preferences, although many people strongly prefer Arabica over Robusta. Arabica coffee is known for its refined, complex flavor profiles and generally higher quality. Meanwhile, Robusta offers a higher caffeine content, a less acidic taste, and a lower price point, but is often criticized for its harsher flavor.

Arabica and Robusta each offer unique benefits, but the choice between the two often comes down to individual taste preferences, budget, and environmental considerations. If taste is your primary concern, you might find Arabica's complex flavors more appealing. But if you're looking for a budget-friendly coffee with a robust caffeine kick, Robusta could be a good option to consider. Just remember, the quality and flavor of coffee can vary greatly within each type, depending on the specific varietal, growing conditions, and roasting process.

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