You’ve seen it on the shelves, you’ve seen it printed on the jars. Coffee bags wear these names as a label of pride. Most fancy, high-grade coffee claim they’re “roasted from 100% Arabica beans”. Nescafe states that they “blend quality Robusta beans”. Ah, so different types of coffee beans do exist. But what exactly is the difference between them? Which taste and aroma would I enjoy best? Heck, what even are Arabica and Robusta? Time to find out.
Arabica vs Robusta Sisters
“Coffee” is a super generic term. It is a huge family. There are many species of the coffee plant out there that are different in origin, taste and biological makeup. However, out of a grand total of 124 species, we only cultivate and drink 2 species, and those are, you guessed it: the Arabica and Robusta coffee beans.
The Popular Sister: Arabica
Arabica beans are scientifically called Coffea arabica.
This is the most popular and most heavily consumed species of coffee beans in the world. About 60% of coffee sold and drank is Arabica. Specialty coffee roasters will use only Arabica, and most cafes that serve a decent cup of joe will also only buy roasted Arabica beans. Arabica beans are considered to be superior. They stand as the hallmark of true quality coffee. Why is that?
It all comes down to the flavour.
Arabica beans are well-known for their complex, wonderful taste notes. These flavours are richer and they carry far less bitter compounds. Hence, when roasted, the tastes hidden within are brought forward easily. You’ll find flavours and aromas of flowers, nuts, caramel, citrus fruits and chocolate.
These flavours are layered deep and in today’s third wave coffee world where flavour reigns king, the Arabica beans are a clear winner with their delicate flavours.
Speaking of delicate, that’s what this species is: delicate. Like, really, really delicate. Arabica coffee plants are super susceptible to diseases and climate. It has to grow at a higher altitude (like on mountainsides), surrounded by cold, fresh air, shaded from harsh sunlight and receive gentle rain. It’s a princess that has to be properly sheltered and pampered before it gives you that beauty. Otherwise, well, it dies on you. An entire farm can be easily infected by pests and diseases, which can wipe out a farmer’s entire livelihood. Scary.
It takes a great deal of care and attention to ensure Arabica coffee grows well. But the result is indeed an amazing flavour, full of depth and sweetness. Acidity also takes centre stage when Arabica beans are ground and brewed.
A handy Arabica specs sheet:
Optimal height above sea level: 900m – 2000m (3000 ft to 6000 ft)
Optimal rainfall per year: 1500mm – 2500mm
Optimal temperature: 15°C – 24°C (60°F to 75°F)
Exporting countries: Vietnam, Brazil, Colombia, most of South America
Shape of coffee bean: Oval, flat
Main taste profile: Fruity, floral, acidic
Caffeine content: 1% – 1.5%
The Bold Sister: Robusta
The scientific name for Robusta is Coffea canephora.
This type of bean comes in at around 40% of the total world coffee. You’ll find Robusta beans mostly used in instant coffees, or generic supermarket brands. Many cheaper coffee beans are roasted with a mix of Robusta alongside Arabica beans. This is because of…
Robusta is a hell lot cheaper than Arabica. They’re easier to plant, grow and are durable as hell. Chuck some water and sun on it, leave it on its own, and it’ll pretty much take care of itself and grow up nice and strong. Because it grows at a lower altitude, and under rougher conditions, the taste of Robusta is a lot harsher and stronger than Arabica beans. You’ll taste notes such as wood, tobacco, spice and cocoa that gives a heavier mouthfeel and a darker, deeper body.
Robusta also has a higher caffeine content, nearly double that of Arabica. That’s why it’s more bitter. Hence, it’s more suitable for instant coffee as most people who drink instant coffee are looking for that caffeine hit. It’s also used as a “filler” by some brands and roasters, who mix a small portion of Robusta beans with their Arabica beans, to cut back on costs and increase profit margins. More traditional cafes also use Robusta beans for espresso, as it can withstand the addition of milk without drowning out the original taste of the coffee.
Not all hope is lost, though – an expert roaster can definitely roast a batch of Robusta beans to bring out more of the desirable flavours. But even then, flavour-wise, Robusta is not as accessible to the general populace. Prominent bitterness takes centre stage.
Tyler Hickmott, a barista at Mojo Coffee Co., summed it up perfectly when I asked him.
“Robusta is much more of an acquired taste than Arabica.”
Here’s a handy Robusta specs sheet:
Optimal height above sea level: 0m – 800m (sea level to 2600 ft)
Optimal rainfall per year: 1500mm – 2500mm
Optimal temperature: 24°C – 35°C (75°F to 95°F)
Exporting countries: Brazil, Uganda, Ethiopia, most of West Africa
Shape of coffee bean: Round, symmetrical
Main taste profile: Strong, bitter
Caffeine content: 2% – 2.5%
The Forgotten Brothers: Liberica and Excelsa
Very few people know that there is actually a third species of coffee that is commercially farmed! This is thanks to the fact that it’s very rarely seen, and thus makes up for only about 2-3% of the global coffee trade. Liberica beans are an odd bunch. They are shaped like a teardrop: elongated and thin. And Liberica coffee trees grow up to a monstrous 20m (65 ft) high! Let’s shed some spotlight back on them, shall we?
Give a round of applause for Liberica beans (coffea liberica) and Excelsa beans (coffea liberica var. dewevrei)!
Generally speaking, Excelsa and Liberica beans are scientifically classified as being one and the same species. But, they actually have widely different flavours that are way beyond your imagination! (Okay, maybe I’m being a little over dramatic here.)
Liberica can be described as having low acidity, and a fruity flavour that’s unusual and somewhat intense. It’s less bitter, and some drinkers have detailed Liberica coffee as having really strong, punchy aftertaste that lingers.
Excelsa beans seem to exude an odd mix of Arabica and Robusta, and a blend of light and dark roast flavours – it has bright flavours that pop on the front of your tongue, but in the same sip you’ll get dark, smokey notes too.
These beans are predominantly grown and almost exclusive to Southeast Asia. So, think of countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Especially the Philippines – many cafes there will serve it if they source their beans locally. It has a really niche taste, and like Robusta, needs an acquired palate to enjoy.
Farms and highlands in Borneo grow the Liberica species, but due to a low global demand, many of them were abandoned. It’s so overlooked it’s sad. But, as the world gradually shifts towards focusing on the taste of coffee, and the want for more exotic tastes increase, the demand might very well rise again. Especially because Liberica beans have that hidden opportunity of holding very specific, unique flavours missing from Arabica or Robusta.
There are communities composed of farmers, roasters and specialty coffee experts who are working hard to revive Liberica coffee farms, and give Liberica farmers the opportunity to keep growing and sustaining their crops and livelihoods. Indeed, they hope that Liberica will one day make its way into the ranks of specialty coffee, alongside that of Arabica.
I have seen and held Liberica coffee beans before, but I have yet to have the opportunity to taste it. I do want to, so I sure hope it makes a revival!
The Family Reunion
Knowing the type of coffee beans grown and harvested from the very start is tantamount to the final cup’s flavour. Having a general idea of these main varieties of coffee beans will help you shortlist your favourite coffee based on your taste preference.
However, if the opportunity arises one day, and you visit a cafe in a country that serves Liberica coffee beans, I would highly advise that you give it a try. Taste is something very subjective, so don’t convince yourself you won’t like it before even giving it a shot. When you do, make sure you let me know what you think of them.