What is Arabica Coffee? Types of Coffee Beans: Arabica vs Robusta vs Liberica
The world drinks Three BILLION cups of coffee every day. Almost two Billion of those (1.83 billion give or take) are made using Arabica coffee beans. 1.1 billion cups are made using Robusta beans. The remaining 1 % are made with Liberica beans and every other type combined.
What is Arabica Coffee?
Arabica Coffee is the world’s most popular beverage and is made using Coffea Aribica beans. The beans originated in Ethiopia, but were not consumed as a beverage until migrating across the Red Sea into Yemen and Arabia about one thousand years ago. Almost two billion cups are consumed daily around the world.
What are the Types of Coffee Beans?
There are only three types of coffee beans commercially sold worldwide – Arabica 61%, Robusta 37-38% and Liberica 1-2%. You may have heard of a fourth type called Excelsa, but it turns out Excelsa is classified as a member of the Liberica family. Even though there are over 100 different species of coffee beans, they are all sub-categories that fall under the classification of either Arabica, Robusta or Liberica.
Arabica vs Robusta
8 key differences between Arabica and Robusta coffee beans:
- Taste – Arabica is generally sweeter than robusta. Arabica coffee is considered superior to Robusta because of its delicate flavor and low acidity. It has sugary overtones, which many people prefer to Robusta’s sharper flavor. Arabica also has a wider range of flavor profiles – fruit, chocolate, nuts, citrus and other flavor notes are found in Arabica coffees, but rarely show up in Robustas.
- Caffeine – Arabica has about half as much caffeine as Robusta. Caffeine is a natural pesticide. It helps fend off disease and pests, but it also tastes bitter. This makes Robusta is the hardier species in some respects, and easier to grow, but also produces a harsher tasting beverage. Robusta beans can have as much as 80% more caffeine than arabica beans. A whole 2.7% of the bean is caffeine, compared to arabica’s 1.5%. This makes robusta beans great for caffeine-rich instant coffee, but it also makes the beans extra bitter and unpleasant.
- Sugar Content – You might have guessed from the sweeter taste that Arabica beans have a higher sugar content. Arabica beans have twice as much sugar as robusta beans.
- Cultivation Arabica beans are more difficult to grow, have a lower yield per plant, and are more sensitive to insects. Robusta is easier to tend to on the farm, has a higher yield and is less sensitive to insects. The extra caffeine in Robusta is a chemical defense for the coffee seed. The quantity contained in Robusta beans is toxic to most bugs. To summarize – Arabica plants are more susceptible to disease and climate change than their robusta cousins. They’re more difficult and costly to grow, making them twice as expensive.
- Appearance – Arabica beans are larger, oval in shape and lighter in color than Robusta beans. Robusta beans are more circular in shape and darker in color. The shapes don’t necessarily make any difference in taste. They act as a spot check when inspecting beans.
- Plant Size: Arabica usually grows between 2.5 – 4.5 meters compared to the 4.5 – 6 meter height of Robusta. Arabica trees are smaller in stature with less foliage. They are fragile to look at, but less foliage and less beans per branch means more nutrients and more complex tasting coffee.
- Price – Arabica is grown at higher altitudes and can be more difficult and costly to grow. These labor-intensive, low-yield plants produce a high-demand bean that sells for a higher price. Robusta sells for less than Arabica, because it is less fragile, has a longer harvest season and grows at lower elevations. Almost all instant coffee is made from Robusta beans. In the instant-coffee industry, the primary factor driving consumer choice is price. Manufacturers, therefore, are compelled to use less-expensive Robusta beans. Green Robusta beans are about half the price of green Arabica beans on the commodity exchange market.
- Pollination – Arabica is a self pollinating plant, where Robusta is cross-pollinating. Cross pollination gives more genetic variety and robustness as a result of greater differences in bean types. Self pollination allows a species to remain the same with less mutations, giving a more consistent bean production.
About Arabica Coffee – Why is it called “Arabica”?
Arabica is likely the first type of coffee bean ever consumed. Its origins trace back to Ethopia thousands of years ago. In ancient Africa, the bean was crushed, mixed with fat and eaten for the energy boost provided by the caffeine in the beans.
The plant species Coffea Arabica got its name during the 7th century when the bean crossed the Red Sea from Ethiopia to present-day Yemen and lower Arabia. The first written record of coffee made from roasted coffee beans comes from Arab scholars, who wrote that it was useful in prolonging their working hours. The Arab innovation in Yemen of making a brew from roasted beans spread first among the Egyptians and Turks, and later on, found its way around the world. It became known as Arab Coffee and the bean was named Aribica.
What does arabica coffee taste like?
Arabica is considered the gold standard of coffee. It has a mild taste, and to coffee drinkers, it can be described to have a sweetness, that is light and airy, like the mountains it comes from. With few leaves and cherries on the tree, each bean receives more nutrients, which leads to more subtle and diverse flavors. On a more detailed level, arabica beans have twice as much sugar as robusta beans, 60% more fats, and a higher acid content. As a result, arabica flavor profiles are rich, sweet, and aromatic. They feature flavor notes of fruits, flowers, spices, herbs, chocolates and beyond.
They also have about ½ the caffeine and chlorogenic acid content, which means less bitterness in the cup. In a flavor face-off, Arabica usually wins out over robusta coffees. Since robusta plants grow many leaves and cherries, each individual coffee bean is given a smaller share of nutrients. This leads to less flavor diversity and lower flavor quality. Specifically, robusta beans are noticeably low in sugars, acids, and fats, which, frankly, makes them pretty boring tasting. And, to make matters worse, robusta beans are often extremely bitter. This is mostly due to raised levels of caffeine and chlorogenic acid, both of which taste very bitter.
How is Arabica Coffee Grown?
Arabica grows at higher elevations where the climate is harsher and plants grow slower. The plant’s slower growth produces more refined flavors once its beans are processed, roasted and ground. It takes from 9 to 18 months for the coffee tree to grow to about 12 inches tall. Then, a further 3 years before the tree bears fruit – known as cherries. It is another 6 years before the tree is fully mature and in full production. At this stage the trees are ready for harvesting.
As coffee is often grown in mountainous areas, widespread use of mechanical harvesters is not possible and the ripe coffee cherries are usually picked by hand. The main exception is Brazil, where the relatively flat landscape and immense size of the coffee fields allow for machinery use.
Arabica coffee trees yield an average of 2 to 4 kilos of cherries per tree and a good picker can harvest 50 to 90 kilos of coffee cherry per day – enough to produce 9 to 18 kilos of processed coffee beans.
Where is Arabica Coffee From Now?
Coffee grows best in volcanic soil between the elevations of 3,000 and 7,000 feet – 900 to 2,200 meters. Generally speaking, the higher the elevation, the better the taste of the bean. Coffee grows best in the coffee zone or coffee belt, between 30ºN and 30ºS latitudes, and in places that are frost-free with at least 80 inches of rain a year. Ideally, coffee plants like warm, tropical climates with rich soil and few insects and pests.
Arabica beans grow well at higher altitudes of 900m-1800m but cannot tolerate freezing temperatures. The world’s Coffee growing region wraps around the globe along the equator. Cultivation occurs in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean. Brazil is the world’s #1 producer of arabica coffee, followed closely by Colombia.
Flavor in coffee is strongly influenced by the country of origin the beans came from. Each coffee origin generally carries with it unique characteristics.
Africa and the Arabian Peninsula
A handful of countries make up the coffee-growing regions of Africa. The sprawling continent provides plenty of excellent coffee-growing areas, each producing a unique, complex cup of coffee that is generally described as sweet, fruity and floral. The earliest known coffee drinking happened in Ethiopia and Yemen, both countries still produce highly regarded beans using traditional methods. If you’re looking for the current hip region for coffee beans, this is it, with the most popular roasts coming from Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
At the top of that belt is Central America. Most coffees in this region are harvested from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Described as having a clean and bright taste with good acidity, coffees from this region are often considered “blue collar” common man’s coffee – well-balanced and mild to medium in body. However, there are producers from this region with exceptional hand sorted and carefully processed beans. As a result, high-grade Central American coffee is available in specialty coffee shops around the world.
With a climate similar to its northern neighbors, South American coffees generally share many of the characteristics with those of Central America, and are often very mild-bodied. While being a light, clean cup, these coffees are also a bit creamier, sometimes with a slight chocolate aftertaste. Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia make up the bulk of coffee growing countries in South America.
Brazil is South America’s most inﬂuential and economically powerful country and is one of the world’s largest economies. Coﬀee plantations cover about 27,000 km2 (10,000 sq mi) of the country. Brazil cultivates approximately six billion trees, 74% are Arabica and 26% Robusta.
Colombia is arguably one of the world’s most famous producing countries, partly due to the amount of coffee it produces but also due to the heavy and clever marketing it has invested into its coffee production. It is thought coffee has been grown in Colombia since the 1700s, though it wasn’t until the early 20th century that its production started to become noteworthy, contributing fifty per cent of the country’s total exports. The country produces Arabica beans exclusively.
There is a huge variation in quality ranging from exceptional to the rather ordinary. There is also huge potential for variation in flavor profiles due to the many different micro-climates and producing areas. Some Colombian coffees can be heavy in body with flavors of chocolate and nut. Others are crisp, clean and complex with jammy sweetness and citrus notes. The coffee producing areas are mountainous, along the Andes and the Sierra Nevada where the climate is temperate with adequate rainfall. The varied terrain means there are a number of different micro climates which allow for the harvest coffee at different times throughout the year.
In the Pacific Rim, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam and the Philippines are the most popular coffee growers, and for good reason. Robusta, the bitter beans that make up only 30% of the world’s coffee production, are mainly produced here. If you hear “big and bold” describing a cup, it’s more than likely coming from this area of the world. One of our favorite sub-regions is Sumatra, which produces a bean that’s often described as “earthy”, “herbal”, and “full-bodied”.
Though coffee has been produced in India for centuries, it’s still a fairly new global player. Less than 5% of all international coffee production comes out of the subcontinent. However, due to its conditions of particularly high heat and intense rainy seasons, India offers some of the most unique growing conditions in the world. Both Arabica and Robusta beans are grown, but the most famous type of Indian coffee is known as Monsooned Malabar.
Monsooned coffee is actually a process – harvested Arabica beans are left to the elements for 3–4 months in open warehouses during monsoon season. Rain and wind circulates around the beans, causing them to swell in size. The result is a mellowed, pungent and musty flavor. International coffee graders consider this coffee to be rather poor according to standard grading practices and definitions. However, the cultural history and unique flavor generates interest among coffee aficionados. Monsooned Malabar is often used in dark roasted espresso blends.
What is Robusta Coffee
Robusta coffee is a strong, full-bodied coffee brewed using Coffea Canephora beans. It has other distinct traits – such as higher bitterness, less sweetness, and lower acidity. Its flavors are bold and dark and greatly valued, especially in espressos. The beans are considered a lower grade than Arabica, and are typically grown at lower elevations. They are easier to grow and maintain, and they are also more disease resistant and produce a higher yield. Robusta beans have more of an astringent flavor and contain a higher amount of caffeine. This makes Robusta a perfect coffee for cream and sugar lovers! A good quality Robusta will not lose flavor when adding milk or sugar.
Coffea Canephora (Robusta) varietal is extremely tolerant of its environment and practically immune from disease. Robusta coffee can withstand wider climate conditions, but particularly requires a hot climate where rainfall is irregular. Robusta coffee beans have almost double the amount of caffeine as Arabica does. Caffeine acts as a means of self-defense giving the Robusta plant a strong resistance to disease and pests.
Climate change may be driving the world irreversibly toward robusta. Unpredictable weather, more frequent and prolonged rainy periods and higher temperatures are all increasing the incidence of disease to the Arabica plant like coffee leaf rust, coffee berry borer, among other pests and diseases. The replacement of heirloom arabica varieties with disease-resistant strains is already underway in countries like Colombia and India. Researchers are exploring drought and heat tolerant coffee where robusta genes are becoming more prevalent. Further, rising global temperatures also mean that areas that are appropriate today for the cultivation of arabica coffee — cooler, upper altitudes — will likely become unsuitable within a few decades. With ever-growing concerns regarding Climate change, global warming and the sustainability of coffee farming, it’s very likely that Robusta and Robusta-Arabica blends and hybrids will continue growing in prominence.
What is Liberica Coffee
Liberica coffee is from an heirloom coffee species representing less than 2 percent of the commercial coffee market. It offers a completely different flavor profile from the Big Two – Arabica and Robusta. Liberica has large, irregular shaped and sized coffee berries that have smoky, nutty, bitter chocolate notes when roasted and brewed. The trees themselves can grow to 20 meters and tolerate flat terrain and hotter climates. The species is Native to Western and Central Africa, but is grown in Africa, South America and South East Asia.
In 1890, coffee rust destroyed over 90% of the world’s Arabica stock. Liberica trees were quickly introduced in Indonesia and The Philippines at the close of the 19th century to replace the Arabica trees killed by rust. The Philippines was a U.S. territory at the time, and this decision greatly helped the Philippines’ economy as they were the only coffee supplier to the US during this period. Unfortunately, The Philippines’ demand for independence led to the US cutting trade with the archipelago – including coffee.
Liberica ran into near extinction and isn’t widely cultivated. It is a rare commodity that can be difficult to find and expensive to buy outside of South East Asia. It wasn’t until 1995 that Liberica made an appearance in the coffee world again. Conservationists salvaged the last remaining plants by transplanting them in Filipino growing regions better suited for Liberica to thrive. Its smokey, dense flavors are not suited for everyone. The Filipinos affectionately call it “Manly Coffee.” Its production has earned it a small but dedicated following in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
Bottom Line: Arabica vs. Robusta vs Liberica
Arabica beans make up 61 percent of the commercial coffee beans sold worldwide. Robusta beans make up 37-38 percent of the coffee beans sold. Quick arithmetic will tell you those two beans make up 98-plus percent of the commercial coffee beans sold worldwide. That leaves 1-2 percent for everything else – including Liberica. Arabica is considered to be the highest quality and accounts for almost two out of three cups consumed. Robusta is half the price of Arabica and is used to make instant coffee and blends for espresso. Liberica beans are hardy, strong and rare. They are difficult to find on the world market but are available regionally in Indonesia, the Philippines and South East Asia.
Is Robusta coffee good? Top notch specialty Robusta coffee can taste as good as Arabica. However, high end Robusta isn’t widely used or available – even though Arabica often costs twice as much or more.
Is Arabica coffee better than Columbian Coffee? Columbian Coffee IS Arabica coffee. Colombia is one of the few countries that only grows Arabica beans. The mountainous terrain and proximity to the equator is perfect for growing coffee. Colombian coffee is known for its rich, mild flavor because of the perfect climate and the type beans that are grown – Arabica. For this reason along with clever marketing, Colombian coffee is considered higher quality than coffee grown in other regions or countries.
How is Coffee Grown and Harvested – The best growing coffee regions are higher elevations in mountainous regions near the equator. Mechanical harvesting is not an option so the coffee berries must be hand picked. The beans are gathered, then dried, milled and hulled to remove any fruit from the bean. The beans are then sorted and shipped green as they are most stable in this condition. Prior to brewing, the beans must be roasted and ground.
Why Does Coffee Tastes Bitter? – Mother Nature PUT bitter compounds in coffee beans. Caffeine alone makes bitterness unavoidable – caffeine is bitter! Without it, coffee would be sour and acidic. However, at high levels, bitter coffee compounds can overpower the other components creating an undesirable effect. For more information, check out: Why Coffee Tastes Bitter – 7 Proven Ways to Make Coffee Less Bitter
IPCC — Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change