What is Arabica? What is Robusta? More importantly, which one is better? This article will look at Arabica vs Robusta. When considering Arabica vs Robusta, here are the quick answers:
- Arabica coffee is best for alternative brews like pour-over coffee or Aeropress.
- Arabica coffee is also best for espresso, but you could also use a blend of Arabica and Robusta.
- For instant coffee, you can’t go wrong with Robusta coffee.
I’ve spent an embarrassingly long time researching and writing this article so that you can get the most out of it. To save you some time, I’ve put together an outline of this article; click the topic to jump to that section.
What’s coming up?
- What are Arabica and Robusta? ↓
- How do they differ in taste? ↓
- How do they differ in caffeine content? ↓
- How does their crema differ? ↓
- How are Arabica and Robusta used? ↓
- How do Arabica and Robusta differ in appearance? ↓
- Where are Arabica and Robusta grown? ↓
- How does the growth environment affect Arabica and Robusta? ↓
- How are Arabica and Robusta harvested? ↓
- Which is more expensive, Arabica or Robusta? ↓
What are Arabica and Robusta?
Coffee that we know belongs to a family of plants called Coffea. Within this family, there are an estimated 25 to 100 different species of coffee plants. 
The two main species produced are Coffea Arabica (C. Arabica) and Coffea Canephora (C. Canephora).
Each species has varieties. C. Arabica has a few varieties like Bourbon, Typica, Jamaican Blue Mountain, Geisha, etc. Regardless of the variety, this species is called Arabica.
C. Canephora has two varieties, Robusta and Nganda.  This species should be called Canephora, but over time this name was forgotten. At the same time, Coffea Robusta became so well-known that traders used this name instead.
This hasn’t fallen out of fashion, and we still refer to Canephora as Robusta today.
Differences between Arabica and Robusta
The differences between Arabica and Robusta are vast. Let’s first take a look at the differences in the resulting cup. After that, we’ll look at the differences in production and cultivation.
Differences in the coffee you drink
Here’s a quick breakdown of the main differences that we’ll look at in more detail below:
- Taste – Arabica is the winner with a complex and desirable flavour profile.
- Caffeine Content – Robusta is the winner with almost double the caffeine content.
- Crema – Robusta wins thanks to its incredible crema.
- Uses – Arabica is the winner. It’s used in instant coffee, espresso and alternative brews.
Arabica coffee usually has a unique, complex and sophisticated flavour profile. Robusta coffee has a bitter, unpleasant flavour.
The flavour notes for Arabica coffee depend on the coffee’s origin, roasting profile and brewing method. Typical flavour notes are chocolate and sugar, with hints of fruits or berries.
Robusta has less acidity than Arabica coffee and usually tastes much less sweet. Robusta produces woody, bitter tones with flavour notes of burnt rubber.
One reason for the difference in taste is down to the amount of lipids and sugars. Arabica contains almost 60% more lipids and almost twice the concentration of sugars than Robusta. 
The lipids and sugars play an important role in developing the coffee’s body, key aromatics, and complex flavours.
This, combined with Robusta coffee’s caffeine content, contribute to its poor taste.
Robusta usually has between 2.2% – 2.7% caffeine, while Arabica has about 1.5% caffeine (find out more about how much caffeine is in a cup of coffee).
This is great if you’re looking for a coffee with a kick. Unfortunately, it’s not so good if you’re looking for a coffee with great flavour.
Caffeine carries with it a boost of energy, but also a lot of bitterness.
The bitter news doesn’t stop there though. Robusta coffee also has between 20%-45% more Chlorogenic Acid (CGA). According to this article, CGAs are one of the dominant sources of bitterness in roasted coffees.
Robusta still gets the win for having more caffeine but at the cost of taste.
Read the interesting methods how decaf coffee is made.
Crema is the golden-brown layer of microbubbles that you see on the top of an espresso shot.
In a study done by Wang et al. (2021) , they discovered that “Robusta coffee produced more crema than Arabica.” and that Robusta generated a larger crema volume than Arabica beans.
Crema isn’t the most important part of a coffee. Although, it is useful as it tells the barista a lot about the coffee that they are making.
The biggest effect that crema has on coffee is the public’s perception of the espresso that they’re about to drink.
According to this study by the Nestlé Research Centre , “the presence of the crema enhanced consumers’ visual perception of coffee, which in turn guided their expectations and experience of the coffee’s taste.”
This doesn’t mean that crema isn’t developed in espressos that use Arabica coffee. In fact, the crema in Arabica coffee was found to be more stable than that from Robusta. 
Read how to make espresso.
If you don’t have an espresso machine, no worries! Read 9 ways you can make espresso without a machine.
How are Robusta and Arabica coffees used?
Arabica coffee is used in instant coffee, espresso-based coffees and alternative brews.
Robusta is used in instant coffee and blends for espresso-based drinks.
Based on the above, it’s no surprise that Arabica coffee is the preferred coffee of choice. That doesn’t mean that we should discount Robusta’s importance. Robusta coffee’s unique characteristics actually make it an excellent counterpoint to Arabica.
Robusta is often used as part of a blend with Arabica coffee. Robusta coffee’s darker, smokier, bitter side adds depth and warmth to Arabica’s flavour.
Its crema gives a beautiful aesthetic to the espresso that lets the drinker feel that they’re drinking luxury. To top it off, Robusta’s caffeine adds a boost to an otherwise lethargic espresso.
So, although on paper it might seem that Arabica may be “better” than Robusta, the truth is that together they make a perfect pair.
Differences in the coffee plants
Okay, we’ve seen how the differences affect the coffee you drink. Now, let’s look at the differences in the plants themselves. Here’s a quick breakdown of what’s to come:
- How the beans look – The Arabica coffee bean is larger and has a more oval shape. The Robusta coffee bean is rounder and a bit stodgier.
- Altitude – Arabica coffee is grown at higher altitudes than Robusta coffee, which impacts the flavour of the coffees.
- Durability – Robusta coffee can grow in harsh environments. Arabica coffee is fragile.
- Harvesting – Arabica is usually hand-picked so that only ripe cherries are picked. Robusta is machine-harvested regardless of individual cherry ripeness.
- Price – Robusta coffee is cheaper to buy than Arabica coffee.
What do the beans look like?
Arabica coffee beans have an oval shape. They are usually larger than Robusta coffee beans.
Robusta coffee beans are rounder and shorter than Arabica coffee beans.
Both beans have a crease down the centre. The crease in Arabica coffee beans is usually curved. The crease in Robusta coffee beans is usually straighter.
Where are the coffees grown?
Arabica makes up about 75% of the world’s coffee production. Arabica prefers a cooler, tropical climate and is grown near the equator.
Arabica coffee is grown at a higher altitude of 1,800 – 6300 meters above sea level.
Arabica coffee is mostly grown in Ethiopia, India, Guatemala, Colombia and Brazil. Brazil is the largest coffee producing country in the world.
Robusta makes up about 25% of the world’s coffee production. Robusta prefers a lower elevation of 600 to 2,400 meters above sea level.
Robusta favours warmer climates and is grown mainly in Vietnam, West Africa and parts of South-East Asia
How does the growing environment affect the coffee?
Arabica coffee produces complex flavour profiles because of the altitude at which it’s grown.
Robusta coffee is durable and is produced faster, cheaper and easier.
This article explains how the cooler mountain temperatures provide a slower growth cycle for the coffee tree. This slows the bean development. The longer maturation process produces more complex sugars. This results in deeper and more desirable flavours.
Robusta coffee trees are hardier and more robust. The higher caffeine content acts as a natural pesticide, making them less susceptible to pests and diseases. Robusta coffee trees don’t have high demands of the soil and climate and can be grown in flat fields.
This all combines to make Robusta easy to grow and harvest.
How are they harvested?
Arabica coffee cherries are hand-picked depending on their ripeness.
Robusta coffee is machine-harvested regardless of the cherries’ ripeness.
Many coffee cherries are grown on a coffee tree. It’s these coffee cherries that house what will later become coffee beans.
In an ideal world, all the cherries would ripen at the same time and be harvested at the same time. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. This means when harvesting, one of two things happen:
- All the cherries are picked at the same time. This means that the cherries will be unripe, ripe and overripe.
- The ripe cherries should be picked individually. This is more labour-intensive and costly.
For most Arabica coffee farms, the choice has been made by the terrain that the trees are grown on. Arabica coffee trees are grown on hillsides and slopes, and machine-harvesting isn’t possible.
Because of this, the only option is to hand-pick the cherries. Although, the cherries are also hand-picked to ensure consistent quality.
Most Robusta coffee trees are grown on large, flat plantations. Robusta coffee is destined to become instant coffee or a filler in a blend. So, ensuring high quality by only picking ripe cherries isn’t incentivised. This is why Robusta coffee is usually harvested mechanically.
Out of the two, Robusta is the cheaper coffee to produce. At the time of writing, Robusta is more than half the price of Arabica coffee. This is according to this chart.
What makes Robusta coffee cheaper than Arabica coffee? Quite a few things. Mostly, it’s down to production.
Robusta is the more resilient of the two, which means less cost involved in growing it.
Robusta is grown on flat plantations, and already has a bad reputation for its taste. This means that it can be machine-harvesting which further reduces the costs.
What to do next?
Now you know the difference between Arabica and Robusta. Grab some coffee beans and read our guide on how to make the best iced coffee.
Or if you’re after a hot drink, read how to make pour over coffee or how to make French press coffee so tasty your barista will cry.
- National Coffee Association USA. Available online: https://www.ncausa.org/About-Coffee/What-is-Coffee (accessed on 16th November 2021).
- Dagoon, J.D. Agriculture & Fishery Technology Iv. Rex Bookstore, Inc. 2005, 58.
- Coffee Chemistry. Available online: https://www.coffeechemistry.com/lipids-in-coffee (accessed on 16th November 2021).
- Kath, J.; Byrareddy, V.M.; Mushtag, S.; Craparo, A. ; Porcel, M. Temperature and rainfall impacts on robusta coffee bean characteristics, Climate Risk Management. 2021
- Nestlé Research Centre. Available online: https://www.nestle.com/media/news/nespresso-study-crema-boosts-coffee-appreciation (accessed on 16th November 2021).