What Are The Differences Between Arabica And Robusta Coffee?

Enrique Moreno
January 28, 2021
coffee cherries

While there are more than 120 different species of Coffea, just two make up the bulk of worldwide coffee production: arabica and robusta.

Arabica is predominantly used among specialty coffee roasters thanks to its distinct, complex, and delicate flavour notes. However, robusta has been used in blends and soluble coffee for decades; it is also gradually becoming increasingly popular in the specialty market, with movements towards “fine robusta” in countries such as Brazil.

To learn more about the arabica and robusta coffee species, I spoke with MTPak Coffee Brand Ambassador Dulce Barrera.

What Are The Main Differences Between Arabica And Robusta Coffee?

There are many different species of Coffea that occur naturally in the wild, the majority of which are native to the east coast of Africa. However, the two species that make up nearly all the coffee grown for consumption are C. robusta and C. arabica.

Arabica originates from the Ethiopian Highlands and neighbouring regions of Kenya and South Sudan, where it can still be found today. Recognised for its complex flavour notes, high acidity, and distinct aromas, arabica makes up nearly all varieties of specialty coffee.

The majority of arabica coffee is widely thought to have superior taste and quality compared to the harsh and bitter taste of robusta. As a result, it has been considerably more popular among consumers: In the 12 months ending up to November 2020, global exports of arabica totalled nearly 80 million bags compared to 48.6 million bags of robusta. 

However, the high level of care typically involved in the cultivation of arabica plants means that the coffee produced is significantly more expensive. Furthermore, while robusta can tolerate extreme weather conditions and outbreaks of diseases, arabica is incredibly sensitive to its surroundings and terroir (the soil and other growing conditions).

The extra work that goes into fending off pests and diseases naturally pushes up the costs of production for farmers and is reflected in its global price. In 2018, the average worldwide price of arabica was almost twice that of robusta.

Dulce Barrera is a taster at DB Sensory Lab. She tells me that what sets the two species apart is the altitude at which they’re grown.

“Robusta is much hardier than arabica,” she says. “Robusta can grow perfectly well around 500 metres above sea level (m.a.s.l.), whereas quality arabica coffee needs to be at least 1,200 m.a.s.l. 

“The best arabica is grown at 1,500 m.a.s.l., while exceptional varieties can be grown as high as 1,800 m.a.s.l.”

Is There Room For Robusta In The Specialty Coffee Market?

Arabica coffee has dominated the specialty market for decades as consumers generally look for higher-quality beans with more complex and delicate flavour notes. Robusta, on the other hand, is generally preferred for instant and soluble coffees, as it is cheaper to produce. It also has a higher caffeine level, at around 2.7% compared to 1.5% for arabica.

However, robusta is also used by specialty coffee roasters to lower the cost of blends and create more crema, particularly for those intended to make espresso. In an article for Barista Magazine, the owner of San Jose’s Chromatic Coffee, Hiver van Geenhoven, says: “Robusta can add a unique and powerful quality to an espresso blend that no arabica can quite match.”

This is especially common in Europe, where a long-term preference for espresso means that people are more likely to appreciate the bitter taste of robusta coffee. In 2018, about one-third of European green coffee imports were of the robusta species. 

“Robusta is [more] popular in countries such as Italy, France, and Spain,” Dulce explains. “I think that for people who are used to drinking bitter coffee, it is very difficult for them to abandon robusta for arabica.”

Over the last 50 years, the production of robusta has steadily increased. Partly due to the impact of climate change on the production of arabica, there is a renewed interest in the opportunity to diversify production of some lower altitude arabica coffee zones with robusta coffee.

Dulce tells me that experiments aimed at improving the quality of robusta coffee in Guatemala have been successful. She believes that there is certainly room for robusta in the specialty market, if not now then in the future.

“A new trend has emerged here in Guatemala,” Dulce says. “We’re starting to plant more robusta, doing more selective and controlled hand picking, and using washed processes. This produces a noticeable difference in terms of quality, which can help drive up the price of the beans.

“I think that, eventually, we’ll get to a point where robusta coffee can compete with arabica.”

Do Arabica And Robusta Need Different Packaging?

Arabica and robusta coffees tend to have completely different characteristics, from caffeine level to flavour. Their variation in terms of size, production, and target roast profiles set them apart as two distinct products.

For that reason, it’s important specialty coffee roasters make these distinctions clear when they are choosing their packaging. 

For example, with single origin arabica, roasters may choose to include more information on the “story” behind the coffee, including where the coffee was grown and the people involved in its production.

However, for robusta-arabica blends, roasters might instead focus more on the flavour notes and brewing instructions, rather than the provenance of the coffee. They may often brand it as a more intense, “stronger” coffee, due to the higher caffeine content and naturally stark flavours.

Dulce tells me that aside from the information you include, it’s essential to use high-quality packaging for both robusta and arabica coffee.

“Both species of coffee are affected by exposure to oxygen, light, moisture, and temperature,” she says. “Therefore, to extend their shelf life and maintain freshness, they should be packaged in the same way after roasting.”

It’s also important to include degassing valves on your packaging, particularly for coffee that includes robusta. Degassing valves allow the carbon dioxide released by coffee after roasting to escape the pouch without letting oxygen in. 

Because robusta beans have higher sucrose and carbohydrate levels, they tend to degas more quickly than arabica. This means that roasters should include a degassing valve on their packaging to ensure that the pouch does not split in transit or storage.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer recyclable, BPA-free degassing valves that can be fitted during or after manufacture to any of our coffee pouches.

No matter what type of coffee you provide, whether a single origin arabica or an espresso blend that includes robusta, we can help you find the perfect packaging solution. 

At MTPak Coffee, we have a wide range of sustainable coffee pouches that will effectively maintain the unique qualities of your coffee, while communicating the essence of your brand to consumers.

For information on our coffee packaging solutions, contact our team.

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