The world of coffee can be a dizzyingly fascinating place, with all the different brands out there, each with their own unique flavours, aromas and textures.
No doubt you have heard of Arabica coffee before, maybe even seen it on the packaging of a bag of coffee. But what is Arabica coffee? Why does it seem to dominate the world’s coffee production? Is it the best coffee out there?
We’ve answered all these coffee queries and more. So let’s begin with the simplest and most obvious question.
What Is Arabica Coffee?
There is no wonder you’ve heard of Arabica coffee. The chances are, if you’ve ever had a cup of coffee in your life it, would have been Arabica coffee, or at least had some Arabica beans in the blend.
It originated in the Southwestern highlands of Ethiopia, in the same area of Africa that Homo Sapiens evolved a few hundred thousand years ago.
Coffee Arabica is favoured for its vibrant and complex flavours that are unique to this particular bean. There are a few reasons as to why the Arabica coffee bean has these beautiful flavours, but we’ll get into that further down.
A Brief History Of Arabica Coffee
Where Does Arabica Coffee Come From?
The bean’s origins come from the highlands of the Kefa kingdom, which is modern day Ethiopia, and we think the first people to consume coffee were the Oromo tribe around 3000 years ago.
Instead of brewing a coffee as we know it today, they crushed the beans and mixed them with fat to make an edible snack to use as a stimulant. They could have taken these energising balls on hunts to give them a boost of energy.
It was around the 7th century when the species we call Coffea Arabica (arabica coffee) got its name. You may be wondering why it’s called Arabica, and not something along the lines of Ethiopia.
When the little bean crossed the Red Sea from Ethiopia into modern day Yemen and lower Arabia, it became a big hit with the locals. Coffee houses (called qahveh khaneh), began to pop up and became centralised places for important political discussions, playing games, watching entertainment, and gossiping. The first ones were recorded through the 14th and 15th century.
The people living in 7th century Arabia pioneered the modern day method to roast and then crush coffee beans to brew our cup of Joe. From there, it spread to the Egyptians and Turks, before spreading around the rest of the world.
The First Cultivated Coffee
As coffee began to spread like wildfire across the globe, there was a lot of competition for cultivation. Arabica coffee is believed to be the first coffee to be sown well over a thousand years ago in southwest Arabia.
By the 15th century, coffee farms were popping up all over modern day Egypt, Syria, Persia and Turkey.
As coffee grew in popularity throughout Arabia, the thousands of pilgrims that came to visit the holy city of Mecca discovered this drink too. The pilgrims took their knowledge of this “wine of Araby” back to their native country, spreading the news of coffee.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that coffee made its way into Europe, but from there it’s popularity grew and grew (that is after being called the “invention of Satan” by a few).
The first European country to set up a coffee farm were the Dutch in the 17th century which was located in the Indonesian Archipelago.
From there, coffee houses opened up throughout Europe, with the first one being in Venice in 1645. There was no turning back then, as coffee houses sprung up everywhere, with the first one appearing in London in 1652.
Although coffee made its way to the US in the mid 1600s, it wasn’t until the 18th century that coffee really began to pick up in the US. It was the help of the Boston Tea Party, a revolt against the heavy tax on tea by King George III, which pushed Americans to start drinking coffee and boycotting tea.
What Is Robusta Coffee?
Robusta coffee, from the Coffea canephora plant, is the second most popular coffee that’s grown throughout the world. Around 30% of the world’s total production of coffee is Robusta. However, this is not because of its complex flavour profile.
You can typically describe Robusta beans as strong, bitter, harsh and deep in flavour. It has a much higher caffeine content than Arabica beans, which give it a more bitter taste.
Oftentimes, Robusta coffee is perfect for instant coffee or creating a blend where the producer is looking for a high caffeine content coffee.
Mixing the two beans is perfect as you take the high amounts of caffeine from the Robusta beans, and the delicious, sweet flavours from the Arabica beans.
So Why Is Arabica Coffee The Most Popular Coffee?
Although Arabica coffee is no doubt the most commonly grown coffee throughout the world, there’s an argument that it’s not the most valuable.
A lot of coffee shops and brands today use a blend of Arabica and Robusta coffee, as they can complement each other perfectly. Expert coffee roasters look to find a delicate balance using the harshness of the Robusta beans and the beautiful flavours and aromas of the Arabica beans.
With the majority of the western world drinking lattes, where milk makes up over ⅔ of the drink, sometimes the milk can affect the flavour of the coffee. These roasters will fine tune their blend so the flavours of the coffee still shine through the milk.
Throughout most of Southern Europe, people prefer their coffee to have a dark, bitter and earthier flavour, drinking a lot of espresso and coffee drinks with very little milk.
Over the years, there has been more of a change of taste towards Arabica coffee, which is why this bean dominates the coffee shops throughout the world.
We just can’t get enough of all the different flavours this little bean has to offer!
What’s The Difference Between Arabica And Robusta Beans?
It can be quite difficult to distinguish which species of coffee each bean is. These are some of the main differences between the two most popular species.
Growing And Harvesting
Robusta is much easier to tend to on the farm, and easier to grow, which is due to a couple of different things.
Firstly, the caffeine content helps to act as a pesticide as it’s poisonous to bugs and insects at levels found in Robusta. It is also much more robust (hence the name) than Arabica, meaning it can grow in more versatile weather conditions, and enjoys hot temperatures, lots of sun, and lots of water.
Arabica plants are also much more prone to a disease called Coffee Leaf Rust, or Hemileia Vastatrix by it’s proper name. This is a fungus which is devastating to coffee plantations, as it can wipe out many crops if the fungus grows for long enough.
It was during the late 18th century, when most of the world’s Arabica coffee was wiped out due to the disease, that Coffea canephora (Robusta coffee) was discovered. It was named appropriately due to it’s apparent protection from Coffee Leaf Rust.
Robusta beans also tend to have a higher harvest yield compared to Arabica.
As we mentioned further up, and being one of the biggest differences between the two regarding taste, Robusta beans contain quite a bit more caffeine than Arabica beans. Arabica beans have around 1.5% caffeine content, which is almost half that of Robusta beans which is around 2.7%.
Because caffeine has quite a bitter flavour, there’s no surprise then that Robusta beans taste more bitter. Not only that, but Robusta beans have been described by some as tasting burnt and having too strong a flavour for many peoples liking.
Where Arabica beans lack in caffeine content, they more than make up for in sugar. They contain twice as much sugar as Robusta beans, and up to 60% more lipids.
During the roasting process, especially with a dark roast, these sugars will break down and caramelise, creating very sweet flavours like caramel, dark chocolate and molasses.
The two beans actually have a physical difference too.
Arabica beans are closer to that stereotypical image of a coffee bean you have in mind, with the ‘S’ shape down the centre, and being more oval than round.
Robusta beans tend to be more circular and thicker, with a straighter line down the middle.
Where Is Arabica Coffee Grown?
There are many countries around the world that grow Arabica coffee beans.
Brazil produces around half of the global Arabica coffee each year, which is a staggering amount.
In order of the amount produced after Brazil and Colombia, it goes Ethiopia, Honduras, Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and China. A splattering of other countries make up the last couple of percent produced globally.
Where Is Robusta Coffee Grown?
The majority of the world’s Robusta coffee is grown in Vietnam, where French colonists introduced the plant to the country in the late 19th century. It’s only been in recent years where their coffee production has dramatically increased.
Vietnam now produces around 40% of the total Robusta production.
After Vietnam, it’s Brazil that produces 25% of world production, followed by Indonesia at 13%, India at 5% and then Uganda at 5%.
What Does ‘100% Arabica Coffee’ Mean?
There’s no doubt that you will have seen this written on bags of coffee before. Brands love to advertise that their blend is 100% arabica coffee, but what does that actually mean?
Well, it means that there’s no Robusta beans in the bag at all to start with. The reason brands feel the need to differentiate themselves from the brands that use a blend of the two beans, stems back to around 100 years ago.
Arabica dominated the world in the mid 20th century, so when Robusta beans started to become more popular, there was a push to single out arabica beans as being the superior, better quality beans.
However, in today’s world, just because a brand advertises as ‘100% arabica’, doesn’t mean the contents of the bag is going to be better quality. Yes, they may have paid more money to produce the bag, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to taste better.
It all depends on each individual’s subjective idea of a ‘quality cuppa’. Taste preferences differ, and so what might be an amazing coffee for one person, might not be for another.
Bottom line, don’t use the label ‘100% arabica beans’ as an indication of a really great bag of beans. The best way to find top quality coffee is to visit a local coffee roasters and speak to the guys there.
Chances are they’re going to provide you with a super fresh bag of roasted coffee, something much fresher than what you get at a supermarket.
The Best Ways To Brew Arabica Coffee
How could we end this incredibly informative post without giving you a couple of tips on how to brew an amazing coffee. We do have a detailed ‘how to’ guide for different brewing methods, but here are a couple of things you can do regardless of what method you use.
Grind your own beans, but only what you need – This is a biggie, and a game changer. Don’t shy away from grinding up whole beans. Coffee grinders aren’t too expensive, especially the manual ones, and it’s going to change everything you thought you knew about coffee.
There’s going to be new flavours, new aromas, new textures. Thank me later. (make sure you grind your beans to the right size however, you can find the answer to that question here)
Grinding how much you need, when you need it is going to preserve your beans freshness too.
Store your beans correctly– Just like there’s a way to store potatoes, cheese, wine and bread correctly, there’s a right way to store coffee beans. You want to keep them out of direct sunlight, away from damp cupboards, and in an airtight container.
Buy small and often – If you go shopping at least once a week, then there’s no need to store more than a week’s worth of coffee. The fresher the better, so the key point here is not to be greedy, there’ll be plenty of coffee on the shelves next week too.
Consistency matters – I know I’m a coffee fanatic, but weighing out how much coffee to grind up, how much water to use and the temperature of that water, matters.Do you ever make a perfect cuppa, one where you’re nodding your head after every sip in appreciation, but then the next day it just doesn’t taste the same? Well, that’s where consistency comes in. A pair of scales will help fix this.
Try different brewing methods – Not all coffee brewing methods produce the same taste. Some highlight different characteristics of your beans. For example, an automatic drip coffee maker will brew a more mild cuppa than a French press, which brews a more bold and dark flavour.
Arabica beans are the most common type of coffee bean you’ll find, and although they’re the pricier of the two, Arabica is most likely going to be the tastiest.
So there you have it. I hope we answered all of your coffee queries, but don’t be shy to let us know if we haven’t. Tell us in the comments!
Don’t forget to check out some of our coffee reviews to help you find the best coffee beans for your taste buds.