Age Old Question: Arabica Vs. Robusta

February 13, 2013

Arabica versus robusta, how do you choose, and what's the difference? SupermarketGuru's favorite and where did coffee come from, find out here

How did we stumble across the glorious coffee plant? Well the story goes that many years ago, a lonely goatsman discovered what is now believed to be the first species of coffee. A goat from his wandering flock had stopped at a small shrub to eat the berries, afterward, the goat was energetic and lively. The goatsman, curious about the berries, picked some and ate them; to his surprise, they were very bitter! Still, his curiosity was strong and after the berry-eating goat led them up the mountains in Ethiopia to their campground, the goatsman began to experiment. He cooked up some beans in a pan over the fire, chopped them up, and ate them - still not good. Next, he pulverized them, then added some water and let it sit for awhile. He drank the dark, rich liquid atop the crushed beans, and WOW! A new beverage was born from the "shrub of Arabia."

Although this story may be totally fictional, what is true is that the Arabica varietal of coffee did originate in Ethiopia and is now found in countries from Kenya to Sumatra, from Hawaii to Jamaica, from India to Papua New Guinea, and throughout Central and South America. In fact, more than 30 countries now grow coffee, primarily two varietals: coffea arabica and coffea robusta.

Coffee production has come a long way from picking a few bitter beans and roasting them over an open fire. However, coffee beans ("cherries") are still harvested primarily by hand when ripe, they then go through several processing steps beginning either with sun or machine drying, or washing, to remove the parchment-like skin, pulp, and debris to reveal the green bean.

The green bean is then sent to roasters throughout the United States and the world to work its final magic: to heat at just the right temperature for just the right length of time. Just as one spoiled apple might ruin a barrel, one burnt bean can ruin a batch of beans.

Arabica's liveliness, intensity of flavor, and rich color when roasted make it the most valuable and prized, and production is now around 75 percent although actual yields are smaller than Robusta; quality does vary from country to country.

Robusta is considered to have more body than Arabica, yet less flavor, which makes it ideal for blending with chicory, higher-grade beans, and flavorings. It is easier to grow, as it is more resistant to disease, and can grow at lower altitudes, compared to Arabica plants which are grown at very high altitudes. Robusta beans are popular for instant coffees, available in many supermarket brands, and accounts for around 25 percent of the world's production. Arabica beans are considered the finest coffee beans, with more fragrance, more flavor, and less caffeine (1.1 percent) than its sister bean, the Robusta (2.2 percent).

SupermarketGuru prefers Arabica and the reason is simple. Arabica beans are more flavorful, more aromatic, and more complex than any other varietal.

How to create the best cup of coffee? Here's your cupping "how to" guide.