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Arabica vs Robusta – what’s the difference?

There are hundreds of different coffee varieties out there, Arabica and Robusta are the two most identifiable and they make up nearly 95% of the world’s commercial coffee production.

But what actually is the difference between the two of them, and how does it affect the coffee you drink?

Key differences

Growing Conditions

Arabica is a much more fragile plant, and it needs just the right balance of sun and shade to flourish. That’s why Arabica plants in general are found higher up the hillsides where the air is cooler and pests & disease are less widespread – typically favouring subtropical climates with lots of moisture, rich soil and shade.

Robusta, on the other hand, is a much tougher plant – it’s more disease resistant, less susceptible to over-exposure, and with a much more consistent and reliable yield than Arabica varieties. Because of this, they can be grown at lower altitudes and require much less maintaining than the Arabica plant.

Taste & Flavour – Which is best?

The difference in growing conditions may not seem like much, but it has a significant impact on the taste & flavour which is crucial.

Because Arabica is naturally more mild & aromatic than Robusta, the characteristics it inherits from its growing environment become more accentuated, meaning that Arabica coffee has a much wider range of flavours and aromas than Robusta – ranging from sharp, citrus-style tang to sweet, fruity, floral softness.

Robusta, grown at lower altitudes, has about double the quantity of caffeine with only about half the amount of sugar.  This  means that you get a more bitter, less sweet taste than Arabica. Flavour notes associated with Robusta can be bitter, burnt, or  gritty – with the unroasted bean often being described as malty or nutty.

Because of these characteristics, Arabicas are usually seen as a much more sought after bean, with its natural sweetness and range winning over Robusta’s classically dark, burnt and smoky reputation. But is this a fair representation?

The Rebirth of Robusta

In reality there is nothing that surpasses a top quality Arabica.  But there are some fantastic Robusta producers out there creating fantastic, beautiful coffees – all it takes is a bit more care, and a lot more effort than you’d usually find in traditional mass Robusta cultivation.

Some Robusta, just like their Arabica counterparts, are shade-grown, hand picked and most importantly fully washed and sun-dried; something that you rarely see with normal Robustas.  Because of this, the resulting coffee has a strong aroma and a depth & complexity seldom found in other Robustas.