Arabica and robusta are two words that get mentioned a lot in the coffee world. But what do they mean?
Arabica and robusta are two species of coffee. Take a moment to think back to middle school and high school biology classes. Remember Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species? Arabic and robusta are both part of the Coffea genus, which is in the Rubiacea family.
The genus was first mentioned by the Swedish botanist, Carolus Linneaus, in the 18th century. In the genus, there are many different species, but the two most important in the commercial coffee industry are the two we so often hear mention of: coffea arabica and coffea canephora, also known as robusta.
Arabica makes up about 70% of the global production of coffee, and is descended from the original coffee trees found in Ethiopia. Because of what arabica beans need to grow — elevation and a mild climate — and their lower yield than robusta, arabica takes a higher price on the global coffee market. Arabica beans are known for being mild and aromatic, the kind of thing that specialty roasters go for.
Of course, just because a coffee is arabica does not mean it's going to be great; there is plenty of arabica produced that does not make the specialty coffee cut.
In terms of taste, robusta beans have a stronger, harsher taste than arabica. As a crop, robusta is more resistant to disease and parasite, and it can grow in warmer climates. Robusta beans are also higher in caffeine, and are commonly found in blends and instant coffees. In other words, your average supermarket coffee.
Arabica vs. Robusta
Arabica and robusta beans also look a little different. Arabica beans have a larger, more elliptical shape, while robusta beans are smaller and rounder. Their chemical makeup is different, too. As mentioned, arabica has a lower caffeine content, but the species also has 60% more lipids and twice the concentration of sugars as robusta. If you ever have the chance to get your hands on unroasted arabica and robusta, you would notice a difference in smell, too; arabica is sweeter and more floral, while unroasted robusta beans are said to have a scent of grains or nuts.
Now you can drink that morning cup with just a little more knowledge of exactly what's in it.