Coffee is coffee, right? Most people think there’s only one type of coffee in the world. Surprisingly, there are lots of different coffee varietals – just like there are lots of grapes for wine. We won’t get into an entire taxonomy of coffee in this post. What we want to cover is two of the major coffee species – arabica and robusta.
And we’ll try to keep things pretty simple here. For you botanists in the crowd, check out some of these other, more in-depth resources.
Coffee’s Ugly Cousin – Robusta
Definitely more disease resistant, able to be grown at much lower elevations, and with almost three times the caffeine content, is the robusta coffee plant. Most robusta coffee is used in instant coffees and lower grade commodity coffees (think big blue or red cans at the supermarket).
You will never see “100% robusta” on a bag of coffee. That would hardly ever be a great selling point. No one would buy the coffee. In fact, one taste and you’d likely stay far, far away from it.
One year, while attending the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Roaster’s Guild retreat, I had the opportunity to cup some robusta coffee. It was in among about 5 other high quality arabica coffees. As I was going around the table tasting each one, all of the sudden I got to the robusta coffee and WOW! It was like the whole cup just up and hit me in the face. Strong, pungent, tasting like wet cardboard with a bitter aftertaste that I won’t soon forget.
Let’s face it – most robusta coffee tastes like crap. But it does have a huge caffeine kick.Roughly about three times the caffeine content of arabica coffee.
Most specialty coffee roasters wouldn’t even go near a robusta coffee bean. However, there are a few who will mix a very small amount of robusta coffee in their espresso blends (say – 10% or less) just to give it that little bit of bite.
All About Arabica Coffee Beans
Arabica coffee beans account for about 70% of the coffee production in the world. Arabica is a species of coffee bean with a little less than 100 varietals. Most of those varietals are hybrids of various sorts. The arabica species of coffee is not very disease resistant.
For best flavor, arabica coffee needs to be grown at high elevations and in a very particular climate. These higher elevations tend to create some stress on the plant that, theoretically, create more flavorful chemical compounds in the coffee beans.
The arabica coffee bean is what is used almost exclusively in the specialty coffee world. It’s prized for it’s wonderful flavors, sweetness at times, and complex chemical compounds.
If a bag you’re buying is only arabica coffee beans, you will see “100% Arabica” somewhere on the bag. Although, there is such a huge difference in flavor with arabica and it’s cousin, robusta, some specialty coffee roasters leave the world “arabica” off of the bag because it’s assumed is they would never touch anything else.
Beyond Just Arabica
Both arabica and robusta coffee are major species of the plant. Just like in the wine world, there are other types and hybrids of these coffee plants that have either evolved or been developed over the years. Each one has a particular flavor, or a particular reason for it’s development.
Green coffee importer Cafe Imports has this fantastic coffee family tree image that they’ve put together. It’s a great way to visualize some of the different varietals of coffee.
Some of the more popular varietals of arabica coffee beans ainclude:
- Bourbon – sweet, complex, delicate. Varietals include yellow bourbon, orange bourbon and others. Has nothing to do with the brown adult beverage (we like the one from our friends at Fox River Distilling). In fact, when you pronounce it, but the em-PHA-sis on the last sy-LA-ble.
- Gesha – unique, flavorful and one of the highest priced and most prized coffees in the world. When you taste one, you will know it and never forget it.
- SL28 and SL34 – By far the most creatively named varietals, Scott Laboratories was hired by the Kenyan government to develop stronger, drought resistant varieties. The result was a coffee that has a unique, sweet, citric and balanced flavor even though is suffers from very low yields on the trees.
- Typica – Grandpa of most arabica varieties. Sweet, clean and good body.
Why Don’t We Read More About Varietals?
I’m not sure what the answer is to that. As an industry, coffee is still maturing. We’ve just recently moved into what some like to term a “3rd wave” of coffee with more focus on origin and growing methods. Other industries like wine, have been there for a long, long time. Reading or purchasing grapes based on a region or varietal has been the norm for hundreds of years. But only in the last 15 to 20 years have we started to talk about coffee as anything more than just, well, coffee.
We’re definitely seeing that change, though. A more educated coffee consumer is starting to look for more details in their coffee to determine what kind of flavor it will have. From roast profile to coffee region to elevation to varietal of coffee bean, all of those details are starting to show up on coffee roaster’s web sites, coffee bags and even on menu boards at specialty cafes.
Hopefully, we’ll start to see much more detail in the future.