Coffea arabica and coffea robusta represent the two species of coffee (yes, coffee is a plant! check out how it grows) – that account for virtually the entire international coffee industry (a third species, liberica, is grown in the Philippines but is rarely exported). Of the two species, arabica has become the preferred choice in the United States, but this has not always been the case.
CHARACTERISTICS OF ARABICA AND ROBUSTA
Arabica and robusta both taste like coffee, but they have several distinctive characteristics.
To start with, arabica is generally sweeter than robusta. It has sugary overtones, which many people prefer to robusta’s sharper flavor.
In addition to an overall sweetness that robusta lacks, arabica also has more nuanced flavors than robusta. Fruity, chocolaty, nutty, and other notes are found in arabica coffees, but rarely show up in robustas.
This second difference can be attributed to the elevation that the two species grow at. Arabica, the hardier of the two species, grows at higher elevations. At these higher elevations, the climate is harsher and plants grow slower. The plant’s slower growth produces more refined flavors once its beans are processed, roasted and ground.
Third, arabica has about half as much caffeine as robusta. A natural pesticide, caffeine helps fend off disease and pests, but it also tastes bitter. Thus, robusta is the hardier species in some respects, but also produces a harsher-tasting beverage.
HOW ROBUSTA IS USED
Each of these characteristics suggests that arabica is the better species, and in many ways it is. Robusta has its place in the coffee-drinking world, however. Surprisingly, robusta is found in some of the least desirable and some of the most prized coffee in the world.
On the one hand, almost all instant coffee is made from robusta beans. In the instant-coffee industry, the primary factor driving consumer choice is price. Manufacturers, therefore, use the less-expensive species, robusta. Robusta sells for less than arabica, because it is less fragile and has a longer harvest season.
On the other hand, robusta is also used in some of the most revered espresso – Italian espresso. When brewed using an espresso machine, robusta coffees produce a plentiful, thick crema. Hence, in a classic Italian espresso blend, robusta is a necessity. Roasters in the United States have been known to use high-quality robustas in their espresso blends, but Italian espresso is especially well-known for its crema.
Today, arabica is the predominant species used in the U.S. In fact, almost all the coffee Americans drink today is from arabica beans. Part of this reflects Americans’ distaste for instant coffee, which has long been established. The trend has also been brought about by the gourmet-coffee movement of the past 30ish years. Not long ago, robusta accounted for a large portion of the coffee drunk in the U.S. Now, national coffee companies’ have followed the lead of small roasters and transitioned to mostly arabica coffee.
If you’re drinking a cup of coffee right now, it’s likely from arabica beans.
Be thankful that you are able to enjoy the sweeter, more nuanced species. It wasn’t long ago that arabica was harder to come by.
All our coffees are single-origin arabica beans – check them out here!