We have all seen whole bean coffee advertised as being “100 percent Arabica”. What does this really mean? And why is Arabica the bean of choice?
Let me provide some background. There are essentially two varieties of the coffee plant that are grown as a crop for consumption – Robusta and Arabica.
Robusta (coffea Canephora) has origins in central and western sub-saharan Africa, and it is is generally grown at lower altitudes, in places like Vietnam, Africa and Brazil. When I think of Robusta, I think “Folgers” or “Maxwell House” coffees that you find in the supermarket. Robusta is much cheaper than Arabica. It has nearly twice as much caffiene as Arabica has, and is more resistant to disease and pests than Arabica. It usually produces a larger crop than Arabica, and is characterized as a strong, full bodied but bitter coffee.
Arabica, is prized for it’s flavor and complexity. Seventy percent of all coffee beans grown are Arabica, which grows best at higher elevations in tropical or sub-tropical climates. Arabica is harder to grow. It is more susceptible to climate, pests and disease. and therefore, more expensive to produce.
If an arabica coffee growing country experiences too much (or too little) rain or an unexpected freeze, all the coffee plants could be ruined and a season’s worth of crops lost. Since arabica is such a delicate plant, when these events take place, it can have a big impact on coffee prices due to underproduction. Keep in mind this does not mean all Arabica coffee is “high quality”. This is why roasters travel the world to source the best beans they can find, and develop relationships with their farmers.
Many great espresso blends use some Robusta in the blend for it’s strength and crema, and to add a strength and “finish”. Interestingly enough, Robusta was not even recognized as a species of coffee until the 19th century, nearly a hundred years after Arabica.
Sweet Maria’s in Oakland, California has a great article on blending for espresso which touches upon Robusta and Arabica.
On another note…here is an interesting blog post about corporate coffee, and a reason to support sustainable coffee.
and a very cool interactive roaster map!