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Understanding the Difference: Arabica vs Robusta

TCB-Feature-Arabica-Vs-Robusta-Coffee-Bean

In terms of taste, Arabica coffees has always been considered to be superior to Robusta – experts, including Roasters Pack, generally agree that a good Robusta produced with care can be better than a poor Arabica.

Although there are over a hundred varieties of the coffee plant, Arabica and Robusta are the only two strains that are grown on a commercial scale. Each strain has their own distinct characteristics and necessities, which in turn creates two very different end products. However, Robusta’s poor reputation may not be due to the bean itself. With continuous innovation and technological improvements, people are changing sides between the Arabica and Robusta debate.

According to the Royal Kew Gardens in London, coffee is the second most valuable commodity in the world, surpassed only by oil. There are currently 125 known species of coffee plants, also known as Coffea, and they’re grown naturally between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The two main species used in the coffee industry are the C. Arabica and C. Canephora (more commonly known as Robusta), and they alone support more than 25-million farmers around the world.

Coffee Beans Arabica And Robusta

Coffee plant originated from Asia, Australia and Madagascar. It produces beautiful white flowers which has an aroma of jasmine, and when they ripe, the produce red cherry fruits. Inside these cherry fruits, you’ll find the coffee beans that we all love. There are several stories on how coffee all started. However, the only thing we’re certain is that the tradition of drinking coffee originated in Ethiopia, before eventually spreading to the rest of the world.


Environment & Growing Conditions

In order to understand the differences in more detail, it’s necessary to learn a little more about the environment and conditions that both species are grown.

Features

Arabica Beans

Robusta Beans

Altitude
(above sea levels)

3,000 - 6,600ft
(900 - 2,000m)

0 - 3,000ft
(0 - 900m)

Ideal Temperature

60 - 80°F
(15 - 25°C)

70 - 85°F
(20 - 30°C)

Soil Quality

Volcanic soil with lots of nutrients in sloping terrain

Poorer quality soil in flatter terrain

Rainfall

8 - 15ft
(2.5 - 4.5m)

15 - 20ft
(4.5 - 6m)

Flowering Period

After rainy seasons

Irregular

Growing Time (flower to cherry)

9 months

10 - 11 months

Plant Robustness

Prone to disease and damage by insects and pests

Less susceptible to disease and insects

Yields

Produce small yields

Greater crop yields

As you would expect, the different habitats will have distinct effects on the coffee bean’s physical appearance, taste and flavor.


Arabica Beans Features

As you would expect, the different habitats will have distinct effects on the coffee bean’s physical appearance, taste and flavor.

  • Oval in shape
  • Sweet taste with 6 - 9% sugar content
  • Naturally mild with an aromatic, rich, and rounded palate
  • Contains 0.8 - 1.4% caffeine content
  • 5.5 - 8% chlorogenic acid content
  • Produce less crema
  • Taste like fruity, tangy, floral, citrus, buttery, caramel, chocolate, or honey
  • Best enjoyed alone without blending

Robusta Beans Features

  • More rounded shape
  • Sharper flavor with a lower sugar content of 3 - 7%
  • Higher caffeine content of 1.7 - 4%
  • Dark roast have a lower caffeine content than light roast
  • Higher chlorogenic acid content of 7 - 10%
  • Produce more crema, which is popular for Espressos
  • Typically used as either a filler, price stretcher, or sharpen the blend's edge
  • Predominately used for producing instant coffee

Arabica coffee requires a more labor intensive production because they’re more exposed to pests and diseases. Normally, Arabica are hand harvested as they’re grown in more difficult terrain.

This is not the case for Robusta coffee. They have antioxidants, antimicrobial, and insect repellent properties. This is because of Robusta’s high caffeine and high chlorogenic acid content. As such, Robusta is way sturdier than Arabica, and requires less work. Robusta are usually harvested in very big batches. This is because they’re grown in large flat plantations and harvested mechanically.

These differences means that Robusta beans are cheaper to produce. Typically, they’ve sold for around half the price of Arabica coffee in the world markets. However, latest commodity price tracker shows that Robusta beans is rising and quickly closing the gap with Arabica beans.

There are many factors that contribute to Robusta beans’ increased demand – such as war, crop failures, and price variations. After WWII, when coffee was scarce, the French started planting Robusta coffee plants in their West Indian colonies. Other developed countries followed suit, where they exploited cheap labor in developing countries to produce more economical coffee.

Brazil Produces Both Coffee Types

Brazil is the largest coffee producer in the world, they’re the main producer for Arabica beans, and accounts for 45% market share. As for Robusta beans, Brazil is only 2nd place with 28%. Vietnam is the largest producer for Robusta beans, with 39% market share. These figures suggest that Brazil is responsible for around a third of the coffee production market. If there are any drastic natural disasters, prices will be affected severely as supply will drop.

Currently, Arabica accounts for around 70% of the world’s coffee production.

The short video below explains the difference in Arabica vs Robusta in more detail. It looks into some of the reason why Robusta beans are becoming more and more popular.

Gabe Shohet believes that Robusta coffee’s taste is not as good because they’re typically machine harvested. By harvesting using machine, it’ll pick up berries that are unripe and rotten. Sometimes, branches and insects will get into the mix too! Gabe tracked down a specialty grade Robusta farm in India where beans are hand-picked, double washed, and tray dried. This resulted in coffee that he considers to have more character than Arabica, with notes of chocolate and walnut. He is now sourcing other unorthodox coffee beans, and “leaving the herd behind” by leading the Robusta Revival with his brew, which has double the normal caffeine content and is served in his string of coffee shops across London.

Could the Brexit vote contribute to the growth in popularity of cheaper Robusta coffee? Tim Thomson claims that British coffee lovers are going to be paying more for their daily dose. With the recent rise in global coffee prices, along with the pound falling against the dollar, he believes that shoppers are going to need to look for cheaper options – such as the Robusta.

The Coffee Barrister's Verdict

Overall, Robusta coffee is not only attracting customers for economic reasons but also for ecological considerations. Due to its sturdy nature, Robusta can be produced in a more natural and organic manner – which gains favors amongst conservationists. Combined with the fact that technology in harvesting is catching on, it looks like the popularity of Robusta coffee is going to keep rising and eventually, the balance between Arabica and Robusta could level out.

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