A Beginner’s Guide to Coffee Varieties

Coffee seeds sprouting
Photo by Christian Joudrey on Unsplash

‘Arabica’ is a word that coffee lovers would have seen thousands of times, but many would not understand what the word represents. The (not so) obvious fact is: there are over 120 different species of coffee (Coffea) in the world. The most popular species for both producers and consumers is Arabica (Coffea arabica), followed by Robusta (Coffea canephora). Here’s a quick rundown on what makes these two varieties unique. 

Arabica

Arabica coffee is the most popular coffee species in the world. It makes up approximately 70% of all coffee production and is the preferred species for many coffee lovers. Originating from the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia, the species was transported to lower Arabia in the 7th century. It is believed that this is how the species gained its name. 

Today, the Arabica species can be found from across the globe; from Brazil (the primary producer of Arabica) to Kenya. The Arabica plant is conducive to higher altitudes, as the fragility of the plant means that it cannot withstand hotter climates. 

Arabica contains much less caffeine than Robusta; a good option for those who wish to cut down their caffeine (or those who wish to order a double shot espresso!). Arabica has almost twice as much sugar than the Robusta variety; a factor which has led to the popularity of Arabica beans in both cafes and consumers. Arabica beans are known for having a sweet, soft flavour; with notes of chocolate, fruit and berries.

Robusta

Originating in Sub Saharan Africa, Robusta coffee has travelled across the world, where it is primarily grown in Indonesia and Vietnam. Today, Robusta Coffee accounts for around 30% of global coffee production.

The Robusta plant is hardier and more resilient than Arabica, as it thrives in hotter conditions and is easier to tend. The extra caffeine contained in the coffee seeds also creates a chemical defence against insects and bugs, which makes it a diseased resistant plant. Robusta can also grow at lower altitudes and produce fruit more quickly than the Arabica, making it a popular choice for farmers. But the flavour profile of the Robusta is not as sought after as Arabica, hence it receives lower market demand.

Robusta is at times falsely claimed to be synonymous with poor quality. This isn’t necessarily true, as some countries (such as Italy), use high-end Robusta coffee to make good espresso, with a deep flavour and a strong crema. High-end Robusta beans are typically used to fill (and reduce the cost of) Arabica blends. Additionally, the earthy and bitter flavour of the Robusta makes it a preferred choice for producing instant coffee. 

Robusta beans have a caffeine content of 2.7%; almost double that of Arabica (1.5%). On its own, caffeine has a fairly bitter flavour profile. So a robusta bean will, naturally, have a stronger and bitter taste than that of the Arabica. It is for this reason that a blend will never contain 100% Robusta. It would be much more common for a small percentage of Robusta to be used to enhance the strength and flavour of the overall blend.

Image: Handcolored copperplate engraving from a botanical illustration of Coffea arabica by James Sowerby from William Woodville and Sir William Jackson Hooker's "Medical Botany" 1832.

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