Arabica Vs Robusta: Similarities and Differences
It might sound like a fight between boxers, but Arabica and Robusta are the most common two species of coffee beans.
While there are similarities between each type, both are unique in their own right. They can differ in taste, price, caffeine content, and even the way they grow! These quirks and commonalities can help you decide on buying what coffee you’ll enjoy.
As a result, understanding the differences between Arabica vs Robusta is essential for anyone who wishes to genuinely appreciate coffee.
With that said, let’s explore the characteristics of what makes these two coffee types unique in their own right.
The 4 Common Varieties of Coffee
Arabica beans (formally known as Coffea Arabica) are the most popular coffee variety, making up 60% of the total production worldwide. It’s prized for its flavor and quality, which will differ from region to region trumps Robusta by miles. See the map below for a global flavor map for Arabicas:
The plant grows at high altitudes with steady rainfall and lots of shade. While there are several stories, the most common one narrates that the plant was first named in around the 12th Century after a journey from Ethiopia to Yemen and Arabia hence the name Arabica.
Most brews are made from these beans, and they make an excellent choice for a complex and bright cup of coffee.
The coffee tree Coffea Canephora produces robusta beans. The plant was first discovered in the former Belgian Congo in the 1800s.
Robusta is famous for its caffeine content, which trumps all the other coffee types by at least 25% on average.
The trees that produce Robusta are pretty robust, pardon the pun. Unlike Arabica, It can grow in different environments and altitudes too, as long as there is adequate rainfall.
Robusta coffee is mostly used with espresso blends because it can produce a heavy body and crema. It’s a decent (minority) choice in a blend for those who want their caffeine with a flavor reminiscent of dark chocolate.
The Liberica is the rarest of all the coffee species, with only 1% accounting for coffee production worldwide. Originally from East Africa, it’s way to Malaysia and the Philippines due to the coffee rust which plagued Africa in the 1980s. These two countries are now the primary source of Liberica beans.
This type of coffee can taste earthy and smoky, but coffee farmers and roasters are now attempting to improve how the coffee is processed and roasted. A high-quality Liberica can have a light body with subtle hints of floral and fruity tasting notes.
The taste might need getting used to, but I can certainly attest to the flavors personally since I grew up drinking Kapeng Barako, which is brewed with a type of Liberica beans.
Excelsa coffee is now considered a variety of Liberica when it was reclassified in 2006. It can be found in coffee trees which can reach up to 20 to 30 feet. It’s beans also have a similar almond-like shape with Liberica.
The main difference between the two is it’s flavor. Excelsa coffees tend to have fruity and tart like tasting notes with a hint of smokiness, which can remind you of a darkly roasted coffee.
But, It also has some complexity and depth, which is why it’s used in blends. Consequently, these types of beans might be the perfect fit for those who want to try out coffee in a unique way.
10 Key Differences between Arabica and Robusta
Most associate coffee with bitterness. They tend to mask the flavor with additives, but there is actually a range of flavors depending on the variety. The notes might differ slightly from region to region, but the varietal is the main reason for its taste.
Arabica: These coffees are known for their it’s flavor and complexity. It is also why specialty coffee is mostly associated with the quality of this variant.
An arabica bean can have almost two times the sugars and lipids compared to robusta coffee. This has a significant impact on the resulting flavor in your brew. A cup made from 100% arabica has a softer and sweeter taste vs a brew made with a blend of robusta beans (all else being equal).
It’s flavors can be complex with notes of sugar, fruits, and berries. This is because a common characteristic of Arabica is higher acidity. As a result, it’s often accompanied by winey tones when lightly roasted compared to other varieties.
Robusta: This variety has a reputation of having strong and often bitter flavor with less complexity. It contains a higher level of caffeine and chlorogenic acids, which emphasize bitter flavors through the roasting process compared to arabica coffees.
At the same time, most robusta beans have a dark roast profile, so the bitterness of the coffee is more notable.
Not to say that Robustas are not drinkable, they are. It’s a fact that regardless of how premium the beans are, Arabica is more likely to taste better due to how they are processed.
Still, a high-quality robusta can also give an espresso blend a fuller body and denser crema.
Most of us around the world have tried robusta coffee at some point because they are commonly used in instant coffees and as a minority in blends.
A variety of factors influence how a coffee plant matures and how successfully it bears fruit. For example, consistent rainfall and unwavering temperature changes is a must for coffee trees to grow and prosper. Nonetheless, coffee varieties can grow in different types of climates and altitudes, and some flourish where others won’t.
Arabica: Coffea arabica grows best at high altitudes, but it is more vulnerable to pests and insects than Robusta. It is also susceptible to diseases such as coffee rust (a type of fungus which has impacted the worldwide supply of arabica coffee across various times of history).
Arabicas flourish at higher altitudes of around 900 meters above sea level and temperatures between 15 to 24ºC. The abundant rainfall and lower temperature assist in ripening the fruit slowly, leading to a high sugar content.
It takes several years for the plant to mature and maximize yields. Arabica must be grown with the utmost care because of it’s slow growth and vulnerabilities. These combinations lead to a more expensive and higher quality coffee vs robusta coffee.
Robusta: The coffee tree “coffea canephora” that produces robusta coffee, is simpler to grow and blossoms at lower altitudes. It is naturally more resistant to pests and diseases, like coffee rust. Primarily due to its high caffeine content.
Robusta grows in lower altitudes from sea level towards 800 meters above sea level. The ideal temperature for growth is around 24 to 30ºC. The coffee cherries ripen quickly, leading to a less complex quality because of a lack of sugar in the fruit.
One of the primary main reasons Robusta is used in commercial coffees is that it is quicker to harvest, producing a maximum yield in a shorter period.
Most, if not all, coffee is grown along the bean belt where temperatures and rainfall are adequate for coffee growth.
A variety of countries across this belt grow specialize in coffee as a major export. Some of these specialize in producing Arabica while a minority grow some favor robusta coffee. Usually, the choice between the two is dictated by the local geography and climate.
Arabica: Arabica beans are found all over the world but production is dominant in Latin America. Brazil and Colombia lead the charge in producing the majority of the arabica coffee beans for export around the globe.
They are also grown in Africa where Ethiopia (followed by Kenya) is the largest producer in the region, fitting as it is the birthplace of coffee.
Last but not least, Arabica is also grown in Papua New Guinea. With 95% of the harvest attributed to Arabicas. Interestingly. it’s also the second-largest agricultural export from the country, providing a lifeline for many in rural communities.
These countries have the optimal conditions for growth with plenty of mountainous regions that lead to a higher altitude and cooler climate.
Robusta: The hardy Robusta can also be found exclusively in the eastern hemisphere of the bean belt. These regions are mostly lowlands with ample rainfall and dry climates, which is where Robusta thrives.
Vietnam is known to produce the most robusta beans for export worldwide. A whopping 92% of their coffee production is Robusta. A thriving coffee culture and exports for instant coffee account for the Robusta found in Vietnam.
Second to Vietnam is Indonesian Robusta. Indonesia has a similar climate as Vietnam and a large variety of lowlands, which is why robusta coffee beans amount to 75% of the country’s production.
With itsit’s origins in Congo and Uganda, Africa also has a thriving robusta scene. The plains and plateaus in East and Central Africa provide the perfect environment for robusta production.
The price on your coffee can differ in many ways. It might cost more or less depending on where it was grown, how it was processed, and specifically the coffee variety itself.
Arabica: $$$ – Arabica is generally more expensive and sold as either whole beans or coffee grounds. It’s high quality and difficulty to cultivate affects the price.
Most of the world’s specialty and premium coffees are Arabicas. Primarily because of the complexity of flavor attributed to this variety of beans compared with the others.
Robusta: $ – A cheaper variety, Robusta is frequently used in instant coffee, and in blends. It’s inexpensive because the coffee plant produces a larger yield, and it’s easier to grow. This gives robusta coffee a constant supply throughout the year.
A unique way to brew robusta coffee is also used almost exclusively in Vietnam. It is brewed in a drip coffee filter called a phin, and is ordinarily drunk ice cold with condensed milk, which cuts the bitterness and introduces sweetness to the brew.
Caffeine is a natural stimulant found in coffee, tea, and chocolate. However, coffee has the highest amount of caffeine compared to other beverages.
Some coffee species will have a naturally higher level of caffeine compared to other varietals. How do Arabica and Robusta differ in that respect?
Arabica: A big difference between these two varieties is theirit’s caffeine content. Arabicas have less caffeine compared to the energizing Robusta. Don’t fret because what it doesn’t have in caffeine makes up for it in it’s taste and quality.
As mentioned, Arabica beans tend to ripen at a slower pace when compared to their robusta counterparts. This gives more time for the sugars in the coffee to mature and give off a sweeter profile.
With that said, there are more sugars and acids in your arabica bean vs a robusta. This ensures that a cup made from 100% arabica is sweeter and will have complex flavors.
Robusta: The reigning king in caffeine content. It is well known that robusta coffee has a higher amount of caffeine in it, but how much does it have?
It actually has nearly twice the amount of caffeine compared to Arabica. Compared to the caffeine in a typical 150ml cup of Robusta, it can range from 131 – 220 mg, while a cup of Arabica will only have 71 – 120 mg.
Robusta coffee beans have fewer acids and sugars. As a result, the fruit ripens quickly, which gives it a more straightforward taste profile. If you’re looking for more than a pick me up, Robusta could make a good choice.
From an untrained eye, most coffee beans look the same. Once you take a closer look, you can actually see different characteristics between varieties. The changes in the shape and size of the beans are noticeable after the roasting process.
Arabica: The physical forms of coffee varieties have a big difference. It’s a plus to know these differences, so it will be easier to tell apart what kind of coffee you’re going to get. The beans are oval with a crease down the middle. It is usually larger than a robusta coffee bean.
Robusta: Robusta coffee beans are more circular and smaller than their arabica counterparts. The roast process between the two variants differs because of the difference in the shape and size of the beans. Robusta might be smaller than a typical arabica, but this variety packs a punch!
As with all other plants, pollination is essential in ensuring that the species lives on. Pollination is where fertilization and reproduction occurs in the flowers of the plant. In the case of coffee, this is where the coffee cherry and the coffee bean starts to grow on the tree.
Arabica: This coffee variant is self-pollinating which means it can develop seedlings on it’s own. Because of the way it pollinates, it has a lower likelihood of genetic mutations compared to a robusta. This means that the coffee plant will produce cherries and beans, which are more consistent in their qualities.
Robusta: Robusta needs to cross-pollinate for it to develop the cherry. This gives it the capability to combine it’s genetic material with other coffee varietals. Arabica is actually a speculated example of hybrid between two species, one of which is robusta coffee.
Historically, coffee is actually relatively young as a beverage compared to tea and chocolate. You might be familiar with coffee’s origin story either from an Ethiopian sheep-herder or a Moroccan mystic. Either way, it is a win-win for coffee lovers everywhere.
Arabica: The first coffee variety discovered is actually Arabica. It was first found in Ethiopia approximately around the 12th Century.
It was then shipped off to Yemen and Arabia, where Arab scholars were the first to document its uses. These regions were the starting point in spreading coffee all throughout the world.
Robusta: This caffeine enriched variety was a recent discovery compared to Arabica. The Robusta was first seen around the 1800’s in Belgian-occupied Congo.
It was introduced in Southeast Asia a hundred years later as a viable substitute for arabica beans affected by the coffee rust. Robusta coffee has been a staple in countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
They might look the same, but the genetics inside your coffee bean can differ. This has an effect on the pollination of different coffee varieties.
Arabica: This coffee variety is unique in it’s family as it is considered a polyploidy, which means it’s cells have more than two sets of chromosomes. It actually has 44 chromosomes, a set of 11, which is copied 4 times. Polyploidy in plant species is particularly important in plant diversification and evolution.
Robusta: As opposed to polyploids, most of the coffee species are actually diploids, including Robusta. This affects the pollination we mentioned above. It will have to depend on other plants for the coffee tree to spread.
A combination of the factors listed above can have an impact on the production of these varieties. Budding coffee growers and roasters must take these into account when they are sourcing for coffee beans.
Arabica: Arabica coffee trees produce fewer beans per hectare than robusta coffee. The coffee’s strict growing conditions and vulnerability to diseases are why it produces less pound for pound than Robusta. The production is more expensive because of these factors as well.
Robusta: Robusta also has the edge because it’s tree can mature quickly, and the coffee cherries also ripen faster than an arabica. It is less costly for growers and buyers because of these conditions. This is why robusta coffee is the choice for instant coffee manufacturers.
And the winner of this round is… us, the coffee lovers! Knowing the differences between Arabica and Robusta can have a profound effect on your preference for your cup.
If you want a coffee with complex flavors and a brighter profile, Arabica might be perfect for you. A cup made from 100% arabica beans can give you a lot of depth and nuisances in aroma and flavor compared to other varietals.
Robusta coffee can be more bitter than arabicas, but if you’re looking for a jumpstart from caffeine, this variety might be the one to get. You can also give it a shot ala Vietnamese coffee by brewing it with condensed milk and ice. High-quality robusta coffee is a welcome addition for espresso blends because of it’s stronger flavors and creamy body.
Whichever one you’ll prefer, be sure to keep trying out coffee varieties. You can never know what you’ll like until you try it, so good luck coffee addicts!
Ex-Barista and now coffee writer
A life long coffee drinker, Philip has been looking for new ways to enjoy coffee since he started in the coffee industry in 2017. His favorite coffee is a light roast Rwandan single origin. If he’s not binging on food shows or trying out new coffee recipes, you can catch him here at Sip Coffee!