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What is the difference between Arabica and Robusta?

Anybody who is passionate about coffee will have heard of – and no doubt drank a lot of – Arabica and Robusta coffee, perhaps even blends of the two.

Arabica (Coffea Arabica) and Robusta (Coffea Canephora) present very different qualities and characteristics – and furthermore are farmed in different ways.

Physical qualities

Arabica beans tend to be slightly bigger and have a crack in more of an S-shape, while the crack down a robusta bean tends to be more of a straight line. 

You can also usually tell them apart as, prior to roasting, a batch of Arabica beans will overall be a slightly darker shade of green than Robusta ones. The latter will also be generally rounder, whereas an Arabica bean will be ever so slightly more oval in shape in comparison.

Growing

While robusta plants favour warmer, more humid climates at lower altitudes, some of the best Arabica crop heralds from more mountainous regions in subtropical climates. This is because Arabica plants tend to be more delicate than hardier Robusta ones, which are therefore less susceptible to plagues or pests, bouts of bad weather and suffering as result of rough handling.

This is what makes Robusta beans cheaper to farm. The process is less potentially problematic and each individual tree will produce more cherries per unit, meaning it is easier to mass produce in terms of square metre of plantation.

The coffee itself

In their natural form, Robusta beans tend to have a higher caffeine content than their Arabica counterparts – that is, provided the beans aren't subjected to a decaffeination process, in which case this discrepancy ceases to be a defining feature between the two.

Arabica beans, depending of course on how they are roasted, can result in a wider range of flavours once cupped. The tastes can range from sweet to acidic, combining fruity aromas with some perhaps sharper overtones. A coffee made with Robusta beans, meanwhile, may be more full-bodied – almost grain-like and earthier in some cases – with an ever so slightly nutty aftertaste.

As far as trading is concerned, Robusta beans retail at around 25 per cent less of the price of an Arabica crop, due to the aforementioned lower production costs – although this of course depends on the fluid state of the market and, as with any traded commodity, the natural behaviour of supply and demand.

So which one is better?

The most expensive coffees will tend to be Arabicas and the best blends, ones created purely from the delicate merging of different Arabica beans. We must be careful before stating that these are also the best as it is of course a question of taste – and some people may genuinely prefer the harsher flavours of a full-bodied Robusta, perhaps blended with an Arabica.

Nevertheless, it is this supposed superior quality that will mean most good espressos are made from Arabica. However, an espresso made from a lesser-quality Arabica may not be as good as one produced from a high quality Robusta, so yet again the Arabica vs Robusta battle proves to be utterly subjective.

To confuse things further is the fact that a great percentage of the coffee grown worldwide is Arabica (about 70 per cent) – and as with anything that is mass-produced, some of it will not be very good. Therefore, buying Arabica does not always mean you will be buying quality. 

The only way to ensure you are buying quality Arabica coffee is by going to a responsible supplier that affords absolute traceability, a variety of grades and standards, meticulous quality control and a genuine passion for delivering a product that is quite simply second to none.

Due to the fall in price of Arabica recently, many roasters have been capitalising on this and getting a taste for what many may describe as the 'good stuff'. For example, the recent bumper Arabica crop in Brazil has seen roasters in the South American country increase the amount in their blends, the Financial Times recently reported. With increasing demand for instant blends which tend to be produced using Robusta, only time will tell which one will come out on top – and whether or not it will stay there.