If you want to see me rolling my eyes, all you have to do is put me in front of a typical coffee commercial. What gets on my nerves is that you don't get any real information about the coffee, but you're guaranteed to get a bold announcement à la "100% Arabica.” In capital letters.
If you want to see me rolling my eyes, all you have to do is put me in front of a typical coffee commercial. What gets on my nerves is that you don’t get any real information about the coffee, but you’re guaranteed to get a bold announcement à la “100% Arabica.” In capital letters.
The supposed promise of quality that “100% Arabica” brings suggests that this type of bean is the best thing that can happen to your coffee. It also suggests, of course, that there’s another variety we’d rather not be drinking, as well as leading us to believe that there are blends that may contain other ingredients besides coffee.
This article is a long overdue update to one of my vintage articles on the differences and similarities between Arabica and Robusta coffee. Since it was first published in 2009 (!), a lot has happened, especially in the Robusta field.
In addition, coffee fans today know much more about Robusta’s raison d’être and how this type of coffee differs from Arabica. If that doesn’t yet include you, keep reading to find out all about Robusta vs Arabica coffee.
Table of Contents
Arabica vs Robusta: Same coffee, different name?
Let’s start with the basics. Arabica and Robusta both come from the coffee plant Coffea, a member of the Rubiaceae family. So, botanically, they are siblings. However, just like with siblings, the two species aren’t identical. They each come from different subspecies.
There’s the Coffea Arabica plant and the Coffea Canephora plant. Both grow with different requirements in different places. Therefore, they produce different fruits. So, if we close our eyes, we’re talking about the difference between sour and sweet cherries.
Canephora is the botanical name for the type of coffee we know as Robusta. However, let’s not forget that there are also species, such as Liberica and Excelsa, as well as more than a hundred other varieties, few of which play a significant role in the global coffee trade.
Also, because botanical science is always very complicated, the two main species, Canephora and Arabica, branch out into subcategories. Perhaps you have heard of some of these illustrious names, like “Bourbon” or “Cattura.” Arabica alone has about 70 varieties, each with very different characteristics.
This family tree is broken down really well in the Variety Catalog of World Coffee Research.
Cultivation: The Legend of 'Highland Coffee'
Perhaps it’s because of this natural diversity that Arabica is considered the quintessential coffee. However, I blame something else for the hysteria surrounding the “100% Arabica” seal.
It’s based on both a promise of quality and a luxury image that have arisen due to the demands of cultivating the Coffea Arabica plant — and from its myth.
Arabica is the “original coffee,” with a correspondingly long tradition. The plant was discovered as early as the 7th century and domesticated over the course of time. Everything that has to do with the Viennese coffee house tradition and similar history elsewhere is based on this type of coffee bean. So, when we’re considering Arabica vs Robusta coffee, Arabica has a significant image advantage.
For the Arabica coffee cherry to ripen, it must be neither too hot nor too cold. Meanwhile, climatic capriciousness is on the rise, which is why the perfect, constant “coffee weather” for a bountiful harvest is becoming increasingly rare and can only be found in certain places.
Humidity must also be very high. This, too, is only found in certain regions of the world. Therefore, deserts, the Rhineland-Palatinate or the North Sea coast all fall completely flat in cultivating Arabica.
Harvesting is executed according to each coffee cherry’s degree of ripeness. By hand. In steep terrain. The manual factor costs time, personnel, harvesting resources and ultimately, the customer. What the harvesters get out of it is another story.
Direct sunlight is taboo. Most Arabica trees want to grow peacefully in the shade, but shade on the mountain isn’t easy to find. In addition, the intensity of the sun increases with altitude, so again, the potential harvest drops considerably.
If we take just these four points, we can clearly see why Arabica beans have such a good reputation:
- Demanding growing conditions
- Limited yield potential
- Only certain places of origin in the world are suitable for it
- Harvesting is laborious, done by hand and thus, has a definite “manual labor” value
Advertising has managed to deeply inculcate us with these facts about Arabica coffees, although few of us know the background story. For the ignorant consumer, it’s enough to know that they can purchase an absolute luxury product for 4.25 dollars a pound.
Atmospheric pictures of mist-covered primeval forests and exotic, romantic names, like Brazil or Guatemala, are incentive enough.
However, it also just so happens that a plant that’s actually much too prissy accounts for more than 60 percent of global coffee production. Consumers (supposedly) want it that way because that’s the way we’ve been educated by advertisers.
The other 40 percent or so of the world’s coffee belongs to Coffea Canephora or Robusta. It comes mainly from the less mass-promoted areas of Indonesia, Vietnam or India, which, interestingly enough, are absolutely in vogue at the moment.
As its name suggests, Robusta makes things much easier when it comes to growing:
- Already grows magnificently between 300 and 600 meters above sea level
- Is less sensitive to climate fluctuations, diseases or the sun
- Delivers a higher yield per plant
- The harvest is easier and less complex
- Robusta’s first image problem stems from its difficult marketability. You won’t lure anyone into your kitchen with a promise of “lowland coffee.” Plus, let’s face it, the name “Robusta” sounds pretty unsophisticated.
However, does this also make a Robusta coffee “cheaper,” as coffee branding has taught us?
No. The pure cultivation price per bean is much lower, so the profit is theoretically higher. Now a paradox of economics takes hold.
Since Arabica dominates the market, Robusta coffee is, in turn, more risky to farm, even though the plant is the more resilient of the two. This is because there is less land available for cultivation, with a lower overall yield.
To put it simply, coffee plantations in the preferred locations cover everything with Arabica first before turning to Robusta. After all, they want a piece of the pie. Robusta is just a “filler” to maximize profits.
Therefore, those plantations where space, soil and climate are exclusively suitable for Robusta take a much greater risk. So, if a harvest on Robusta plantation X falls victim to rot, the Robusta supplier has little or no “alternative options,” and in the worst-case scenario, his annual income is gone.
At the same time, he finds fewer buyers for his supply. The fewer buyers there are in a market, the greater the pressure on suppliers to sell. Therefore, buyers can quickly dictate prices. Then there’s the danger of price dumping, which ends up costing the seller dearly.
So, a Robusta bean, which is actually cheaper, ends up being just as expensive as its big sister Arabica bean — only under different circumstances.
I’m only explaining this economic fact in such detail because it’s an important mechanism in global coffee production. However, it’s completely absent from the public’s perception of the industry. This is because advertisers are reluctant to disclose the two cycles of Arabica and Robusta. Clear price transparency would only spoil their perfect advertising world.
See also my article “What Do Coffee Farmers Get?“
However, if we were to measure the “value” of both coffees on economic factors alone, there would no longer be a difference worth promoting. This is because the 100 percent promise also suggests the price value of Arabica over the raw material alternative Robusta.
In addition, and I have to say this honestly, advertising has not yet developed an idea of how to market the down-to-earth Robusta in a sexy way, and offset 13 centuries of Arabica-dominant history.
Only when that succeeds will the supply-demand relationship also shift, and with it, the risk factor for producing Robusta. Funnily enough, Robusta would then actually be cheaper than Arabica across the board — but would still end up being more attractive to the price-sensitive consumer — no matter what trends in taste and style might dictate.
Taste and Style: A Bully Called Robusta and the Grace of Arabica?
When I consider the following distinguishing features, I quickly start shaking my head. From a genetic standpoint, Robusta, with only 22 pairs of chromosomes, is definitely at a disadvantage in terms of taste. The 44 pairs in the Arabica bean ensure that we coffee experts can constantly blather on about more than 800 aromas and the different nuances of taste: where there’s more DNA, there’s more complexity.
However, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the typical Folgers Instant buyer has never had a real Robusta coffee in their entire life and, therefore, doesn’t know where to look for the difference.
I’ll even go further out on that limb and claim that a poor industrial roast composed of Arabica beans tastes three times worse than a mediocre Robusta roast from the drum.
That’s precisely because Arabica is a mass product. The industry also processes it that way, which means overly-fast roasting to the point of dark unrecognizability. The main thing is that it pops and smells like crowning glory. In the process, the genetic advantages of the Arabica bean, which are expressed by a significantly higher proportion of aromatic oils, are either insufficiently highlighted or destroyed altogether.
However, if care is taken during roasting, an Arabica coffee can reveal a thousand facets: fruits and flowers, grasses and sweetness, leathery and woody notes as well as mildness and spiciness — and sometimes all at the same time.
Typical flavor profiles for Robusta roasts, on the other hand, read like a survival guide: there’s talk of earth, wood, bitterness, dark chocolate and a host of other flavors that’ll put hair on your chest. All of which contribute to Robusta’s image problem, as it’s difficult to put a positive spin on tasting notes like these.
At the same time, it’s also clear that things can go wrong with a Robusta roast much more quickly than when roasting Arabica. Treating the graceful Arabica roughly will reduce its flavor profile considerably, but in the end, it will still have enough DNA power to satisfy the average palate.
If something goes wrong with a Robusta roast, though, you’ll have a bitter, strong slurry in your cup that only remotely resembles coffee. For this reason alone, the mass roasters don’t dare use pure Robustas. Even at small roasters, pure Robustas are (still) the great exception. From this point of view, the supposed bully Robusta is actually the more delicate and sensitive type.
Caffeine, Crema and the Ghost of Chlorogenic Acid: Robusta, Take Over
If we consider everything we’ve learned so far about Arabica coffee vs Robusta, the question inevitably arises as to why the reject bean Robusta is bought, processed and drunk at all.
We have the Italians to thank for this — especially the inhabitants of the lower part of the boot — because the further south you go in Italy, the darker and stronger the caffè or espresso becomes.
Dark and strong sums up the Robusta coffee bean right off the bat. There’s a delicious caramel attack in a Robusta espresso, especially when you dump sugar in it. However, that alone doesn’t clarify its raison d’être. We have to look in a completely different direction, and there, we’ll find the greatest advantage of the Robusta bean: each Robusta bean contains about twice as much caffeine as an Arabica bean.
This makes it much easier to make a startup espresso without having to rely entirely on the “more expensive” Arabica bean. In terms of crema, Robusta also makes every barista’s life easier.
The oil poverty that Robusta coffee beans can be accused of in terms of taste ensures that the crema on an espresso from a portafilter or super-automatic coffee machine lasts longer. Although pure Arabica espresso also forms a crema that is particularly aromatic when prepared properly, it’s extremely susceptible to machine or human error.
For this reason alone, many Italian-style espresso blends consist of a not-insignificant proportion of robusta beans. As a rule of thumb, the figure is between 30 and 40 percent.
This makes “foolproof” espressos possible that also deliver a decent caffeine kick and draw out the classic dark, strong, “rough-and-ready” flavor profile without any problems. With the addition of Robusta, Italo-Espresso also became an affordable mass product and thus, began its triumphant march across the world.
Taking all these properties into account, it again seems almost absurd that Robusta is treated so harshly. However, unfortunately, it’s only almost as this type of coffee bean also has a very definite disadvantage: each Robusta bean contains about twice as much chlorogenic acid as an Arabica bean.
This ester of caffeic acid in the coffee bean is held responsible for typical stomach problems that can occur when drinking coffee. Although studies that also prove this acid can lower blood pressure and has even positively influenced stomach ulcers in mice shouldn’t be overlooked.
Whether the stomach pain is actually caused by chlorogenic acid has not yet been clearly proven. However, in the case of stimulants, it’s not a question of how scientifically sound the assessment is, but rather of how the majority of the people who ingest them feel afterward.
In order to reduce chlorogenic acid in the finished bean, there is really nothing else that can be done other than a slow drum roast for a minimum of 20 minutes at low temperatures. However, this, in turn, takes even more bitter substances out of the Robusta and allows the taste to quickly drift off into “musty” territory.
Meanwhile, the manufacturers of supermarket coffee naturally don’t allow for as much time, rushing their beans through the roasting process in five minutes at up to 600 degrees Celsius. That’s why they have to be so very careful with the Robusta content in their espresso blends. Otherwise, customers will complain about stomach aches — whether it was the coffee’s fault or not.
Arabica doesn’t have these problems, appearing fundamentally more digestible at all roasting degrees. Also, because there are so many flavors per bean, it’s not as noticeable when more than half of them disappear in the industrial roast turbo mode. Once again, the main thing is that it smells and tastes like Folgers.
So, from an industrial perspective, the Robusta bean is a necessary evil. For example, it could be equated with the emulsifier carrageenan: it provides stability and isn’t a problem from a food law perspective, but at the end of the day, it isn’t exactly “clean eating” and is difficult to market. That’s why Robusta tends to be hidden in industrial coffee production.
However, what about the independent coffee world? There’s good news here: the market is evolving, and more and more roasters are trying to get the farmer’s “survival bean,” Robusta, out of its niche.
Robusta As a New Trend on the Coffee Horizon?
If you search online for small coffee roasters in the U.S. and UK, you’ll find yourself stumbling more and more often across coffee offerings that shine with a Robusta ratio that’s way beyond the usual industry limit. Percentages of 50 percent or higher are becoming more widespread, and even 100 percent Robusta roasts are appearing more frequently.
What at first sounds like an attack on everything that is good and holy about coffee enjoyment sometimes turns out to be quite a big deal. Until I have tested an equivalent alternative, the Huber Robu 100 Espresso is the benchmark for me here.
Careful roasting and an excellent raw product have resulted in an espresso that brings out the best qualities of Robusta: it’s strong, extremely chocolatey, lip-smacking and dense. There was no question of stomach problems here, even though, as you’d expect, the caffeine kick came on quickly and lasted longer.
At around 24 dollars per kilo, the espresso, from a precisely identifiable plantation in India, was much cheaper than an equivalent Arabica coffee — and so, I felt it was way better value for money, overall.
So, could it be that Robusta is finally making its grand entrance into the coffee world? After all, I’ve noted before that the floral third wave seems to be slowly dying down and giving way to a more robust style once again.
However, I think that a little more Robusta in the roaster supply could ensure that the coffee trade as a whole changes, at least in three ways. First, underrepresented growing regions are coming into their own. Second, the rise of Robusta is taking some pressure off the Arabica supply. Third, Robusta is better equipped in dealing with the climate change that Arabica will inevitably have to embrace.
Will this ultimately ensure that the coffee trade as a whole becomes fairer? No. You can’t pin that down to one type of coffee bean. However, with competition from its own plant family, the inflated dominance of the Arabica bean will be trimmed down to a more realistic level. Only time will tell if this will also have humanistic effects.
Similarities and Differences
|Plant species||Coffea arabica||Coffea canephora|
|Proportion of the global coffee industry||Approx. 60–70%||Approx. 30–40%|
|Cultivation altitude||600–2300 m||300–600 m|
|Growing conditions||Constant temperature, shady, high humidity||Temperate — nice and warm |
|Caffeine content per espresso shot||77 mg||141 mg|
|Average chlorogenic acid content||6.5%||10%|
|Average coffee oil content||15–17%||10–12%|
|Bean appearance||Elongated, oval||Small, round |
|Flavor profile||Fruity, sweet, complex||Earthy, woody, pungent, nutty, bitter|
|Main cultivation areas||Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia||Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil|
Please note that the respective numbers for Arabica and Robusta are never set in stone but vary from bean to bean, year to year and measurement method to measurement method. However, it should be fairly obvious that the Arabica vs Robusta coffee debate also contains a bit of an apples-to-pears element.
Which Coffee is Better?
I hope that I was able to show you that when we’re considering Arabica vs Robusta, any debate about quality is completely hollow. Good coffee can come from either variety — bad coffee, too. That’s why it doesn’t matter at all whether the coffee roasting company you have chosen advertises with the seal “100% Arabica” or just states this fact.
The truth is that Arabica is much more versatile, surprising and pleasing than Robusta, simply because of its worldwide distribution in the most diverse growing regions, and its basic characteristics.
It’s also true that Arabica coffee, when compared directly, is inherently prone to the grandeur that Robusta has to fight hard to get. That said, Arabica mania is responsible for the disgusting price dumping that makes any promise of Robusta quality seem absurd.
In the same way, we have to face the fact that we’ve created an environment in which there may be less room for Arabica in the future, but more room for Robusta. So, it’s only logical to devote a little more attention to the neglected sibling.
More and more roasters are doing this as are more and more customers. However, at the end of the day, the fact remains that a good coffee is nothing more than the result of ingredients, roasting craft, preparation method and care. No matter what the plant origin.
- Article Image: Valentina Razumova, used under license from Shutterstock 170040299.
- All other photos: Arne Preuss.