Out of over 100 coffee species, two main ones are widely produced and consumed: Arabica and Robusta. After harvesting, roasting, and brewing, they both produce coffee.
But, there are some significant differences in the plant and its growing conditions that are ultimately reflected in the taste and quality of the coffee.
Read on to find out about the differences between Arabica and Robusta coffee.
What Is Arabica Coffee?
What we know as Arabica coffee comes from the beans of the Coffea arabica plant, which originated in Ethiopia. Today, it’s the most popular coffee type, making up around 60% of the world’s volume. 
Known for its smooth and rich taste, nearly every commercial blend consumed in the western world today is predominantly Arabica. Unsurprisingly, the greatest coffees and practically all specialty coffee in the world are Arabica.
The two main varieties of Arabica are Typica and Bourbon, while some other well-known varieties include Kona Caturra, Pacamara, and Villalobos.
What is Robusta Coffee?
Coffea canephora (commonly referred to as Robusta) is the second most popular main variety in the world. Originated in western and central sub-Saharan Africa, it constitutes around 40% of the coffee consumed worldwide.
Owing to its bitter and harsh taste, it’s often used in instant coffee, espresso, and filler in certain blends. Also, cheap ground coffee in the supermarket is most certainly Robusta. Compared to Arabica, its quality is considered inferior.
Arabica vs Robusta
The height of an Arabica shrub can reach up to 15 feet (5m), but it’s usually pruned to around 6 feet (2m) to make the harvest easier. It takes about four years for the plant to produce fruit, characterized by its ellipsoidal shape. Inside there are two flat seeds, known as coffee beans. Having two sets of chromosomes, it’s capable of self-pollination.
The Robusta plant, on the other hand, is more robust, about twice the size, and has larger leaves than those of the Arabica plant. It needs less time to mature, producing fruit faster and yielding more crops.
Compared to Arabica, its beans are darker, smaller, and rounder in shape.
The fact that the two varieties are grown under different conditions results in distinct taste profiles – the difference we most care about.
Considered superior in taste, Arabica beans have an extensive taste range, from sweet to tangy with flavor notes of fruit and sugar. You’ll appreciate it if you prefer smoothness. Also, its acidity is higher, often resulting in a winey taste.
Conversely, the taste profile of Robusta can be described as harsh and bitter with grainy overtones. In the best case (with some nicer variants), you’ll find characteristically earthy flavors of grain and peanuts.
In the worst case, however, you’ll detect flavors resembling burned tires or rubbery. By many, the taste of Robusta is simply described as boring.
While people who are not used to drinking coffee might find Robusta’s flavors unpleasant, it can be appreciated by those who prefer a hearty taste. Also, Robusta is known to produce a better crema than Arabica. For this reason, you can often find it in espresso blends.
The Arabica plant is home to subtropical climate zones and grows best in higher elevations, ranging from about 2000 – 6000 feet (600 – 2000m) above sea level. The plant prefers shade with temperatures ranging from 60-75°F (15-24°C), with warm days and cool nights.
The Arabica plant is not only vulnerable to unfavorable climatic conditions but also pests. This makes it more difficult to handle it right and get consistent yields.
Today it’s predominantly grown in Latin America, with smaller growing regions in Africa and Papua New Guinea. The top three producing countries are Brazil, Colombia, and Ethiopia. Colombia exclusively produces Arabica coffee.
On the flip side, Robusta grows in lower elevations, withstands higher temperatures, and thrives in full sun. Not only in terms of climatic conditions is Robusta much more resilient than Arabica.
The extra caffeine functions as a chemical defense, warding off bugs. Better resilience means it can be grown in more places. On top of that, it produces better yields than Arabica. Often, this means that rainforest is clear-cut to mono-crop Robusta on vast land areas.
Robusta is mainly grown in Africa and Asia, with the three largest producers being Viet Nam, Brazil, and Indonesia. 95% of all Vietnamese coffee is Robusta.
In terms of nutritional content, Arabica has twice the amount of sugar and 60% more lipids than Robusta. This is part of the reason that Arabica is more flavorful, as these nutrients capture the flavors better.
In contrast, with 2.2% – 2.7% caffeine, Robusta contains almost double the amount as Arabica (with 1.2% – 1.5%). While this is great news for those in search of a caffeine fix, it’s less than ideal for the taste, as it makes it more bitter.
Robusta also contains more chlorogenic acid, a significant antioxidant and insect deterrent.
When we keep in mind that Robusta matures faster, requires less care, and yields more crops, it’s not surprising that it’s significantly less expensive.
On the commodity market, Robusta green beans are typically half the price of Arabica. For this reason, in the past, some roasters tried to increase their profit by blending in Robusta.
So, is there a winner? Not really, although for most people, Arabica is the first choice. Its smoothness and complexity of taste make it the most consumed main variety for a reason. But maybe you’re into rich, harsh coffee with extra caffeine, or you just like some extra crema in your espresso.
The truth is that Arabica doesn’t promise good quality while Robusta doesn’t have to be bad. There is top-notch specialty Robusta coffee that easily beats below-average Arabica. Ultimately it comes down to personal taste.