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Arabica and Robusta Coffee: The Truth

Arabica is the most commonly known species of coffee bean out there. It is widely regarded as the golden child of the coffee world, and therefore it is no surprise that the vast majority of specialty coffee is Arabica. 

However, its less popular brother Robusta also plays a significant role in the coffee industry, making up the majority of commodity (or C) coffee production. This is actually what drives the sheer volume of global coffee production, and has a significant impact on the price of coffee overall. 

Whilst you may be daily familiar with Arabica coffee, you may not have come across Robusta before, let alone have an idea of its impact in the global coffee market. 

In this article, I will look to break down the key differences between Arabica and Robusta coffee beans, and uncover the truth behind their sometimes difficult relationship in the coffee industry.  

What is Arabica Coffee? 

Arabica coffee beans are the seeds of the coffea Arabica plant. 

This is the most widely cultivated coffee plant in the world, and the largest producer of Arabica coffee is Brazil. Arabica is famed for its delicate, multifaceted flavour profile. It typically has a sweet and subtle nuttiness to it, which is often complimented by lighter roast profiles. 

Arabica coffee can develop very complex and far ranging tasting notes. From traditional nuts and chocolate, to exotic fruits, citrus and floral flavours, Arabica sits at the top of the coffee industry’s pecking order. 

The vast majority of specialty coffee is Arabica, and for good reason. Specialty coffee is defined by The Specialty Coffee Company as “any coffee that scores above 80 points on a 100 point scale.” 

This scale is based on a process called ‘coffee cupping’, where “grades are given to coffees by certified samplers called Q-graders” – What does a number make? Coffee Cupping & Quality Score, Explained, Spirit Animal Coffee. The site also mentions that the grading process involves the following steps: 

  1. Visually inspecting green (unroasted) coffee beans for defects, mould, sourness and uniformity. 
  2. Coffee tasting based on aroma, fragrance, flavour, aftertaste, acidity, balance, body, sweetness, residue, uniformity, defects. 
  3. A final score is given to the coffee between 0 and 100 based on the criteria above. Anything between 80 and 100 is classed as specialty, anything between 60 and 80 is classed as commercial grade. 

Arabica coffee makes up around 70% of the world’s coffee production, so most coffee plantations are geared towards growing Arabica to meet global demand. 

The plant only grows at higher altitudes making it more difficult to cultivate, and it is also more prone to coffee rust and insect infestation due to its lower levels of caffeine (caffeine actually acts as an insect repellant). 

Whilst Arabica coffee is delicious and certainly converted in the coffee world, it has a less popular brother called Robusta. 

What is Robusta Coffee? 

Whilst the genus of Robusta coffee beans may seem similar to that of Arabica, it actually ends up being a very different end product. Robusta coffee comes from the coffea Canephora plant, which grows around 1.5x taller than the coffea Arabica plant. 

Robusta coffee makes up about 30% of global production, and the majority of that is commodity graded rather than specialty. Where Arabica needs to be grown at high altitudes and carefully cultivated, Robusta coffee actually grows at lower altitudes and is more resistant to coffee rust and insects, due to its higher caffeine levels. 

Robusta produces about twice as much caffeine as Arabica, and is much cheaper to produce. This is why it is often used in less expensive, mass produced coffee, even when the manufacturer claims their batch to be ‘100% Arabica’ (but more on that later). 

Robusta is also often seen as the workhorse of the two varieties, picking up the slack when Arabica is too expensive, inaccessible or delicate to be used. 

In terms of taste, Robusta is far more bitter, abrasive and smoky than Arabica. 

Key Differences Between Arabica and Robusta Coffee

Arabica and Robusta coffee beans are both very popular across the world, but there are a number of key differences that set them apart. 

Size/Shape

As you can see below, Arabica coffee beans tend to be a little larger and more oval shaped compared to Robusta beans, which tend to be smaller and more circular. 

Taste  

When it comes to taste, Arabica and Robusta beans couldn’t be more different. Of course, roast profile, origin and the brewing method all play into how a specific coffee bean will taste in the cup. 

But, all other things being equal, Arabica coffee beans tend to have a much more complex, wide ranging and bright flavour profile when compared to Robusta. 

Arabica coffee can be sweet, nutty, fruity, floral, sour, citrus, tangy or rich and creamy. Quite a lot of variety for one species of coffee bean! 

On the other hand, Robusta coffee has a tendency to be a lot more uniform in its flavour, generally delivering a dark, burnt, smoky or bitter taste. 

Caffeine Content

This may come as a surprise, but caffeine actually acts as an insect repellant in plants. Whilst we enjoy its invigorating effects through substances such as coffee, chocolate and tea, caffeine is actually a plant’s natural defence mechanism against insects and other pests. 

Arabica coffee beans contain around 1-1.5% caffeine by weight, whereas Robusta beans contain between 2-2.7%. 

Since Robusta is so much more caffeinated, it is often blended with Arabica to strengthen commercially viable coffee and drive prices down. 

Check out this article if you want to find out more about different coffee varieties and how much caffeine they contain

Public Perception

Another key difference between Arabica and Robusta coffee that isn’t often considered is the public perception of the two varieties. 

Arabica really is seen as the top shelf coffee bean of choice when compared to Robusta, by both coffee enthusiasts and your average joe

This limits the growth of Robusta coffee in the market, as there simply isn’t as much demand for it in the specialty space. I believe that if Robusta coffee was given more of a platform by high end coffee houses, demand would then trickle down to mass produced chains and we would all end up with better tasting, higher quality Robusta as a result. 

Acidity 

Arabica coffee is much more acidic than Robusta coffee, owing to its more vibrant range of flavours. It’s fair to say that low acid coffee is becoming more popular nowadays, due to growing health consciousness in coffee consumers. 

This also means that Robusta beans tend to pair better with milk or cream than highly acidic Arabica beans, which is something to consider based on your coffee preparation method of choice. 

These factors may lead to lower acidity Arabica and high quality Robusta coffee becoming more popular, but time will tell. 

Sugar Content 

“Arabica contains almost 60% more lipids and almost twice the concentration of sugars than robusta” – Differences between Arabica and Robusta Coffee: Coffee Chemistry, April 2015. 

It is therefore no surprise why Arabica is so often touted as the sweeter, more luscious coffee to drink compared to Robusta, which is usually harsher and more bitter. 

Growing Conditions 

Arabica coffee requires much more specific conditions to grow effectively, whereas the Robusta plant is much more versatile. Arabica needs to be grown at high elevation (above 1000m) and between approximately 15-25 ℃. 

Whereas, Robusta coffee can grow anywhere from sea level up to 1000m and thrives in hotter temperatures (between 20-30℃).  

Production Countries

According to Nespresso, “Arabica coffee is grown in countries such as Ethiopia, India, Guatemala, Colombia and Brazil…(whereas) Robusta’s main growing regions are Africa, Indonesia and India.” – Arabica vs Robusta Coffee – What’s the Difference?, Nespresso.com. 

Price

Price is a key differentiator between Arabica and Robusta coffee. Arabica is generally twice as expensive as Robusta, owing to its far greater popularity, higher quality standards, more prevalent use in specialty blends and lower overall yield. 

According to Statista, Robusta price has consistently been 50%-65% of Arabica price for the past decade (see below) ‘Average prices for Arabica and robusta coffee worldwide from 2014 to 2024’ –  Aaron O’Neill, Oct 27, 2023. 

Robusta is not given the same platform as Arabica in general terms, and this means farmers see it as a lower priority crop. 

The Truth Behind Arabica and Robusta Coffee

Whilst I have outlined some of the key differences between Arabica and Robusta coffee, there is a disturbing, surprising truth behind their relationship. 

When listening to The Coffee Podcast (as I often do), I came across a segment that sparked my interest on this topic. 

Episode 155 “Coffee Science: Wild Coffee” (December 21 2020) featured Aaron Davis of Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. 

Aaron noted that his recent research into so-called 100% Arabica coffees weren’t living up to their bold claim. Aaron states that his team did: 

 “a review of 100% Arabica supermarket coffee… and put them through a chemical testing process. We found that 10% of these ‘100% Arabica coffees were adulterated with Robusta.” 

Aaron went on to say that consumer preferences between Arabica and Robusta are also starting to shift on a global scale. In fact, when he “started in coffee research 20 years ago, the world was drinking 80% Arabica and 20% Robusta… now the figure is more like 60% Arabica and 40% Robusta”. 

He then mentions that consumers are likely to be drinking more Robusta than they think, as there is so much coffee adulteration going on, unbeknownst to consumers. 

So, Should You Give Robusta Coffee a Try? 

Whether you know it or not, the chances are you’ve probably tried Robusta coffee in your life in varying quantities. Global reliance on Robusta coffee will naturally start increasing in line with climate change, as it becomes harder and harder to cultivate specialty Arabica in the coming years. 

I would recommend giving Robusta coffee a try if you can get your hands on it. Big coffee chains like Black Sheep Coffee offer designated Robusta Revival blends that put the bean on a pedestal. They tout Robusta’s stronger, bolder taste and higher caffeine content as key selling points over traditional Arabica. 

As the popularity of Robusta grows (be it through choice or necessity), it is likely that the quality, range of origins and diversity of flavour profiles will grow too. 

So, I’d encourage you to get ahead of the curve and become a Robusta pioneer by actively seeking it out and learning to enjoy different varieties today. 

Summary

Overall, Arabica and Robusta coffee beans make up the vast majority of the world coffee supply. Whilst there are some lesser known coffee bean varieties out there, Arabica and Robusta are by far the most popular, and for good reason. 

Whilst Arabica and Robusta have a number of key distinctions, they rely on each other to keep the coffee industry thriving. Both are needed in times of crisis, both for specialty grade and commercial grade coffee. 

Despite their differences, Arabica and Robusta coffee are the backbone of the global coffee industry and we should do more to promote high quality Robusta beans, to help it catch up with the high end Arabica market. 

Related Questions 

Which is better, Arabica or Robusta?

Arabica coffee is generally considered to be better quality than Robusta. This is due to a far wider range and more delicate flavour profiles, protected and nurtured growing conditions, higher acidity and lower levels of caffeine. 

Is Starbucks Coffee Arabica or Robusta?

Starbucks claims to only use Arabica coffee, however it is roasted incredibly dark to achieve a uniform (albeit very bitter) flavour.

Which Brands Use Robusta Coffee?

Many popular coffee brands offer Robusta/Arabica blends, but the following offer pure Robusta bean blends: 

  • Death Wish Coffee
  • Cafe Borbone
  • Dinzler
  • Hardy
  • Shock coffee LLC
  • Cannonball Coffee
  • K-Agriculture
  • Dalat Peaberry. 

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