You’ve heard about the ever popularArabicas and Robustas but can you tell them apart just by taste? By no means a definitive guide, we attempt to discuss and distinguish some of the most popular coffee beans on the market today.
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“While there are about 25 major species around the world, only about 3 of them are cultivated for commercial consumption” (source). Arabica (Coffee arabica), Robusta (Coffee caniphora), Liberica (Coffee liberica), and Excelsa (Coffee liberica var. dewevrei) - which is technically a type of Liberica yet, an offshoot so distinct, it gets its own mention.
70%-80% of coffee in the world is made from Arabica beans making it the most popular bean type. Known for its sweeter, more delicate flavour, the coffee contains less caffeine than your “Robusta” types, and tends to be less “acidic” too. Arabica coffee is grown primarily in the rainforests of Brazil, with higher altitudes above sea level. Because of this elevation, mechanical farming is difficult. Farmers have to hand-pick the beans, navigating around steep slopes.
It is also one of the more difficult beans to cultivate due to a multitude of factors. Slight changes in height and temperature can directly affect the taste of these beans. Not to mention, Arabicas are also the most prone to blight and diseases. Farming in large quantities remains a challenge, driving up the price point of the beans significantly - though, many coffee drinkers happily pay for this sweet, sensitive bean.
Popular Arabica-types: Brazilian, Indonesian / Javanese, Columbian, Ethiopian (Yemen).
Robusta beans are as its name aptly describes. They are a robust bean, with double the caffeine compared to the Arabica types. Known for its strong, often bitter taste, theRobusta can taste “smokey” with notes of chocolate and rum in its flavour profile. Compared to other bean types, the Robusta is much easier to grow and cultivate. Because it can grow in lower altitudes, mechanical farming is possible, making for a higher crop yield.
Combine that with its disease-resistant quality, this bean is available in high supply, making it one of the most affordable. It forms the perfect candidate for fillers in coffee blends and inexpensive instant coffee mixes. Vietnam is now the leading exporter of Robusta coffee in the world. In fact most Vietnamese prefer the bolder often harsher taste of theRobusta compared to its Arabica counterpart.
Popular Robusta-types: Vietnamese, Brazilian, Indonesian, Ugandan, Indian, Malaysian.
Fruity, flowery and at times woody, Liberica coffee is a rare treat for many coffee enthusiasts, depending on your part of the world. There was a time where this bean had been very popular. However a rare plant disease known as “coffee rust” set in at the end of the 19th century and eliminated a large population of the plant. The popularity of the Arabica and Robusta types also contributed to its decline in production.
Liberica beans were largely cultivated along the Atlantic coast of Liberia but it is now cultivated mainly in the Philippines. Sometimes known as “Barako”, this bean has often been described as “nutty” and a “prima donna” of sorts because it relies heavily on its roasting to unleash its flavour. Roasting is key to how this coffee tastes.
Popular Liberica types: Philippines, Indonesian, Seychelles, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Malaysian.
Once considered its own “type” of coffee, the Excelsa has been reclassified as a type of Liberica. Grown primarily in Southeast Asia, the Excelsa makes up just 7% of global coffee production. It is a tartier, fruitier bean, yet known for sharing both attributes of light and dark roast coffees (source). It is a much sought-after flavour profile by coffee enthusiasts, precisely for its rarity.
*The Excelsa shares the same popular country production list as the Liberica.
We’ve said it once, we’ll say it a million times, coffee is all about your own individual preference. There is no right or wrong way to enjoy it. So get out there, find what you like and stick with it. Or if you’re in the mood for exploration, venture out and take a stab at the road less traveled.