Most people drink coffee. Whether it’s instant, espresso, filter, frappuccino, cappuccino, mochaccino, or any of type of 'cino', you’ve probably drunk it within the past 24 hours. There are hundreds of different ways to make and drink coffee, but most people only start to interact with coffee once the beans have been roasted, ground and packaged. So, where do these beans come from?
There are two types of coffee bean: Arabica and Robusta. Depending on which of these beans is used at the start of the process, the final taste is completely different. Arabica and Robusta are grown in different ways, timescales and continents. Basically, Arabica is the higher quality bean (confusingly, however, this is not always the case, high quality Robusta beans are better than low quality Arabica) that is used for speciality and high quality coffee.
The basic differences are these; Arabica is a smaller, more delicate plant which is grown on mountain or hill sides, ideally in the shade and takes years to mature. Robusta is much hardier, it can be grown on flat land closer to sea level, produces a much higher yield and does not take as long to mature. The reason for this is that Robusta has double the amount of caffeine than Arabica. This caffeine content makes Robusta, as its name suggests, more Robust against stuff like insects or disease. Arabica is an oval shaped, darker bean, whereas Robusta beans are more round and pale.
So, the scientific bit: Robusta beans have 7-10% CGA (Chlorogenic acid content), whereas Arabica has 5-8% CGA. It’s important to note here that acids in coffee are actually a good thing, just not Chlorogenic acid because this reduces the perception of the good acids which are present. Arabica has 60% more lipids (fatty acids and oils that become important to the flavour further along in the process) than Robusta and double the concentration of sugars.
The only real important difference you need to take away from this is that Robusta has a stronger, bitter almost peanut taste while Arabica has a softer and sweeter taste with the right sort of acidic taste. But it doesn’t stop there, coffee is a natural product so there is a massive variation in the organic compounds of each harvest, something as minor as the air being slightly more humid during growing can affect the taste massively. Because of this lots of coffee roasters use blends.
Weirdly, though Italy, a country with a very good reputation for coffee often uses blends of Arabica and Robusta. This is because the two types of bean balance out each others bad qualities and enhance each others good. Only recently the trend has shifted to single origin coffee beans, which has come about with the rise in popularity of speciality coffee.
Arabica and Robusta both originate from Africa, although now Arabica is predominantly grown in Latin America and Africa and Robusta in the East in countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia and India. Arabica still makes up 75% of all coffee sales across the world, despite being the more expensive choice.