What is the difference between arabica and robusta?

Arabica beans and robusta beans are two different species of coffee grown commercially for consumption as coffee. The general differences are those of taste, the conditions under which the two species grow and economic differences.

Taste: Arabicas have a wider taste range, between varieties. They range in taste from sweet-soft to sharp-tangy. Their unroasted smell is sometimes likened to blueberries. Their roasted smell is perfumey with fruity notes and sugary tones.
Robustas taste range is neutral to harsh and they are often described as tasting grain-like, oatmeally. Burnt tires is the description that I personally find most accurate. Their unroasted smell is often described as raw-peanutty. There are high quality robustas on the market but they are rare and reserved exclusively for the best robusta containing espressos.

Production Conditions: Arabicas are delicate, they require cool subtropical climates, lots of moisture, rich soil, shade and sun. They are subject to attack from various pests, and are extremely vulnerable to cold and bad handling. Arabicas also must be grown at a higher elevation of 600 to 2000 meters.

Robustas are hardier plants, capable of growing well at low altitudes of 200 to 800 meters, they are also less subject to problems related to pests and rough handling. They yield more pounds of finished goods per acre at a lower cost of production.

Economics: Customs and trade, supply and demand over the course of the last 150 years has determined the relative values of arabica vs. robusta beans. Generally speaking, the best coffees are all arabicas and the highest quality blends are pure arabica blends. They are also the priciest.

In the U.S. you will generally find arabicas in the coffee store and specialty food shop, and robustas in the supermarket cans. Jars of instant are almost exclusively robusta.

In Italy, home of espresso, the very highest quality brands are pure arabica, and like here, the popular-priced goods are blended with robusta beans. Because “Imported from Italy” can make an ordinary supermarket quality Italian espresso a “gourmet” coffee in the U.S., you will find robustas in some Italian brands offered for sale in the United States.

The coffee you like is a very personal thing. You may find that you really prefer the all-arabica blends, or you may feel comfortable with something less, just because you like it. That’s OK. The American marketplace, thanks to the Specialty Coffee movement here, is now rich enough in roast types, species, varieties, blends, brews, grinds, and price points to have something for every taste and pocketbook.

It should be noted that a low quality arabica bean cupped next to a high quality robusta will probably be the inferior bean. So, don’t get too caught up in the arabica versus robusta argument. Many great espresso blends use robusta for it’s strength and crema.

I should also mention that Arabica does not equal quality. Over seventy percent of the coffee grown throughout the world is arabica. Much of it is garbage so do not assume that just because you are buying arabica you are getting a quality coffee.

One other side note that must be mentioned is that Robusta has approximately twice as much caffeine as Arabica. This may be an issue for some people when choosing their coffee.

20 thoughts on “What is the difference between arabica and robusta?”

  1. The personal is political

    There is another dimension to all this that rarely seems to get a mention.

    I buy only Arabica because Arabica generally requires a larger, more skilled workforce to harvest. Because Arabica will not grow well at high temperatures, but still needs sunlight, it needs to be grown at altitude in tropical zones – typically on hill slopes where mechanical harvesters cannot be readily or efficiently used.

    Robusta can be grown in hotter conditions – so it can be grown on the plains where it can be harvested mechanically and cheaply. The cheaper Robusta floods the local market and this then helps drive the more expensive Arabica growers out of business. The Arabica workers then end up working for the big Robusta growers, if there’s work available.

    More often because Robusta can be harvested by relatively few workers using mechanical harvesters, there is no work for the unemployed Arabica workers who end up displaced from their traditional livelihoods and flood into the urban slums in search of work.

    In short, if you want to support the big agro businesses that do so much damage to our planet, then buy Robusta!

    If on the other hand you want to help small communities survive, start by ensuring that you only buy Arabica.

    1. Don’t understand this comment

      Don’t understand this comment as person is “political”. Find it’s unfair to a very fairly / objectively written article that is precise and easy to understand.

      Pls keep own preference w urself only and leave fair / impartial comment is important for ppl who really wants to understand and be more knowledgable.

        1. Argree: personal is political

          I agree with you, I don’t know what that guy is smoking wanting a comment to be impartial!! Colenso is not reporting the news; he commented on Arabica vs Robusta coffees based on facts and personal beliefs, which I happen to agree with..support small farmers and great taste.

          1. If you don’t understand…

            Perhaps if the anonymous commenter doesn’t understand a comment then s/he should simply ask for clarification rather than criticize. Why would you think you were up to making criticism when you’ve admitted you don’t understand the comment? I also agree about the personal/political choice of supporting coffee-growing communities which is why we always buy fairtrade arabica. Cheers.

    2. What if Robusta is harvested,

      What if Robusta is harvested, not with highly mechanised model, but with a large work force, without displacing their jobs? 

      What if Robusta grown is a high quality Robusta? A better tasting variety?

      Arabica was discovered by mankind a hundred years prior to generating other varieties. That doesn’t mean other variety coffee doesn’t have superior tasting output.

      1. The trouble with conditional statements…

        What If…???
        ‘If’ denotes a conditional statement; and it way too easy to state a thing in a way that none of the conditions of the statement are or can be true.

        My father was fond of saying:

        “If a chicken had a square butt; it would lay cubes.”
        or,
        “If I had a square butt; I’d sh*t cubes.”

        …thus discounting anything I said that began with ‘if’…

        1. The trouble with conditional statements and ill informed people

          Your knowledge of the coffee market is as weak as your knowledge of the anatomy of a chicken.

          “If a chicken had a square butt; it would still lay normal eggs it might sh*t cubes but the eggs would be normal. There is not an animal on the planet that lays or births out of its butt”

          With proper research and gathering of actual information you would have realized the flaw in the statement before writting it on the internet. Rather than just rehashing someone else opion and passing it off as your own.

    3. Not a clear choice

      It’s not as clear a choice as choosing Arabica over Robusta: The reason why there was so much investment in Robusta, for example in Vietnam, was the demand for cheap coffee and cheap means low quality. So what do the coffee companies do with it? They steam it to remove the taste and then replace the taste with something else. Lo and behold we have the flavoured coffee or even the gourmet flavoured coffee such as “smooth vanilla” which can and do cost more than a quality roasted Arabica. Robusta beans also make their way into instant coffee and premixed coffee such as those consumed in great quantities in Korea. So really it’s not so much a case of choosing Arabica over Robusta but choosing to avoid those coffee products which contain Robusta of which there are many. But really it’s a matter of personal preference and personal choice and what is excellence to one is a load of rubbish to another: For example, I drink Vietnamese coffee done in the usual way in a Phin with condensed milk in the cup because I like it. So to me Vietnamese Robusta is the bee’s knees.

      1. Ultimately it boils down to personal taste…

        Personally, I prefer the Arabicas because they don’t give me heartburn, allowing me to drink it all day; and I can roast my own to control the caffeine content (heat destroys caffeine, so the lighter the roast, the more caffeine ends up in the cup).

        But, ultimately, it boils down to personal taste; what tickles your palate is all you should consider when picking your coffee.

        That said; it’s time for my morning quad cappuccino. Today’s cup is a nice medium roasted Jamaican Blue Mountain Peaberry… in a cup of frothed half and half from a local dairy …mmm!

        1. We don’t all work for Starbucks

          Arabica beans are common … and frankly crap. Expensive crap. Robusta is a better cheaper bean .. and that is obviously way beyond you.

          1. RE: We don’t all work for Starbucks

            I’m sorry to say you are are mistaken. There is simply no expert advice that can back this up. Having tried “good” robusta that was on par in price with mid price arabica and my experience is that it’s at best useful in an espresso blend to help with crema but only in amounts small enough that the flavor is hidden.

      1. Total Crap

        Try your logic out on all the Euro Coffee Shops who only use Robusta the finest bean on the planet … worth the money and can this poor me sales pitch. You want to sell Arabica Beans fine. Generic as can be .. bland and a waste of time .. but that’s your business. Don’t lie about about the Robusta business.

    4. Food for thought

      This is a really interesting point actually. Also, I suppose its a no brainer that Vietnam produces the most Robusta – high yields and cheap labour force!

  2. Cheap-Crap 90’s Coffee vs. Fair Trade Growers Today

    …Remember the days of Folgers commercials where “Juan Valdes” in Colombia went out to pick only re ripest beans that day on the mountain? In the 90s Folgers ditched that and in its corporate farm exploitive fashion coupled with the com. gov. of Vietnam nearly ruined the coffee industry. There was no quality control, the Vietnamese flooded the market and coffee prices plunged from about $11 to $1 lb. Thanks to the growing “Fair Trade” movement the rest of the world’s growers survived it. The Viet Café was picked whole tree at a time, and frankly tasted nasty, I remember many a brew that reminded me of a wet ashtray, akin to the burnt tire comments of the article. I stopped drinking coffee for a short while, the desire for the taste and need for caffeine overcame that by bringing my own coffee to work, usually a Mexican coffee.
    In the mid-90s I was just an generic coffee drinker who grew up on instant, thus no appreciation. When I had it at restaurants I described the taste often as flat and dull, perhaps that was Robusta? …or maybe pure Columbian? (fyi – when I lived in Honduras I was informed that the bulk of their beans were shipped to Columbia to blend with their beans and thus sold as Columbian)
    Over the years I began to buy bulk beans in many varieties form all over the world usually 1/4 lb at a time to sample… I tried flavored varieties too.
    Now I grind for espresso. And though I try different brands, I keep coming back to buying a bag from Starbucks. Last week a friend brought me some beans fresh brought home in luggage from Cuba… oh my it made some wonderful espresso!
    Okay, time to finish my coffee!

  3. “… popular-priced goods are

    “… popular-priced goods are blended with robusta beans …” – Thank you, I just had a good laugh… If I buy an average quality robusta here (Germany), which is only sold by a local roaster on custom order, I pay around twice as much per kilo as for the most expensive arabica I can get in the supermarket… A little less generalization might have helped…

    When it comes down to supermarket quality, the most expensive espresso brands here are the ones that add some robusta – weirdly though there is an italian brand (at the upper supermarket price-range) that is 70% robusta, meant to be prepared as espresso: Robusta tends to produce significantly more crema when prepared with high pressure (piston). Maybe there is a “100% crema”-faction out there that likes there espresso all foam…?

    “Burnt tires is the description that I personally find most accurate…” – Well I can somewhat relate to that. While I do prefer the very bitter taste and do sometimes drink pure robusta, robusta it is actually meant to be mixed in, as you wrote.
    Now consider that robusta has a naturally “harsher” taste than arabica, a melange containing some robusta does not need to be such a dark roast as a 100% arabica espresso. Pure arabica, in order to get some of that bitter, espresso-like taste, has to be roasted longer and/or at higher temperature than robusta, meaning more acrylamide, meaning less healthy.

    Conclusion: Mix in some good robusta and take some less powder if your machine allows for that. -You need less for the same taste, trust me, and you will have a better espresso at only a slightly higher price compared to the best supermarket brands…

  4. Robusta is Cheaper to Produce

    Robusta is cheaper to produce, and it is more resistant to diseases than Arabica. Growers would love to grow Robusta, because is more convenient. However, the market request is for Arabica, which is the better tasting of the two.
    Robusta is used in some espresso blends because it produces a lot of crema, but never used more than 25% in the blend, more commonly around 15-20%.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *