Once roasted, pretty much all coffee beans look the same. But did you know that there are actually dozens of different varieties of coffee beans? When it comes to your daily cup, though, there are really only two that matter: Arabica and robusta. These are the two primary types of coffee cultivated for drinking.
What's the difference between the two? It's significant, and it's helpful to understand when choosing coffee.
The two varieties differ in taste, growing conditions, price. Arabica beans tend to have a sweeter, softer taste, with tones of sugar, fruit, and berries. Their acidity is higher, with that winey taste that characterizes coffee with excellent acidity.
Robusta, however, has a stronger, harsher taste, with a grain-like overtone and peanutty aftertaste. They contain twice as much caffeine as Arabica beans, and they are generally considered to be of inferior quality compared to Arabica. Some robustas, however, are of high quality and valued especially in espressos for their deep flavor and good crema.
Robustas, however, are easier to grow. They can grow at lower altitutes than Arabicas, and they are less vulnerable to pests and weather conditions. They produce fruit much more quickly than the Arabicas, which need several years to come to maturity, and they yield more crop per tree.
Robusta is grown exclusively in the Eastern Hemisphere, primarily in Africa and Indonesia. Arabica is also grown in Africa and Papua New Guinea, but it's grown dominantly in Latin America. Colombia only produces Arabica beans. Some countries, like Brazil and India, produce both.
Arabica, then, ends up being pricier, of course. Most supermarket coffee is exclusively robusta, and instant and cheap ground coffees are certainly robusta. You can still find Arabica in the grocery store, but just because it's labeled Arabica does not mean it's of high quality.
Ultimately it's a question of personal taste. Some all-arabica blends are too high and floral for us; some of the rich, dark harshness of robusta can be a good thing in a blend. Just remember that robusta has twice as much caffeine as arabica, too, when choosing a coffee blend. If you want to skip most of the caffeine, see our tips for choosing decaf coffee for our suggestions on coffee blends and origins.
(Images: Wikimedia, Coffee Research)