Arabica vs. Robusta Coffee Beans

If you’re a coffee fan, you’ve probably heard that you should be buying coffee beans that are 100% arabica as they’re “better” than robusta beans. Although this is true in most cases, let me explain why arabica beans are generally better.


Background


Coffee beans are not really beans at all, but rather the seeds of a cherry that form on a coffee plant. Two major coffee plant species exist, Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta. Although both varieties produce coffee cherries, major differences exist between the two, greatly affecting taste.


Arabica beans


Arabica beans come from the Coffea arabica plant and are grown in high altitudes (mountainous and volcanic areas). They require a lot of attention from farmers as these plants are quite delicate. If an arabica coffee growing country experiences too much or too little rain or an unexpected freeze, all of the coffee plants and cherries could be ruined and a season’s worth of crops lost. Since arabica is such a delicate plant, when these events take place, it can have a big impact on overall coffee prices due to underproduction. Arabica beans are also very susceptible to insects and diseases, so constant monitoring and care by farmers is required. Regarding taste, the high altitudes and constant care allows the arabica plants to produce coffee that has a greater complexity in taste and is far more superior to robusta.


Robusta beans


Robusta beans come from the Coffea robusta plant which are hardier and a lot easier to grow than arabica, requiring much less attention by farmers and are less affected by climate changes. Robusta does not have to grow in high altitudes and, although it has shallow roots, the amount of coffee cherries this plant yields is much greater than arabica (so not only is robusta easier to grow, farmers can easily grow more of it). There is a major downside to robusta, a serious flaw in the variety. The coffee tastes like burnt rubber. Literally. It’s like chewing on a car tire, if that were possible. In robusta’s defense, the plant does yield beans that have a very high caffeine content, about twice as much as arabica (did I mention it tastes like burnt rubber?). Some roasters use robusta to create special blends that have a higher caffeine content and tastes bolder to make the blend more even and balanced. They typically use no more than 25% in their blends. Roasters also use robusta for espresso blends for these same reasons as people expect espresso to be highly caffeinated.


Taking advantage


Some big coffee companies take advantage of the inexpensive robusta by adding it to coffee blends, not for balancing out, but as filler to cut costs or increase margins, since robusta beans are less expensive than arabica beans. Most of the canned coffee you find in the grocery store falls into this category. They use a lot of robusta to help with their profit margins. Sure, there are exceptions, such as the blending for espresso that I mentioned, but as a rule, I recommend that you buy coffee that’s listed as being 100% arabica. This is the gold standard for brewing good coffee sans the rubber car tire taste.


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