#Coffee Plant Species: #Arabica vs #SpecialtyRobusta

Coffee’s rich history has fascinated many. With third wave coffee, enthusiasts want to know about every step of its creation: the farmers that manage the plantations, the workers that harvest and process the coffee, and the roasters that seek the perfect roast profile.

 In the beginning, there were seeds and it was good

What begins as a seed in time becomes a tree producing beautiful white blossoms smelling of jasmine. The fruits then turn into cherries, and hiding inside these cherries are the “beans” we know so well.

The Botanical Kew Gardens in London are responsible for identifying over 120 different species of coffee, many of which are indigenous to Madagascar, Asia, and Australia. Of these species, Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora (robusta) are the two predominant ones, and they are what many of us consume daily. Although there are many other members of the coffea genus, so far they haven’t proven viable for production.

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Enjoying the fresh jasmine-scented coffee blossoms. Credit: Kao Jai Coffee

What is Arabica?

Arabica accounts for about 80% of the world’s coffee production. Indigenous to Ethiopia, it’s generally grown at altitudes of about 3,000-7,000 feet above sea level, mainly in what is known as the “bean belt” between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. This area provides the rich, often volcanic, soils; regular rainfall; and sunshine coffee needs to thrive.

Arabica requires special care as the trees are susceptible to pests and diseases. Coffee leaf rust, or La Roya, is a fungus that manifests as orange patches and impairs photosynthesis. It causes the leaves to fall, killing the tree and potentially destroying plantations if not properly treated. Arabica is also susceptible to pests like the Coffee Berry Borer, or Broca, a small beetle that lays its eggs inside coffee cherries. Once hatched, the beetle eats the cherries, drastically lowering cup quality.

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A botanical illustration of Coffea Arabica. Credit: Bio-Diversity Heritage Library

Despite these obstacles, arabica is the coffee bean of choice due to its smooth and pleasant taste compared to robusta. A cup of arabica coffee is aromatic and flavourful, with notes that can be described as floral, fruity, citrus, earthy, buttery, chocolate, caramel, honey, or sugar. The taste can also range from sweet to tangy, depending on where the bean is grown and how it is processed.

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Picking only the ripest Arabica coffee cherries. Credit: @fincaelreposob

What the Robusta?

Robusta, native to West Africa, is grown at lower altitudes and higher temperatures. It makes up the rest of the world’s coffee production. The bean is small and round but contains twice the amount of caffeine (hence the name) than the ovular arabica. The concentrated caffeine acts as a natural pesticide, helping to protect it from most insects. This makes it cheaper to grow and far easier to maintain. It also produces more crema and so is often used in blends.

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Arabica is long and ovular. Robusta is small and round. Credit: http://www.martinezfinecoffees.com

Despite having positive qualities, it’s not a popular bean. In fact, the majority of coffee enthusiasts cringe at the thought of robusta—primarily because it’s used for instant coffee or blended with arabica to produce an inexpensive and low-quality product. Once roasted and brewed, the taste of robusta is often described as bitter or harsh with a hint of wood and rubber. Yet while robusta is typically shunned by most coffee aficionados and isn’t the standard bean of choice, a defence of it has emerged.

Despite having positive qualities, it’s not a popular bean. In fact, the majority of coffee enthusiasts cringe at the thought of robusta—primarily because it’s used for instant coffee or blended with arabica to produce an inexpensive and low-quality product. Once roasted and brewed, the taste of robusta is often described as bitter or harsh with a hint of wood and rubber. Yet while robusta is typically shunned by most coffee aficionados and isn’t the standard bean of choice, a defence of it has emerged.

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Gabe Shohet, co-founder of Black Sheep, inspects a fresh batch of Robust green beans. Credit: Gabe Shohet

Originally posted in Perfect Daily Grind

Written by V. McBryde and edited by T. Newton.

Feature Photo Credit: @fincaelreposo

Key Source: The World Atlas of Coffee, James Hoffman (2014)

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