Curious about the differences of arabica vs. robusta?
Arabica coffee is the world's most popular type of coffee. In this post, we're going to talk about all things arabica – then you can decide if it's actually better than robusta.
What is Arabica Coffee?
With all the different kinds of coffee beans to choose from (not to mention all those wonderful coffee drinks) you may be wondering what arabica coffee is – and how it affects your daily java.
What is arabica coffee?
Arabica coffee is a type of coffee made from the beans of the Coffea arabica plant.
Arabica originated in the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia and is the most popular kind of coffee worldwide – making up 60% or more of coffee production in the world.
Second to arabica in popularity is robusta coffee which is made from the beans of the Coffea canephora plant.
Why is it called “Arabica” coffee?
According to this article on ThoughtCo.com, it's called arabica coffee because in the 7th century the beans went from Ethiopia to lower Arabia.
In Ethiopia, the beans were being crushed and mixed with fat to be eaten as a stimulant by the Oromo tribe.
But once they arrived in Arabia “coffee” was born. It was written about as a brewed beverage for the first time by Arab scholars who said it helped them prolong their work hours. From there coffee spread around the world.
If coffee beans were brewed into a delicious beverage for the first time in Arabia, it's easy to see why it's called arabica coffee, and why it's also known as Arabian coffee.
What does arabica coffee taste like?
High quality arabica coffee should have a slightly sweet flavor, with hints of chocolate, nuts, and caramel. You may also notice hints for fruit and berries. There will be a slight/pleasant acidity, and a little bitterness. Cold brewing coffee can help bring out the sweet flavors of arabica even more.
The roast you choose will affect the degree to which you notice the flavors. The area and soil composition the beans are grown in can also affect the balance of the above flavors. Storing coffee beans properly so they stay nice and fresh is a great way to help preserve those yummy flavor notes.
Most of the coffee beans you see at the grocery store, market, coffee shop, and cafe – are arabica coffee. Some brands will mix arabica and robusta coffee beans, especially espresso blends. But the majority is arabica coffee.
So, all those yummy coffee drinks at your local cafe (including white coffee) yup, they're probably all arabica. And when you're deciding how to make coffee at home, grabbing a bag of arabica will give you the best results.
How is arabica coffee grown?
The Coffea arabica, or arabica coffee plant does not like harsh climates; it likes humidity and can't handle frost. It prefers temperatures between 15°C and 24°C (59°F and 75°F) and likes to be grown in the shade. Think: subtropical.
It's usually grown at elevations of around 1,900+ feet (600+ meters) above sea level. It likes to be grown on hillsides and matures at about 7 years of age.
The plant grows to around 9-12 meters in the wild. When grown for commercial use, it can reach about 5 meters tall, but is usually kept at about 2 meters to help with harvesting.
The flowers are small and white, they smell like jasmine flowers, sweet and pretty.
The beans (which are actually seeds) are found inside of the berries that grow on this shrub-like plant. The berries are harvested when they are “cherry” or deep-red/dark-purple, there are usually 2 beans in each berry.
Much like blueberries, the fruit of the arabica coffee plant does not ripen at the same time, so the berries are best when picked by hand. If they are harvested before they are fully ripe the result is an inferior coffee.
When the arabica coffee beans are removed from the berries there is also a “parchment coat” and a “silver skin” that have to be removed.
Need a gift for a coffee lover? Check out these gifts for coffee snobs – you're sure to find something they'll love.
Where is arabica coffee grown?
Arabica coffee grows best in tropical climates around the equator. Some of the best coffee comes from South America, and Africa.
High quality arabica can be found in the following countries:
- Costa Rica
- Ecuador: This was my favorite coffee while living in Ecuador. Unfortunately, we can't get this here in Canada.
The above list is just a short list of some of the countries growing the arabica coffee bean. Brazil is the largest producer of arabica coffee in the world.
More reading: How long does coffee last? Does coffee go bad?
Are there different kinds of arabica coffee beans?
The Arabica coffee bean has a large family from which dozens of varieties are cultivated. Some of these varieties are distinctive of specific coffee-growing regions while other varieties are grown in many areas around the world.
Here are some of the most common types of Arabica.
- Typica: Typica is considered one of the first coffee varieties, from which other varieties are grown today. It’s known for its clean, sweet cup. To produce a particular taste or hearty plant, Typica is most often cross-bred with other varieties of which you’ll see below.
- Bourbon: Bourbon is also considered one of the first coffee varieties. The name Bourbon looks like a well-known alcoholic beverage, but in this case, it’s a coffee bean that’s pronounced Bor-BONN. Flavor notes include chocolate and fruit overtones. Many other kinds of Arabica are produced by crossbreeding the Bourbon plant.
The following arabica varieties are all cross-bred from either Typica or Bourbon.
- Caturra: Caturra is a natural hybrid of the Bourbon strain that was found growing in Brazil during the early 1900s, but it flourishes better today in the higher altitudes of Central America. This variety produces coffee with a light body and citric flavor.
- Catimor: This variety is actually a crossbreed between Caturra and Timor, of which the latter is a hybrid baby of Arabica and Robusta beans. Catimor inherited the harsh flavors of the Robusta bean, but some strains that are grown in Nicaragua, El Salvador and India produce a more mellow flavor.
- Catuai: A hybrid of Caturra and Mundo Novo (a Bourbon/Typica hybrid), the Catuai variety is widely grown in Brazil and produces a tasty coffee with tangy acidity and subtle sweetness.
- Gesha: Originating near the town of Gesha, Ethiopia, but imported to Panama, this variety is the new kid on the block that's been quickly rising in the popularity ranks ever since it won top honors in the 2004 Panamanian Cup of Excellence competition. Growing in a high altitude in the Central American tropics gives it a unique, delicate taste that brings to mind tropical fruit, jasmine and honeysuckle. Gesha (sometimes called Geisha) coffee is one of the world’s most expensive types of coffee.
- Jackson: Developed in the African countries of Burundi and Rwanda, the Jackson variety is rapidly making a name for itself due to its delicate, acidic edge.
- Jamaican Blue Mountain: Not only is Jamaican Blue Mountain an Arabica bean variety, but it’s also the name of the mountainous region in Jamaica where it grows. (Although, it also grows in Hawaii). It’s well-favored for its light body, creamy-smooth mouthfeel and mild flavor that offers just enough sweetness that you don’t need to add any sugar or cream.
- Jember: This Typica strain of Arabica is widely cultivated throughout Indonesia and produces coffee known for a heavy body and rich, buttery feel and a sweetness akin to brown sugar and caramel.
- Kent: A forerunner of Jember, Kent is another Indonesian strain. But, this variety produces a lighter body and a delicate spicy/floral flavor.
- Kona: Another of the world’s more expensive coffees is Kona. This unique coffee is exclusively grown on the slopes of two volcanoes (Mauna Loa and Hualalai) in the North and South Kona Districts of the Big Island. The climate, altitude and rich lava soil all together produce the features that Kona coffee is so famous for: a light body and naturally sweet and fruity flavor that hints at spices and nuts.
- Maragogype: Nicknamed the “elephant bean coffee” because of its large bean size, Maragogype grows in Brazil and offers a heavy, buttery body with hints of citrus/floral flavors.
- Maracatu/Maracaturra: A crossbreed between Maragogype and Caturra, this variety is grown in the high altitudes of Central America and features a lively ripe fruit flavor.
- Mocca/Mokha: This small bean grows in Hawaii and Yemen and yields a strong chocolate flavor.
- Mundo Novo: A natural hybrid between Bourbon and Typica from Brazil, this bean is often used as a base for other popular varieties. On its own, it’s slightly bitter with a hint of caramel sweetness.
- Pacamara: The offspring of the Pacas and Maragogype beans, Pacamara grows in Central America (especially El Salvador) and produces a coffee that’s balanced with sweet acidity and floral flavors.
- Pacas: This natural Bourbon mutation produces well in El Salvador and yields a cup that’s both sweet and spicy with floral traces.
- Pache: This variety grows in Guatemala and is known for its flat, smooth flavor that makes it popular in coffee blends.
- SL-34 and SL-28: These variety names look more like a scientific formula, but they are the coffee beans that make up the majority of Kenya’s coffee exports. Commonly called “blueberry bombs,” they are known for their fine, fruit/wine tastes.
- Villa Sarchi: Developed near the Costa Rican town of Sarchi, this natural Bourbon hybrid offers a medium body with refined acidity and pronounced fruit flavor.
- Villalobos: Also grown in Costa Rica, Villalobos thrives in poor soil and yields a pleasing balance of lively acidity and sweetness that’s just enough that you don’t need to add any sugar or cream.
Now that we know a little bit more about arabica, let's compare it with its opponent – Robusta.
Arabica vs. Robusta: 11 Differences
What's the difference between the two heavy hitters in the world of coffee? Let's do a little arabica vs robusta comparison.
- Arabica has less caffeine than robusta. Arabica contains 1.5% caffeine content whereas robusta contains 2.7%. This may be a consideration for people concerned about the negative effects of too much caffeine. Arabica would be a better choice in their case. Caffeine also has a bitter flavor – which makes arabica less bitter than robusta.
- Arabica contains more sugar than robusta. Arabica has almost twice as much sugar content as robusta. The majority of people prefer sweet over bitter flavors, this probably accounts for the difference in popularity.
- Arabica contains more lipids than robusta. There are around 60% more lipids (fats, oils, waxes, certain vitamins, hormones…) in arabica coffee.
- Arabica flavor has higher acidity than robusta. This is much like the acidity which makes wine taste good. It adds to the fruit, chocolate and nutty flavors in arabica coffee. Robusta is lower in this quality which lends to the woody or burnt rubber flavor.
- Arabica is more popular than robusta. Arabica makes up 60% – 75% or more of worldwide coffee production. Robusta makes up the other 40% or less.
- Arabica has a more pleasant flavor than robusta. The flavor of arabica is described as being rich with hints of chocolate, nuts, fruit and berries. Robusta on the other hand, as tasting bitter, earthy, and rubbery.
- Arabica is more expensive than robusta. Arabica is more difficult to cultivate because of how sensitive it is to the environment, and the fact that it produces less per hectare than robusta. It also tastes better which makes the demand higher. So it's more expensive than robusta.
- Arabica is more fragile than robusta. Arabica prefers a consistent climate (no harsh changes) and temps between 15 and 24 °C (59 and 75 °F) whereas robusta can handle higher temps 18°-36°C (64-97°F) and harsher changes in climate. Arabica also prefers a humid climate compared to robusta which can handle more direct sunlight and more drastic changes in rainfall. Arabica usually grows at higher elevations and takes longer to mature which adds to its full flavor. It's also more susceptible to damage by pests than robusta.
- Arabica beans are shaped and colored differently than robusta. The arabica bean is slightly larger with an oval shape, and the robusta is more round. The raw arabica bean is also lighter in color than the robusta bean.
- Arabica produces less per year than robusta. Per hectare, the arabica coffee plant produces less per year than the robusta coffee plant. This makes arabica more expensive to grow than it's opponent.
- Arabica beans smell different than robusta. The arabica coffee bean smells a bit like blueberries before it's roasted, the robusta smells kind of like peanuts.
Which is Better: Arabica or Robusta?
If you're going with popular opinion (or my opinion): arabica is the better bean.
I hear that a very high quality robusta coffee can be quite nice, but I haven't tasted one yet.
In the past a lot of instant coffee was made from robusta beans, which may explain why it has had a bad reputation (at least in North America). But there have been improvements in the world of instant coffee and the use of 100% arabica has improved the flavor. But then again people like different things, perhaps you like instant coffee made from robusta, maybe you like bitter, rubbery flavors. If that's the case, you would probably say robusta tastes better.
If you're deciding based on the caffeine punch, than robusta is the clear winner.
So I guess the real answer to this question depends on how big of a jolt you want, or what your taste-buds tell you is delicious. For me, and the majority of human-beans (get that bean joke there? Sad – I know, but a girl can try) it's arabica coffee.
Read more about how to make strong coffee.
What are the Benefits of Arabica Coffee?
There are over a hundred species of coffee out there, each with their own benefits. But let's focus on the benefits of arabica coffee, which may indeed be the same for other types of coffee.
Arabica beans are popular for making iced coffee – because of their subtle flavors.
7 Benefits of Arabica Coffee
Here are some of the benefits of arabica coffee. Arabica coffee:
- is rich in antioxidant.
- contains caffeine which can help you stay alert and focused
- is low in calories (without added milk or sugar)
- contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals – like niacin, magnesium, riboflavin, manganese, and potassium
- can help you stay hydrated (according to this study) because it's 95% water
- is said to have beneficial results when used in skin care products (moisturizes, smooths, nourishes and tones)
- is comforting and yummy! Plus you get to enjoy the feeling of warmth in your hands as you drink it from cool mugs you've collect on your travels (or, maybe that's just me)
So now that we've talked about the benefits let's take a look at some of the popular arabica coffee brands.
Arabica Coffee Brands
When looking for good arabica coffee brands it pays to do your research (or in this case, let us do it for you) because some coffee brands mix their beans, arabica & robusta, which can lead to an unpleasant flavor.
When the following brands are brewed correctly, you shouldn't get much, if any of that going on. You'll taste those flavor hints we talked about earlier, chocolate and nuts.
That being said, flavor is a bit of a funny thing because we all perceive it a little (or a lot) differently. So you may need to try a few of the following brands to find your favorite. When you do we would love to hear what it is, please join us in the comments on this post.
4 of the Best Arabica Coffee Brands to Try:
- Kicking Horse Coffee is a popular organic choice from the arabica coffee brands. This variety pack would help you figure out which flavors you like best. It includes a medium, and two dark roast varieties – Three Sisters (medium), Kick Ass, and 454 Horse Power (dark), get it whole bean. Or try a 4 bag variety pack of ground arabica coffee which includes the above varieties, plus Grizzly Claw – which is another dark roast.
- Camano Island Coffee Roasters Organic Papua New Guinea is another among the organic arabica coffee brands. This is a whole bean, medium roast coffee with flavor hints of chocolate. These are fairly traded and free of pesticides. Some of the reviewers say that they don't need to add creamer because it is not very bitter.
- WILD JO is a great choice for an arabica coffee brand. This is a ground, dark roast organic coffee with flavor notes of dark chocolate, and brown sugar. Not a bad way to start the day…
- Verena Street, Nine Mile Sunset is another great choice when looking for an arabica coffee brand. When brewed right this ground – dark roast coffee is bold without burnt or smoky bitterness that some dark roasted coffee has.
Arabica Coffee and You
Do you have a favorite go-to arabica coffee? I can't say that I have found that perfect arabica for me yet. I like trying different kinds. As long as I choose a good quality arabica coffee, it tastes pretty wonderful. It might cost a little more, but it's worth it. Sometimes the cheap ones just end up in the garbage anyway.
Here's a pic of Bryan and I enjoying a nice cup of arabica at one of favorite cafes in Ecuador. We just love travel, and trying the local coffee is always a highlight.
Right now I'm enjoying a bag of arabica that my in-laws brought us back from their trip to Hawaii, it's smooth, chocolaty, and nutty – I'm loving it!
Let us know about some of your favorite arabica experiences by joining us in the comments.
Dena Haines is a co-founder and blogger on EnjoyJava! – and is working to make it the best coffee blog in the world. She also blogs about travel at Storyteller.Travel and photography at Click Like This. Dena is partner at Storyteller Media, a publishing company she started with her husband, Bryan.