Coffee’s not made in a factory somewhere. It’s grown on farms. It comes from plants. And plants, like any other living thing, have genetic families.
The world runs on not one, but two species of coffee beans:
- Coffea Arabica
- Coffea Canephora (or Robusta)
You may have seen “100% arabica coffee” printed on your favorite bags of beans before, but what does it mean? How is arabica coffee different than robusta coffee?
All these questions and more are about to be answered. So brew some coffee, pour it into your learning mug, and let’s dive into the main coffee species.
Why Two Species?
In science, we categorize organisms genetically.
Somewhere along the family tree of small shrub-like plants, we find the genus Coffea. This is, essentially, the mothership for all coffee plants in the world. If you recall anything from biology class, the next lower category is called species.
Now, there are actually 120+ coffee species! However, most aren’t really viable for commercial coffee production, either because they’re gross tasting or not very hardy plants.
And, to make things more complicated, under each species there are hundreds of varieties, but we’ll save that for another time.
Let’s zoom out and focus on our main two species: arabica and robusta.
Canephora (Robusta) Coffee
Robusta coffee plants produce roughly 25% of the world’s coffee beans annually.
The plants are disease and climate resistant, making them much easier and less risky to farm than arabica plants. However, robusta beans only cost, on average, about ½ the price of arabica beans.
Flavor really isn’t a strong suit of robusta beans.
Since robusta plants grow many leaves and cherries, each individual coffee bean is given a smaller share of nutrients. This leads to less flavor diversity and lower flavor quality.
Specifically, robusta beans are noticeably low in sugars, acids, and fats, which, frankly, makes them pretty boring tasting.
And, to make matters worse, robusta beans are often extremely bitter. This is mostly due to raised levels of caffeine and chlorogenic acid, both of which taste very bitter.
Honestly, you’re not likely to find robusta coffee in specialty coffee shops. They just aren’t tasty enough. Though there are a few specialty-grade robustas out there, they’re very uncommon and rarely outperform arabica beans.
Believe it or not, Vietnam is the world’s #1 producer of robusta beans, though the country is making a concentrated effort to grow more arabica.
This species is native to West Africa and is still grown along the Ivory Coast and East Africa. You’ll also find it grown in Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and a few South American countries like Brazil.
Many of these countries grow robusta because it can thrive in lower altitudes of 600 to 1,500 feet where arabica plants struggle.
Robusta beans can have as much as 80% more caffeine than arabica beans. A whole 2.7% of the bean is caffeine, compared to arabica’s 1.5%.
This makes robusta beans great for caffeine-rich instant coffee, but it also makes the beans extra bitter and unpleasant.
Pros And Cons
- Disease and climate resistant
- High in caffeine
- ½ the cost for consumers, compared to arabica
- Low flavor diversity
- Generally bitter and unpleasant
- ½ the revenue for farmers, compared to arabica
Roughly 75% of the world’s coffee is from arabica species plants.
These plants, frankly, look wimpy from a visual standpoint. You may think the plants were unhealthy, but it’s actually not true. They may not have many leaves, but that’s one reason we love these plants. You’ll find out why shortly.
Unfortunately, arabica plants are more susceptible to disease and climate change than their robusta cousins. They’re more difficult and costly to grow, making them twice as expensive.
However, they’re still the most beloved beans around the world.
With few leaves and cherries on the tree, each bean receives more nutrients, which leads to some wild and diverse flavors.
On a more detailed level, arabica beans have:
- Twice as much sugar as robusta beans
- 60% more fats
- Higher acid content
As a result, arabica flavor profiles are all over the place. They’re rich, sweet, and aromatic. They feature flavor notes of fruits, flowers, spices, herbs, chocolates and beyond. They also have about ½ the caffeine and chlorogenic acid content, which means less bitterness in the cup.
In a flavor face-off, there’s no competition. Arabica wins every time (with the exception of a couple very rare specialty-grade robustas).
Brazil is the world’s #1 producer of arabica coffee, followed closely by Colombia.
Despite needing some pretty rigid environmental elements to grow well, you can find it grown all over the world between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, in the “coffee belt”. For the plant to really thrive, it has to be grown at higher altitudes of 1,500 to 6,000 feet.
Arabica beans are not exactly low in caffeine, with caffeine being 1.5% of the bean, but they still only have 50-70% of the caffeine compared to robusta.
Pros And Cons
- Incredible flavor diversity
- Rich, sweet flavors
- Susceptible to disease and climate change
- ½ the caffeine of robusta
- Twice as expensive as robusta (for farmers and consumers)
- Requires specific environmental conditions to grow
Both of these two coffee species have their place. Even bitter robusta beans are useful in instant coffee for people who need a quick, powerful caffeine boost.
However, only one of these coffee species has the flavor quality to be sourced and roasted by us. We are a 100% arabica company. And we’re proud of it.
Flavor notes like strawberry, green apple, and honey in our coffee fascinate us to no end, so we’ll never source and sell bitter robusta beans.
If you’d like to experience the riches of specialty-grade, freshly roasted arabica beans, check out our JavaPresse Coffee Club. Our subscribers get to experience the best, most flavorful coffees in the world. You can see what they have to say about it here.