Arabica refers to a specific species of coffee: Coffea arabica. It is celebrated in contrast to its relative, Coffea canephora, also known as robusta. These species are the two common commercial species out of the 124 species in the genus Coffea. This genus is a member of the Rubiaceae family, which contains the delightfully aromatic gardenia and the unpleasantly aromatic, but purportedly healthy, noni species.
Arabica coffee is the most commonly grown species of coffee around the world. It has always been considered to be the best tasting coffee species. In fact, it is nearly unanimously considered to produce a tastier cup than robusta. So, why would anyone grow robusta, then?
Well, for one thing, there are many positive agronomic traits, and robusta has some that help it grow in different environmental conditions than arabica, in addition to having some very handy disease resistance. Historically, it has been considered easier to grow and more robust (hence, robusta!). Oh, and it has about twice as much caffeine as arabica. So not only does it give your body more bang per cup, but its hardiness can make it cheaper to grow; cheap caffeine is good caffeine.
The differences between robusta and arabica can be a bit surprising once you discover that robusta is not necessarily a cousin of arabica, but possibly a parent! Sometime in the African past, pollen from C. canephora or C. congensis not only landed on the stigma of a C. eugenioides flower (the other parent), but helped successfully create a new species which we know and love as C. arabica (canephora and congensis are so closely related that we aren’t sure which one is the father). Like any child, arabica inherited traits from both parents. Clearly, good taste came from mom’s side of the family.
In the United States, most coffee consumed is arabica. However, the lower price of robusta and its bonus caffeine content still make it popular in some market segments where it is blended with arabica. It is a rare event that U.S. roasters use robusta, as it has been demonized as too foul tasting to be considered specialty.
In the past few years, however, some specialty roasters have been exploring the idea that there may be robustas fit for the specialty market, but they must be sought after and discovered. And, farmers need to be encouraged to grow them with the specialty market in mind. The essence of their philosophy is twofold. First, robusta plants have not been treated with the same level of care and attention on the farm and in the mill as arabica has been. Consequently, the unpleasant taste of arabica beans is merely a result of lazy farming and processing, not an inherent genetic roadblock. Second, coffee drinkers have a narrow definition of how coffee should taste and if they expanded their horizons, they will find robustas that are quite interesting and complex. Thus, it is very possible that exceptionally tasting robustas exist, but we have to find them, create them, or accept them as they are. Currently, though, arabica rules the US market and it will be some years before that changes.
The coffee plant is a member of the Rubiaceae family. Quinine, the malaria-fighting drug derived from the bark of the Cinchona species, is related.
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