If you want to see me rolling my eyes, all you have to do is put me in front of a typical coffee commercial.
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 a 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 drink.
Not to mention leading us to believe that there are blends that may contain other ingredients besides coffee.
This very necessary Arabica vs Robusta coffee 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.
Plus, coffee fans today know much more about Robusta’s purpose, and how this type of coffee differs from Arabica. If that doesn’t yet include you, don’t worry, 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, we’re talking siblings.
But just like with siblings, the two species aren’t identical, as each comes from different subspecies.
There’s the Coffea Arabica plant and the Coffea Canephora plant. Both grow with different requirements in different places and as a result, 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. But let’s not forget that there are also species, like Liberica and Excelsa, and more than a hundred other varieties, a 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. Maybe you’ve heard of some of these illustrious names, like “Bourbon” or “Cattura.” Arabica alone has about 70 varieties, each with very different characteristics.
The Variety Catalog of World Coffee Research breaks down this family tree really well.
Cultivation: The Legend of 'Highland Coffee'
Maybe it’s because of its natural diversity that Arabica is considered the quintessential coffee.
But 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 came about from the demands of cultivating the Coffea Arabica plant — and from its myth.
Arabica is the “original coffee,” with an equally 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 it comes to Arabica vs Robusta coffee, Arabica has a significant image advantage.
The plant only grows at altitudes between 600 and 2,300 meters. That’s where the dumb name “highland coffee” originated. The higher the elevation, the slower the coffee cherries ripen, producing more aroma-complex fruit. But the higher it goes, the smaller the available area for cultivation, and as a result, the lower the yield. This scarcity of acreage makes for fundamentally higher prices.
For the Arabica coffee cherry to ripen, it must be neither too hot nor too cold. Meanwhile, climatic inconsistencies are on the rise, which is why the perfect, constant “coffee weather” for a bountiful harvest has become 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. So deserts, for example, aren’t ideal for 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. Plus, the intensity of the sun increases with altitude, so again, the potential harvest drops big time.
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 as a result, has a definite “manual labor” value
Not to mention advertising has managed to deeply infiltrate us with these facts about Arabica coffees, though few of us know the background story. If you don’t know any better, it could mean purchasing an absolute luxury product for $4.25 a pound.
Atmospheric pictures of mist-covered primeval forests and exotic, romantic names, like Brazil or Guatemala, are incentive enough.
But 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:
- Grows magnificently between 300 and 600 meters above sea level already
- Is less sensitive to climate fluctuations, diseases or the sun
- Delivers a higher yield per plant
- Easier and fewer complex harvests
- Is difficult to market — you won’t lure anyone into your kitchen with a promise of “lowland coffee,” or the name “Robusta” because it sounds pretty unsophisticated
But 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 higher, in theory. Now a contradiction of economics comes into play.
Since Arabica dominates the market, Robusta coffee is, in turn, riskier 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.
Simply put: 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.
So those plantations where space, soil and climate are exclusively suitable for Robusta tend to take a much greater risk. Why? Because 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, their annual income goes away.
At the same time, they find fewer buyers for their supply. The fewer buyers there are in a market, the greater the pressure on suppliers to sell. In other words, 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 part of global coffee production. But 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.
For more information, be sure to check out my article on ethical trade and coffee farmers.
But 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.
Plus, 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 & Style: A Bully Called Robusta & the Grace of Arabica
When I consider the following distinguishing features, I can’t help but shake my head.
From a genetic standpoint, Robusta, with only 22 pairs of chromosomes, is definitely at a disadvantage in terms of taste.
Meanwhile, 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.
But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the typical Folgers instant coffee buyer has never had a real Robusta coffee in their entire life and, as a result, 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 because Arabica is a mass product.
The industry also processes it that way, which means overly fast roasting to the point of just being dark unrecognizable. The main thing is that it pops and smells like a crowning glory.
And 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
- 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:
- Woody notes
- Dark chocolate
- And a host of other flavors that’ll put hair on your chest
All of which contributes 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 & the Ghost of Chlorogenic Acid: Robusta Takeover
If we consider everything we’ve learned so far about Arabica vs Robusta coffee, the question inevitably is, “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 coffee 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. But that alone doesn’t clarify its purpose.
We have to look in a completely different direction to 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 espresso from a portafilter or super-automatic coffee machine lasts longer. And though pure Arabica espresso also forms a crema that’s 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 as a result, began its triumphant march across the world.
Taking all these properties into account, it again almost seems absurd that Robusta is treated so harshly. But 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 often responsible for typical stomach problems that can occur when drinking coffee. Though 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.
But 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.
To reduce chlorogenic acid in the finished bean, there’s really nothing else that can be done other than a slow drum roast for a minimum of 20 minutes at low temperatures. But 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 the beans through the roasting process in five minutes at up to 1,112 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s why the manufacturers have to be so very careful with the Robusta content in the 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.
Think of it like 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.
But what about the independent coffee world?
Well, 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.
Is Robusta a New Trend on the Coffee Horizon?
If you search online for small coffee roasters in the U.S., you’ll find yourself stumbling across more and more 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. But until I’ve tested an equivalent alternative, the Huber Espresso Robu 100 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 also no question of stomach problems here, even though, as you’d expect, the caffeine kick came on quickly and lasted longer.
At around $24 per kilo, the espresso, from a precisely identifiable plantation in India, was much cheaper than an equivalent Arabica coffee — that’s why 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.
Frankly, I don’t think Robusta will ever become as sexy as Arabica. You can put lipstick on a pig and dress it in nice clothes, but it’ll still be a pig. The Robusta bean is merely an enthusiast’s delight, pleasing trained palates in search of that big coffee kick.
Still, 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 can come up.
- Second, the rise of Robusta takes some pressure off the Arabica supply.
- Third, Robusta is better able to deal with climate change than Arabica.
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.
But 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.
Arabica vs Robusta: Similarities and Differences
|Plant species||Coffea arabica||Coffea canephora|
|Proportion of the global coffee industry||Approx. 60–70 percent||Approx. 30–40 percent|
|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 percent||10 percent|
|Average coffee oil content||15–17 percent||10–12 percent|
|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 the measurement method.
But it should be fairly obvious that the Arabica vs Robusta coffee debate also contains a bit of an apples-to-pears element.
Conclusion: Which Coffee Is Better?
I hope that I was able to show you that when we’re considering Arabica vs Robusta coffee beans, 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 choose 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 more 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. But at the end of the day, the fact remains that good coffee is nothing more than the result of ingredients, roasting craft, preparation method and care. No matter what the plant origin.
What’s your take on the Arabica vs Robusta coffee bean debate? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below. Thanks for reading!
- Article Image: Valentina Razumova, used under license from Shutterstock 170040299.
- All other photos: Arne Preuss.