Coffee, like anything else in life, gets more complicated the further you drill down into it. Coffee is grown all over the world, in a variety of environments. It comes from a biological family that contains over six thousand species. Amidst all this variety are two species of coffee plant that are responsible for just about every cup of coffee that gets drunk every day.
Arabica and Robusta are those two species. Within these are endless combinations of aromas, bodies, and flavor profiles. A single coffee plant can produce these variations depending on the elevation it’s grown at, the amount of sunlight and water it receives, and, of course, the roasting process it goes through after being harvested. Because of all those different variables, in can be difficult to pin down what exactly distinguishes an Arabica bean from its Robusta cousin. There are, however, some general characteristics that help distinguish the beans and determine how, in the battle of Arabica vs Robusta coffee, each should be used.
This type of bean makes up a majority of the coffee being enjoyed throughout the world. The International Coffee Organization tracks coffee production and has noted that roughly 60% of all producers work with Arabica beans. They’re easy to grow, especially at high elevations in places like Ethiopia where mass coffee production first began.
Another reason for Arabica’s popularity is its taste and caffeine content. Generally speaking, Arabica beans have a sweeter, more refined taste and less caffeine compared to their Robusta counterparts. Arabica coffees tend to contain notes of chocolate and berries, and they resist the most bitter and acidic flavors that coffee can sometimes prevent. Most brewed coffee, from your morning cup of joe to a cafe ole, are made with Arabica.
Robusta beans come from stronger coffee plants than Arabica. Robusta plants can grow to be twice as large as their cousins, and they are renowned all across the world for being more resistant to diseases and tough seasonal conditional. That’s because Robusta beans have a very high concentration of chlorogenic acids. Those acids help to protect the beans from bugs that would feed on them and diseases that would destroy them entirely.
The trade off for this extra strength is a less refined taste. Robusta is quite a bit more bitter than Arabica, and it has an aftertaste that tends to linger on the back of the tongue. Rather than forming a cup of plain black coffee, Robusta beans are most commonly used in espresso. That’s not just because of Robusta’s extra bitterness. It’s also because Robusta beans make a thicker, richer crema (that light layer of foam on top of a shot of espresso) than Arabica beans do. All of this comes from the extra chlorogenic acids present in Robusta coffee beans. The acids make these beans perfect for espresso, but they also make the beans harder to brew properly. If a barista isn’t careful, Robusta-brewed coffee will come out unbearably bitter and acidic, almost sour on the tongue.
At the end of the day, there really isn’t a battle of Arabica vs Robusta coffee beans. Each has its own place in the coffee world, and each helps to broaden that variety of delicious coffee beverages available to the world.