As you descend into the deeper circles of coffee enthusiasm, you start picking up on things beyond the basic tag of coffee. Whether you’re ordering beans or ground blends online, or simply perusing the aisles of a specialty coffee shop, you’ve most likely come across the words Arabica or Robusta. This tells you that not all coffee is equal, and in fact – the coffee plant genus has several popular varieties and over 100 species worldwide.
This time around, we’ll focus on the two most popular and widely available types of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta. These two types of beans have different flavor profiles, caffeine contents, and ultimately – prices – which may influence your decision next time you’re shopping for coffee. You may also come across some blends of these coffee types which are meant to offer you the taste of one species with a sweetened price thanks to the affordability of another species. But more on this later – let’s get to it!
The Two Most Common Types of Coffee Beans
Let’s look at the two most common types of coffee beans. Keep in mind that other than the species, the origin country of the bean also has an effect on the resulting flavor profile. The other 100 or so varieties of coffee are quite a bit rarer, so we’ll leave them for another occasion.
1. Coffea Arabica
Origins and production
Coffea Arabica is the most popular coffee bean on the market, and it accounts for nearly 60% of coffee production on a global scale. This species is likely to have been the first detected and cultivated coffea plant, with its first being documented in the 12th century and found in Yemen, the holy origin land of coffee. Today, Arabica plants are grown all over the world, and mainly in Latin America. Columbia produces exclusively Arabica beans, while Brazil is the biggest exporter of Arabica coffee globally.
Arabica is the most popular coffee bean because it hits the sweet spot between flavor, acidity, and caffeine content. The flavor profile of a specific Arabica bean will vary depending on the region it comes from and the variety. Still, it’s considered to be quite rich in taste with subtle notes that pop and result in a beautiful, full-bodied cup of coffee.
In general, Arabica beans have a milder, sweeter taste than the second most popular coffee bean, Robusta, and usually carry notes of fruit and berries. What fruits and berries accompany the flavor depends on the origin. For instance, Arabica beans from Sumatra oftentimes have hints of rose and dark chocolate. On the other hand, a lot of Arabica blends that come from Kenya have hints of orange blossom, butterscotch, and fig.
While Robusta beans are more bitter, Arabica beans have more of a pronounced acidity. This gives the coffee a somewhat wine-like dimension. Still, when you’re buying Arabica beans, look for a blend that’s not too acidic, as it can dominate the taste in a not-so-pleasant way.
Arabica is less bitter than Robusta because it has lower caffeine content. While Arabica beans contain about 0.8 – 1.4% of caffeine, the percentage doubles with Robusta beans, which contain 1.7- 4% of caffeine.
Arabica on the Market
As we’ve mentioned, Arabica beans are the world’s favorite coffee due to their flavor and quality. This also makes them more expensive than Robusta beans or Arabica-Robusta blends. Another reason that Arabica beans are pricier is that they’re much more sensitive and prone to disease than Robusta, so they take more care and produce a lower yield. This can mainly be attributed to the lower caffeine content in Arabica beans, as caffeine is a natural insect repellent.
Of course, within the Arabica world, there’s also a hierarchy of taste, quality, and price. For instance, the Hawaiian Kona coffee – a special Hawaiian Arabica strain – is one of the most desired and expensive types of bean on the market.
We especially recommend using Arabica beans if you like your coffee black. While sometimes adding a splash of milk can add to the flavor (especially if it’s a dark roast), drinking this coffee black may help you fully appreciate its flavor palette.
2. Coffea Robusta (Coffea Canephora)
Origin and production
The second most popular subspecies of the coffee bean is Coffea robusta or just Robusta. This coffee bean accounts for about 40% of the global coffee market – so, as you’ve probably realized, Arabica and Robusta dominate the global coffee market. It’s also quite adequately named, as it’s robust and resilient to different conditions.
As we’ve mentioned, it has over twice the caffeine content of Arabica beans, which makes it a formidable foe to disease and insects. Because the Robusta crop produces a higher yield than Arabica and can persevere in less than ideal conditions, it’s also quite cheaper. Robusta beans have their origins in central and sub-Saharan Africa, and today they’re grown in the Eastern Hemisphere, mostly in Africa and Indonesia. Brazil and India produce both Arabica and Robusta beans.
As Robusta has twice the caffeine content of Arabica, it also has a more bitter taste. So while you’d find Arabica to have acidic overtones, Robusta is on the bitter side.
This bean is generally considered to be of lower quality than Arabica due to the harsher flavor profile. Overall, the taste of Robusta coffee is stronger, with grainy overtones, and has been characterized as having a bit of rubbery, burnt taste. As milder flavors are preferred in most coffee markets, Robusta is bumped further down the commodity scale. It’s only preferred in cultures that enjoy strong coffee. Most instant coffee and mass-produced, cheap, commercial beans are made of Robusta.
There are some exceptions, however. While you won’t be able to find high-quality Robusta beans in a regular market or convenience store, some specialty coffee shops offer exactly that. These are usually single-origin, craft coffees that offer tasty Robusta beans with overtones of rum and chocolate.
Robusta on the Market
As it’s much easier to grow, produces higher yields, and isn’t too popular for its taste – Robusta is much cheaper than Arabica.
Still, there’s a way to kind of get the best of both worlds and strike the right balance between cost and taste. You can easily find blends that are about 70% Arabica and 30% Robusta which carry the overall taste of Arabica with some hints of Robusta, and cost less. This especially works with dark roasts. But we did say kind of, and that’s because if you’re finicky about flavor, you will notice the difference.
If you decide to go for Robusta or a Robusta-Arabica blend, the best way to cut the bitterness is to add some sugar and frothed milk or cream. A good, single-origin Robusta bean also goes great for espresso and espresso-based beverages.
Also, if you’re just looking for a quick caffeine fix to keep you up as you head to work with a bit of hangover, Robusta will do just fine. It will give you the kick you need to really wake up.
Honorable Mentions: Liberica and Excelsa
Liberica and Excelsa coffee beans are quite rare and account for a small part of the global coffee production. Still, their flavor profiles are unique, and should you incidentally come across either of them, you’d do well to give them a try.
Liberica coffee beans were originally produced on a large scale in the Philippines during a coffee “plague” called coffee rust that drastically damaged the Arabica population during the 19th century. The Philippines stepped out by mass-producing this tasty coffee bean strain. However, due to economic sanctions by the US (basically a neo-imperialist punishment to the Philippines for declaring independence from the US), this type of coffee bean quickly passed its heyday.
In any case, Liberica beans have an excellently unique flavor, with woody notes. It also has hints of flowers and fruits, with a smoky aroma.
Excelsa is actually a subspecies of the Liberica family, but it has a unique flavor that grants it a unique place in the world of coffee. These beans are generally grown in Southeast Asia and take up only 7% of global coffee production. While it’s rare to get purely Excelsa beans, they’re found in blends for an elevated flavor.
The taste of Excelsa can be characterized as being tarty and fruity.
A Few Words Before You Go…
Now you know what to expect from the different types of coffee beans available on the market. Keep in mind that to get the best tasting cup of coffee, you need freshly ground beans.