The Coffee Plant – Arabica and Robusta
The type of coffee bean you choose will always determine the flavor of your cup of coffee but do you know the difference? Actually, there are 120 species of coffee, each processed differently to give them their own flavor but almost all of them come from two different plants, the Coffea Arabica and the Coffea Robusta plants.
These plants live in hot parts of the world, for example, most coffee is harvested from Madagascar, Africa, Australia and Asia. Of course, while there are other coffee plants, the two mentioned above are the main plants that are harvested and sold.
Understanding Arabica Coffee
Without doubt, Arabica coffee is the most popular coffee plant of all. In fact, this coffee plant is responsible for approximately 80% of the world’s production of coffee. It comes from Ethiopia in Africa and grows very tall, up to 7,000 feet. It mainly grows between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, known as “The Bean Belt”.
This area is well-known for harvesting delicious Arabic coffee because the volcanic soil is perfect for encouraging healthy growth and the weather is ideal, with regular rainfall. Additionally, there is plenty of sunshine that isn’t too hot or too cold which is vital for the plants’ healthy growth.
The Arabica bean is an oval shape and produces a very pleasant, almost semi-sweet taste. The flavor of Arabica is also smooth, deep, earthy and rich. It has an unmissable scent that is almost fruity with earthy undertones. There’s that distinctive cocoa aroma as well, with a hint of chocolate.
However, it’s important to note that there are many different flavors of Arabica coffee. The flavor doesn’t depend on the plant as such but where the plant is grown, how it is harvested and processed before it reaches your cup.
Arabica plants are very susceptible to the weather and needs to grow between 15 and 24 Deg C. There’s no way Arabica could grow in a cold climate because frost kills Arabica plants which is why these plants are only grown in warm conditions. They are also susceptible to disease and need to be greatly cared for.
In particular, the La Roya fungus attacks and kills the coffee and there’s a dangerous coffee beetle that must be kept away as it lays its eggs inside the cherries. When the newborn beetle hatches, it eats the cherries and this deteriorates the coffee’s quality. This can completely ruin a harvest. If not tended to properly, the coffee plants can die. There was a huge shortage in Arabic plants in the late 1800’s when nearly all Arabica plants were wiped out due to a fungal attack.
Arabica is assumed to be a more superior flavor coffee to its brother, Robusta and that’s because the flavor is sweeter whereas Robusta is known for its inherent bitter taste. Arabica also contains half the amount of caffeine to the Robusta beans. That’s why it’s a more popular choice, worldwide and actually, that’s why it’s more expensive than Robusta, because it’s in greater demand.
Understanding Robusta Coffee
The Robusta plant grows in West Africa and can cope with far lower altitudes and higher temperatures than Arabica. It accounts for approximately 20% of the world’s coffee consumption and is a bitterer flavored bean compared to its brother, Arabica. While it’s smaller than the Arabica bean, it contains double the amount of caffeine, it’s also round in shape (whereas the Arabica bean is oval).
Unlike the Arabica bean, the Robusta plant doesn’t need quite as much care because the high concentrate of caffeine acts as a natural deterrent to insects. It’s easier to grow and cheaper to maintain as no pesticides are required. Some people prefer this coffee because there are no pesticides involved but the flavor is very different. It’s stronger, sharper and with a higher amount of caffeine it’s a much greater stimulant than Arabica coffee.
The Robusta coffee is popular as a blend because it produces more crema when brewed. Popular belief is that Robusta coffee is of poor quality and that could be attributed to the fact that it is used in lots of instant blends (because it is cheaper to harvest).
More Differences Between Arabica and Robusta:
- Flavor, Robusta is far sharper, bitterer and much stronger than Arabica.
- Caffeine, Robusta has double the amount of caffeine to the Arabica bean so it’s a greater stimulant.
- Arabica also has 60% more lipids (twice as sweet) than Robusta which is why the latter is so bitter.
- Price, Robusta is much cheaper because it is seen as inferior quality and is often used in cheap instant coffee.
- Shape, Robusta beans are round in shape whereas Arabica beans are oval
- Cultivation – the world’s population mainly drink Arabica coffee and this accounts for 80% of the world’s coffee production, the remainder being Robusta coffee.
Whether it’s Arabica or Robusta, coffee beans are harvested once a year and it takes up to 3 months. There are different methods as follows:
The Stripping Method
This harvesting method is mainly practiced in Brazil and some parts of Africa. It’s done by hand and the cherries are removed from the plant. Unfortunately, this method doesn’t give the best results because good cherries are combined with bad cherries.
The Comb Method
This uses a large comb that removes ripe cherries from trees. It takes time but it does produce great tasting coffee as the unripe cherries remain intact.
The Mechanical Method
This uses a vibrating mechanism which fixes to the trunk of the plant and shakes the ripened cherries until they fall. However, it’s not good for the trees as the vibration can rip away the green cherries including their leaves and the flowers.
The Hand-Picked Method
This is very expensive because all the work is done by hand. The cherries are removed by hand. As this is a very selective picking method, the result is a better quality coffee bean.
So next time you visit your favorite coffee store, take a look at the coffee beans you choose and think about where they came from – they’ve travelled a long way to end up in your cup!