A Coffee Primer: Arabica vs Robusta Coffee Beans

Written by:
Kenny Gould
Photography By:
Diego Catto

Often, we use the word “coffee” to refer to any beverage made from hot water and the seed of the Coffea plant. But as anyone who drinks coffee knows, not all coffees taste the same. Although many factors affect the final product, one of the most significant is the species of coffee bean. Around the world, people primarily consume beans from two Coffea species: Arabica and Robusta. But in the battle of Arabica vs Robusta, which is better?

While we have our own preferences, the simple answer is we don’t know. Most of the time, we prefer Arabica beans, but Robusta coffees also have their place. In this primer, we’ll examine both to help you decide whether Arabica or Robusta coffee beans might be best for you.

What Is Arabica?

If you drink coffee on a daily basis, you probably consume Arabica beans. Around the world, Arabica constitutes the most widely consumed species. In fact, Arabica beans make up almost 60 percent of the world’s coffee production. Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer, also produces more Arabica coffee than any other country in the world. Additionally, farmers produce Arabica beans in other parts of South America, Central America, Africa, and India.

Although its name might suggest otherwise, the Coffea arabica plant originated in Ethiopia. However, the bean first became popular in lower Arabia; from there, it spread to the rest of the world.

Coffea arabica plants enjoy humid, subtropical temperatures from 59 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. They grow best at 1,900+ feet above sea level and take four years to yield fruit and around seven years to fully mature.

Just as many varieties of red grape make up the larger category (pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, etc.), or many strains of cannabis compose the sativa landrace (sour diesel, Jack Herer, etc.) many types of bean fall under the category of Arabica. That being said, all Arabica varieties stem from two types: Typica and Bourbon (pronounced Bore-BONN).

Coffea arabica plants produce less yield than Coffea canephora plants, which produce Robusta beans. And while each Arabica bean contains less caffeine than each Robusta bean (~1.5% caffeine content vs ~2.7%), Arabica beans contain more sugars, lipids, and acids. This gives them a far greater variety of delicate flavors and aromas, from chocolate to honey to pear and beyond. Because of this, most elite light roasters (Tandem, Elixr, etc.) use arabica coffee beans.

Great Arabica Coffees

From a small-batch coffee roaster in New England barrel-aging Ethiopian beans to a Canadian roaster highlighting South American beans to single origin varieties from Brazil, Central American, and India here are our top five picks for bags of Arabica beans.

Coopers Cask Coffee Battle Cry Rye Whiskey Barrel Aged Coffee Beans – These Ethiopian beans are dried under the sun on raised beds to intensify the flavor. Aged in Battle Cry whiskey barrels, the whiskey complements the coffee with bright spicy flavors and intense floral notes.

Buy Now: $30

Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters Colombia Jerico – While many producers in Colombia have changed their farms to hearty coffee varieties built on quantity instead of quality, the Palestina region still grows the coffee varieties like Jerico that gave Colombia a name in the coffee world. These precious beans have notes of caramel, black tea, and pecan.

Buy Now: $20

Out of the Grey Coffee Brazilian Daterra Sweet Yellow – Daterra means from the earth and seems like a fitting name for these Brazilian Arabica beans that offer up mellow notes of pecan nuts, soft fruits, honey, and leather.

Buy Now: $18

Humblemaker Coffee Co. San Marcos Guatemala Single Origin – From one of the most storied coffee regions in Central America, these Guatemalan beans brew up a deep, rich cup of coffee full of chocolate, cocoa, and a roasted toffee sweetness.

Buy Now: $18

Volcanica Coffee Indian Monsoon Malabar – With a story as rich as its flavor, these Indian Monsoon Malabar beans are worth a try. Originally, these beans traveled on ships sailing from India to Europe. The exposure to the monsoon winds caused the beans to change colors and characteristics, creating a new brand of coffee full of spicy, earthly, smokey, tobacco and wood notes.

Buy Now: $17

What Is Robusta?

Unlike Coffea arabica, which originated in Ethiopia, Coffea canephora comes from Western and Central Sub-Saharan Africa. While Arabica beans make up 60% of the world’s production, Robusta makes up most of the other 40%.

Today, farmers produce Robusta beans in Africa and Southeast Asia. Vietnam, the largest producer of Robusta beans in the world, also produces the second largest amount of coffee in the world, falling just after Brazil.

Robusta beans grow in hot climates, and their high caffeine content makes them resistant to bugs and disease. However, the same quality that makes them strong also gives the beans their bitter, earthy taste. A higher chlorogenic acid content also adds to the bitterness.

Compared to Coffea arabica, Coffea canephora takes about two years to mature. This, combined with their heartier composition and bitter flavors, make them cheaper to grow and purchase.

While Arabica beans make a great drip coffee, most people use Robusta beans in instant coffee or espresso blends. Others use them as filler in Arabica and Robusta blends to keep down their costs.

Great Robusta Coffees

Those who love a jolt of the jitters might prefer the caffeinated punch from a cup of Robusta beans. As the largest producer of Robusta beans in the world, Vietnam is a logical place for us to start on our Robusta journey. Below, we’ve selected four great choices.

Bach Vietnamese Coffee – These beans from Bach Vietnamese Coffee are the epitome of Robusta coffee, smooth, chocolatey, and intense.

Buy Now: $10

Death Wish Organic Coffee – These beans are actually a blend of 80% Robusta and 20% Arabica, resulting in a bold, smooth blend highlighted by notes of chocolate and cherry. Technically, this brand is dubbed the “World’s Strongest Coffee” with 728 mg of caffeine per 12-oz serving, so be ready for a serious kick in the pants.

Buy Now: $20

Heirloom Coffee Dalat Peaberry Highlands Robusta Whole Bean – Another producer from Vietnam, Heirloom Coffee grows its beans at a high-altitude. The term “peaberry” refers to the shape of the bean, resembling a rounded pea that’s more typical of a Robusta bean. Think rich, dark chocolate truffle.

Buy Now: $13

Biohazard Coffee – For another serious hit of caffeine try Biohazard’s 100% ground Robusta coffee. Overwhelming waves of cherry are capped by 928mg of caffeine per 12-oz cup. For those counting, that’s about four times the amount of caffeine in a basic cup of coffee.

Buy Now: $20

The Bottom Line

If you want quality, nuance, and complexity of flavor, choose Arabica. If you need a caffeine punch, go with Robusta.

That being said, everyone enjoys different things. Whether you prefer Arabica or Robusta coffees comes down to palate. The more you taste with intentionality, the more your palate will develop.

Start slow, drink liberally, and see what you can learn about your preferences. Once you hone into your ideal roast and growing regions, you’ll have a pretty good sense of the tasting notes you’ll want to try.

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