Arabica beans are more popular and have a stronger taste, but Robusta beans are cheaper and easier to grow.
Robusta coffee is known as the “workhorse” of the coffee world due to its affordability. In comparison, Arabica is seen as a luxury item because it’s much harder to produce.
Arabica vs Robusta, what gives? Why does one cost twice as much as the other?
This article will explore that question in detail – so keep reading.
The Two Beans
Not a lot of people know this, but there are actually around 124 different types of coffee plants growing in the world today. Nearly all of these grow in the wild, and only two types are cultivated and used to produce the coffee we drink every day.
These are Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora, better known as Robusta. The Arabica bean is a long, oval shape, whereas the Robusta bean is shorter and rounder.
Arabica is grown at high altitudes, from 1,800 feet to 6,000 feet, where temperatures are cooler, and Robusta can be grown as low as 600 feet in a warmer climate.
Arabica is more difficult to cultivate and produces a smaller crop per plant; Robusta is easier to grow and produces a more plentiful crop.
The Arabica coffee plant (technically a shrub, not a tree) grows to a height up to 4.5 meters compared to 6 meters for Robusta.
The coffee plant produces caffeine and chlorogenic acid (CGA) as insect repellents to keep bugs away from the coffee cherries which are the fruit of the plant.
This is the reason for the nerve stimulation, the “caffeine hit” we get from coffee – if we were insects it would kill us, but due to our size and our metabolism we just get a buzz.
Robusta has twice the level of caffeine compared to Arabica and 50% more CGA. This is one reason why Robusta crops are more plentiful, they are less susceptible to damage from insects.
The Robusta bean is used mainly for instant coffee and in some cases is blended with Arabica to give a stronger brew, because Robusta has about twice the level of caffeine and less sugar than Arabica.
Many European coffees sold as Italian or French blends contain a percentage of Robusta, giving a stronger, more bitter taste.
Generally, Arabica is used for espresso and for other forms of brewed ground coffee such as pour-over, French Press, or Cold Brew coffee.
For ground coffee, Arabica is usually the first choice for its mellow, almost sweet, chocolate flavor and is popular as a single–origin bean from the great coffee-growing countries such as Jamaica, Hawaii, and Brazil.
Robusta with its high caffeine levels is described as a bitter, burnt taste when roasted and drunk as ground coffee. However, it can be quite acceptable as instant coffee due to the production process.
Not all Robusta beans are the same. There are in fact some growers producing a higher quality Robusta bean for use in espresso that has a better flavor profile and good crema – the light brown layer formed on the espresso shot by the oils and flavonoids.
These beans are often blended with Arabica beans as “fillers”, to keep the price down and to bulk out the crop.
A Word about Instant Coffee
Instant coffee is made from coffee beans that are roasted, ground, and brewed. The water is then extracted from the brewed coffee either by freeze-drying or by being sprayed into hot air.
Either way, the end results in granules that only need boiling water to be reconstituted as coffee.
This process removes much of the bitter-tasting caffeine, so a cup of instant has about half the caffeine level of regular ground coffee.
Instant gets a bad press, and coffee connoisseurs regard it as no more than coffee-flavored water.
In fact, it has many of the same health benefits as ground coffee in terms of antioxidants, it can improve brain function and reduce the risk of diabetes – provided of course it is not consumed with quantities of sugar and cream.
Some instant coffees are made using Arabica – major brands such as Starbucks Via, Nescafe Espresso, and Illy Classico, however most instant is made from Robusta because it is cheaper and more easily grown in large quantities.
Final thoughts on Arabica and Robusta beans
Arabica beans are more expensive than Robusta and harder to grow. The flavor profile of Robusta is stronger and more bitter than Arabica.
It all comes down to personal taste. Many people go through life drinking only Robusta in their instant coffee and are quite happy with their choice.
Others will drink only Arabica as fresh ground coffee and denigrate instant coffee.
Neither is particularly good or bad – it’s all coffee.
As the saying goes, coffee is like pizza, when it’s good it’s really good. When it’s bad it’s still good.