There might not too much to tell coffee beans apart once they’re roasted. After all one brown bean is the same as any other, right?
Wrong. There are actually a lot of varieties of coffee bean – in fact there are over 100 species in total – all differing in flavor and aroma. Of these varieties, the two you might be most familiar with are Arabica and Robusta.
For almost any cup of coffee that you get from a shop or café, the beans used will be one of these two. They’re the two most primary types of coffee cultivated for mass production and drinking.
While in a coffee shop you are very rarely given the option of choosing which one you want, when it comes to buying beans yourself it’s important to understand the difference. Coffee beans might seem the same as each other, but there are actually significant differences between the two. These differences are important to understand so that you can ensure that you are buying the best coffee beans for your needs and preferences.
Check out my guide below on the 7 big differences between the two main bean types!
Where better to start than with the most important criteria for choosing coffee?
Arabicas are now the most popular beans for most brewing methods, and the main reason for this is their soft, sweet taste. Blended into these are often notes of berries and sugar. The acidic taste that we often associate with coffee comes from Arabica blends, as their acidic levels are significantly higher than other bean types.
Robustas typically carry a much heavier, harsher, and more robust (it’s all in the name) flavor, and can be a lot more bitter than Arabica. They can carry a grain-like feel to them, with a nutty aftertaste.
Robustas get a harsh rap at times, and I think unfairly, but its harsh taste profile certainly doesn’t help it.
It’s not all bad though. This intense flavor can be useful with some brews, and high-end robustas are still popular with some espresso roasters.
#2. Caffeine content
The differences don’t end at flavor. With different composition and cultivation methods, the beans naturally differ in caffeine levels.
One of the reasons for Robusta’s intense flavor is that it has significantly higher caffeine content. Caffeine can carry a bitter flavor, so it’s not surprising to find this taste carry over into robusta beans, especially when brewed as espresso.
Just how much more caffeine does it have? Amazingly, it’s almost double that of Arabica. Robusta beans tend to have around 2.2% caffeine content, compared to 1.2% for Arabica.
The brewing method you choose will also be a big factor on exactly how much caffeine is in your cup of coffee. This is because different methods have different extraction rates. Here’s a rough breakdown of how much caffeine tends to be in each brewing method, for both coffee bean types. These come courtesy of Caffeine Informer.
- Drip or Filter 265mg per 8 fluid ounces
- French Press: 198mg per 8 fluid ounces
- Espresso: 141mg per shot
- Drip or Filter 145mg per 8 fluid ounces
- French Press 107.5mg per 8 fluid ounces
- Espresso: 77mg per shot
#3. Coffee types
Robusta’s intense flavor and caffeine content make it popular with some espresso bean manufacturers, particularly Italian blends, although many still opt for arabica.
If you use a pod coffee machine, then these are often made with robusta. The reason being that the blend supposedly helps create the iconic crema at the top of the drink. Similarly, if you’re drinking instant coffee then that will also likely be made with robusta beans, although this does tend to be down to how cost-efficient Robusta is to produce.
You can still get Arabica in supermarkets, but it’s likely that it will be quite low quality. However if you can buy your beans online for methods like drip filter, then you should be able to get arabica roasts very easily.
Arabica 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.
#4. Sugar content
Arabica tends to contain about double the sugar content of robusta, while having about 60% more lipid content. With this in mind it’s little wonder that we prefer the taste of arabica.
Robusta beans are more circular, whereas arabica tend to look more oval-shaped and larger.
#6. Cultivation cost
When looking at a lot of the differences listed above, it’d be easy to assume that arabica is better than robusta in almost every department. Robusta beans are still found quite widely however. Why is this?
One of the key reasons is due to farming costs. In the early twentieth century, robusta was much easier and cheaper to produce. As a result, farmers and roasters would be able to mass-produce at low cost. In fact, where roasters did use arabica they would often blend in some robusta as filler to help reduce costs and up their profit margin.
One of the reasons robustas are so much easier to grow is that they are more resilient against weather conditions and pests. They can also grow at much lower altitudes. They also come to fruition much quicker, so the turnaround time between plant and yield is much short.
With the evolution of farming, arabica has become cheaper to produce and therefore acquired more of a presence in the market, but robusta still has its place in the coffee world. It also wouldn’t be fair to say that every arabica is better than every robusta. There are certainly some robustas that are better than low-end arabicas. However it has lost its footing in the market, and today is mostly used as a filler in order to reduce costs.
#7. Where they are grown
These days, about 75% of the world’s coffee is arabica, with Brazil being one of the world’s leading producers of it. With only 25% of the share, robusta’s main manufacturer is Vietnam.
Robustas are almost all grown in Africa and Indonesia, whereas Arabica is mainly cultivated in Latin America, as well as some areas of Africa.