Arabica Coffee Beans: Everything You Need to Know
If you buy a lot of coffee, you’ve probably encountered labels reading “100% Arabica Coffee.” But do you know what that means? Is it just a marketing gimmick, or is Arabica a better variety of coffee? Is it worth more of your money?
In this guide to Arabica coffee, we’ll go over everything you need to know. Keep reading to learn where and how Arabica coffee is grown, how it differs from other varieties, and whether or not you should be drinking it. Spoiler alert: you should.
What is Arabica coffee?
Arabica coffee is coffee made from the seeds of the Coffea arabica plant. Coffea Arabica famously originated in Ethiopia. Have you heard the story of coffee’s discovery? Legend has it that an Ethiopian goat herder in 700 A.D. noticed his goats dancing about with far more energy than usual. He traced their behaviour to the seeds of the fruit they were consuming, which we now know and love as coffee (1).
Though Ethiopia is the homeland of coffee, the name Arabica refers to this coffee being first cultivated in Yemen, on the Arabian peninsula.
Wild Arabica coffee plants grow up to 12 meters tall. They have white flowers and produce a fruit called a coffee cherry. Inside each coffee cherry is two seeds, and the seeds are extracted from the fruit and washed, dried, and roasted to produce Arabica beans. Some Arabica coffee cherries have a natural mutation that causes them to have only one seed. This is known as peaberry coffee, and it often fetches high prices due to its rarity.
Where is Arabica coffee grown?
All commercial coffee is grown in what is known as the Coffee Bean Belt, located between 25 degrees latitude north of the equator and 30 degrees south. These tropical regions have the best conditions for growing coffee plants.
To grow the best quality Arabica beans, you need more than simply the correct latitude. They also require particular climate, soil, and geographic conditions. Coffea arabica plants thrive in temperate climates, with minimal temperature variation between day and night. They also prefer distinct wet and dry seasons, high elevations, and mineral-rich and well-drained soils. These conditions conspire to slow the ripening of the beans, and the extra time leads to more flavour development. Brazil, Ethiopia, Colombia, Honduras, and Peru are the top Arabica coffee-growing countries, and they share many of these qualities.
It is very common to find Arabica coffee grown on the slopes of volcanoes. Volcanoes provide the elevation Arabica plants need to thrive, and volcanic ash is rich in minerals like magnesium, sodium, calcium, zinc, iron, sulfur, and copper.
How much do farmers grow Arabica coffee?
Green Arabica coffees are sold in 60 kg bags, and this is the unit by which producers generally measure coffee. In 2020/2021, the global production of Arabica coffee was 102 million bags of coffee (2). Arabica makes up about 60% of the world’s total coffee supply, with the majority of the remaining 40% being Robusta coffee.
Brazil is the largest grower of Arabica coffee, producing 38 million bags last year – or about 37% of all Arabica globally!
Production of Arabica coffee is forecast to fall in many of the world’s top growing regions in the coming years. This decline is primarily due to climate change, which upsets the delicate balance of conditions needed to grow Coffea arabica plants. Climate change is bringing higher temperatures, but it is also causing more severe incidents of droughts and floods and allowing the spread of coffee pests and diseases to new regions (3).
Though new growing regions may emerge with the changing climate, the loss of the current primary growing regions will be devastating for the communities that depend on them.
How does Arabica coffee taste?
Arabica beans can have many different flavour profiles. Just check out the coffee taster’s flavour wheel to get an idea. It includes everything from chamomile to petroleum. Gonzalo Hernandez, president of a green bean sourcing company in Costa Rica, explains why this is the case (4).
There’s no general recipe or description in terms of the taste profile of Arabica, depending on the variables. The taste profile could be chocolatey, spicy, floral, caramelly, bright acidity, dry acidity, low acidity, juicy, fruity, etc.
Arabica coffee is considered high quality because it tastes sweeter and smoother than other different types of coffee beans. It offers more subtle and complex flavours and fewer harsh notes.
The flavour of a coffee is influenced not just by the bean variety but also by the growing conditions, processing method, and roast level.
- Growing conditions: Much like fine wine, speciality coffee has terroir. Light roast coffee, in particular, carries the flavours of its origins. For example, Ethiopian coffees are known for their fruity and floral flavours; South American coffees are known for sweet caramel and nuts; and Indonesian coffees are dark and earthy.
- Processing method: Dry-processing coffee enhances its natural sweetness and can produce a slightly fermented flavour, whereas washed processing coffee yields a cleaner flavour. The honey process lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Wet-hulling or monsoon coffee processing yields earthy flavoured coffees that are very low acidity.
- Roast level: The heavier a roast, the more the resulting coffee will taste the roast, and the less it will taste the origin. Lighter roast coffees are more likely to be complex and acidic, with multiple tasting notes ranging from florals to chocolates. Darker roast coffees will have bittersweet and smoky flavours and lower acidity.
There are also different varietals of Arabica coffee, each of which has a unique flavour profile. The most common are Bourbon, Typical, Catimor, Caturra, Catui, and Blue Mountain. But there are many more. In fact, in Ethiopia, where coffee grows wild, there are so many varietals that many aren’t even given names, and they are simply referred to as Ethiopian Heirloom.
Arabica vs. Robusta
Along with Arabica, the other major commercially grown coffee plant is Coffea robusta, which produces Robusta coffee.
Robusta coffee is easier to grow than Arabica coffee, hence its name; it is more robust. Robusta coffee doesn’t require the same stringent climate conditions, and it is more resistant to pests and disease. However, Robusta coffee is known for harsher flavours than Arabica. You’re more likely to taste earthy or rubbery notes in the cup, especially when it has been poorly processed.
To learn more about Robusta, check out our article: What is Robusta Coffee?
That is not to say Robusta doesn’t have an essential place among the different coffee types. Because it is easier to grow, it provides a more reliable source of income for farmers who lack the ideal climate for Arabica coffee, and it is more affordable for consumers. Much of the available instant coffee is made from Robusta beans. And there are ongoing efforts among innovative farmers to develop higher-quality Robusta beans to rival speciality Arabica (5).
This video breaks down some of the key features of Arabica and Robusta coffee:
Robusta coffee can also be a valuable addition to espresso blends. Traditional Italian espresso blends pair Robusta and Arabica to take advantage of the best features of each and yield a more balanced brew. The Arabica contributes sweetness and acidity, while the Robusta adds earthy flavours, a full-body, and a rich crema.
Robusta coffee has approximately twice the caffeine of Arabica coffee, which can be either a pro or a con depending on your perspective. If you want some extra pep in the morning, an Arabica-Robusta blend will serve you well. On the other hand, if you are sensitive to caffeine and prone to jitters, you may want to steer clear of Robusta beans.
Arabica coffee makes up 60% of the world’s coffee, and coffee experts consider it the highest quality coffee variety. If you’re looking for a sweet and flavourful coffee, especially one you plan to drink black, it is worth seeking out Arabica coffee beans. They might cost a bit more than Robusta, but the result in the cup will be worth it!
Arabica coffee is strong. But, you should have in mind that there are many ways to define coffee strength. While Arabica coffee beans only have about half the caffeine of Robusta coffee beans, the strength of a coffee is largely determined by the dose rather than the variety. If you use more coffee when you brew, you’ll have a stronger flavoured and more highly caffeinated cup of coffee.
100% Arabica coffee is coffee that only contains Arabica beans, and it hasn’t been blended with Robusta beans. Some lower-quality coffee companies will add Robusta beans to cut costs. But others, like the famous Italian brand Lavazza, add Robusta beans to balance flavours.
Liberica coffee is another coffee variety, like Arabica and Robusta, but it is less common. The Coffea liberica plant makes up only about 2% of the global coffee supply, and it is mainly grown in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It can have sweet and floral flavours and has less caffeine than Arabica coffee.
To learn more about Liberica coffee, read our article: What is Liberica coffee?
Excelsa coffee is yet another coffee variety, although it has recently been reclassified as a type of Liberica coffee. Like Liberica, it grows on taller trees and is mainly farmed in Southeast Asia. But it has its own unique flavour profiles, which tend to be sweet and tart.
To learn more about Liberica coffee, read our article: What is Excelsa coffee?
- National Coffee Association. (n.d.). The History of Coffee. Retrieved from https://www.ncausa.org/about-coffee/history-of-coffee
- Ridder, M. (2022, January 13). World Arabica coffee production from 2005/06 to 2021/22. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/225400/world-arabica-coffee-production/
- Scott, M. (2015, June 19). Climate & Coffee. Retrieved from https://www.climate.gov/news-features/climate-and/climate-coffee
- Kanniah, J.C. (2020, August 10). “100% Arabica: What Does It Mean? Retrieved from https://perfectdailygrind.com/2020/08/100-arabica-coffee-explanation-robusta-specialty-wcr/
- Impallomeni, F. (2019, October 23). Can Fine Robusta Be Considered Quality Coffee? Retrieved from https://perfectdailygrind.com/2020/08/100-arabica-coffee-explanation-robusta-specialty-wcr/