Casting your eyes over a supermarket hot drinks aisle, you’ll likely see the majority of ground coffee bags advertising their 100% Arabica contents. It’s so common it almost seems pointless to include on the packaging.
But why do coffee producers proudly display their Arabica credentials? What does it mean? And what (if anything) is wrong with the alternative variety, Robusta?
Let’s start from the roots. Remember that coffee beans are the seeds of the Coffea plant, and are picked by hand as ‘cherries’ before having their surrounding pulp removed. (They’re then washed and made ready for transport, with their next step being roasting.)
Well, these coffee plants actually have hundreds of varieties, with the two most common being Coffea Arabica, and Coffea canephora (also known as Robusta). They’re two different species, which grow in different conditions, and produce different types of coffee.
Robusta, as the name implies, is more robust – a hardy variety well-suited to grow in fluctuating climate conditions and lower altitudes. It’s easier for farmers to cultivate, less sensitive to insects, and is more easily mass-produced.
As far as flavour goes, Robusta is usually described as having a burnt, earthy taste with nutty undertones. You’ll also find that Robusta coffee also usually contains a higher caffeine content per bean (double that of Arabica, in some varieties), contributing to a more bitter taste. On the whole it just doesn’t taste as nice as Arabica, unless you find some really high-quality robusta – which is possible, but quite rare.
Robusta beans are sometimes used in Italian-style espresso blends, mixed in with Arabicas, as some think it improves the crema (foam head) in the finished cup. But the strength of the espresso taste might overpower the poorer quality beans – not a very enjoyable way to drink coffee. You’ll also often find robusta beans used in cheaper instant coffees.
All these factors combined mean that Robusta coffee is mostly cheaper to produce, and to buy, than Arabica. It’s got a bad reputation for quality, although really good Robustas can be made use of. For example, most Robusta is produced and consumed in Vietnam, where a Vietnamese Iced Coffee balances sugars and spices against the strong earthy tones in the Robusta.
Arabica, though, is the coffee lover’s choice. Higher in quality wherever it’s grown around the world, Arabica makes up for about 75% of global coffee production.
Arabica beans contain less caffeine than Robusta, and more sugars and lipids (fats). This explains the difference in taste – a decent Arabica will have a bright, slightly acidic flavour profile, with notes of all kinds of sweeter flavours, from fruit, to chocolate, to flowers and berries.
Arabica beans are pickier about where they’ll grow, which explains the higher production prices. These are often variable, too, due to climatic conditions around the world – a challenge that every coffee seller has to put up with.
At Neighbourhood our preference lies with Arabica. That means our current line-up of varieties, as well as all future offerings, are and will be Arabica. We think it’s a reliable indicator of really great tasting coffee – which is part of the reason we’re pleased to hold four Great Taste Awards.
Wondering how the taste holds up? Find out for yourself – head to the online shop and find your new favourite flavours.