If you’ve been around the coffee world for a while, you’ve probably heard that you should only buy coffee marked as 100% Arabica. While that is an oversimplification, it nevertheless gets to the heart of a longstanding debate among coffee drinkers: which variety of coffee is best?
In this article, we’re going to explain the differences between Arabica and Robusta coffee beans. We’ll discuss differences in taste, cost, and farming before concluding with some specific purchasing advice. Let’s get started.
Overview of Arabica
Arabica coffee is the undisputed king of the coffee court. Most coffee produced and exported worldwide is Arabica coffee for a straightforward reason: most people prefer the taste. But what is Arabica coffee anyway?
What’s in a Name?
Both Arabica and Robusta are part of the same biological family, but they are different plant species. Each is broken down further into more specific varieties. Arabica has two primary varieties called Typica and Bourbon. There is a roughly equal breakdown between Typica and Bourbon Arabica coffee, but Bourbon is usually slightly more complex and nuanced.
The most common question most people have is how does Arabica taste? This is a tricky question to answer since the Arabica umbrella includes many different specific types of coffee that can be grown in many different environments. The same Arabica bean grown in two separate places will taste wildly different.
In general, Arabica coffee is considered smoother and sweeter than Robusta coffee and often has chocolatey and fruity undertones. One of the most appealing aspects of Arabica coffee is it doesn’t naturally have a harsh, bitter taste, something that can’t be said about Robusta coffee.
The International Coffee Organization estimates that about 60% of the world’s coffee is Arabica. You might be surprised that it’s so close to even since Arabica is the clear winner in the flavor category, but other considerations make it not so simple.
Arabica is a more delicate species than Robusta. Slight variations in weather can have dramatic effects on Arabica yields and health. Farmers accept some risk when they grow Arabica coffee since some unforeseen circumstances can easily decimate their coffee crops. Farming is one of the least forgiving means of making a living, and, understandably, few farmers want to expose themselves to ruin by growing Arabica exclusively.
Overview of Robusta Coffee
After the overview of Arabica, you might think that Robusta is strictly worse, but that’s not the case. Indeed, Robusta doesn’t taste as good as Arabica to most people, but that’s not the whole story. Robusta makes up 40% of the global coffee production for three primary reasons.
Great for Blends
Robusta is used in blends where the focus isn’t on accentuating the characteristics of a single origin. The harsher, bitter flavors Robusta brings to the table are much less unpleasant when Robusta only comprises a small fraction of the coffee in a bag. In fact, Robusta’s bold, powerful taste can beef up the flavor of a blend and actually make it taste better in some cases.
Another reason Robusta manages to hold on to almost half the coffee production worldwide is that it is better for espresso. The holy grail of espresso is crema, and Robusta is better at producing crema than Arabica. Most espresso fans crave a creamy, smooth texture in their coffee, and using some Robusta in espresso blends makes it easier to coax out that delicious crema.
From a farming perspective, Robusta is significantly easier to grow and maintain. Unlike Arabica coffee, Robusta beans can handle a broad range of weather conditions and withstand disease much more easily. These are attractive features that make Robusta a much safer choice for farmers whose livelihood depends on their crop yield.
This one could be a positive or a negative, depending on your reasons for drinking coffee. Robusta coffee has a higher caffeine content than Arabica does, making it a great way to increase the amount of caffeine in a blend. Some coffee companies produce blends that are specifically designed to be high in caffeine, which almost always require some amount of Robusta in the mix.
Arabica vs Robusta: Which is Best for You?
This is a hard question to answer without knowing your personal taste, but you can use some general rules when choosing between the two. Robusta versus Arabica is a bit of a false dichotomy since you will basically never have to choose between 100% Robusta and 100% Arabica coffee.
If you like single-origin coffee and enjoy comparing and contrasting coffee from different regions, you will mostly want 100% Arabica coffee. Arabica’s smoother flavor is much more pronounced in single origins, where Robusta tastes noticeably more bitter and unpleasant.
For espresso or a house blend style of coffee, you can either go for 100% Arabica coffee or a blend of Arabica and Robusta. It is a common misconception that coffee with any percentage Robusta is of lower quality and will taste worse than a 100% Arabica blend. In espresso especially, it is desirable to have some Robusta in the blend to enhance crema production.
If you make regular drip coffee and don’t like to experiment with different origins, we recommend looking for 100% Arabica for most people, but if you want to save some money, an Arabica-Robusta blend will usually be cheaper.
We hope you enjoyed this overview of Arabica and Robusta coffee. The common wisdom that Arabica coffee is better is true in some sense, but, hopefully, you now have a better sense of the complexities involved in making a comparison. Robusta coffee is easier for farmers to grow and has its place in espresso blends, but Arabica will always be the top choice for single-origin coffee since it is more delicate and pleasing to drink on its own.
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