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 behavior 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 flavor 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 flavor profiles. Just check out the coffee taster’s flavor 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 flavors and fewer harsh notes.
The flavor 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, specialty coffee has terroir. Light roast coffee, in particular, carries the flavors of its origins. For example, Ethiopian coffees are known for their fruity and floral flavors; 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 flavor, whereas washed processing coffee yields a cleaner flavor. The honey process lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Wet-hulling or monsoon coffee processing yields earthy flavored 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 flavors and lower acidity.
Arabica Coffee Varieties
The two main Arabica coffee varieties globally are Typica and Bourbon. Most other well-known coffee varieties are either natural mutations or intentionally bred hybrids of one or both. Arabica coffee is native to Southern Ethiopia, and Typica and Bourbon owe their prominence around the world today to the fact that they were the first coffee plants taken from Ethiopia to Yemen to be cultivated commercially.
Typica is one of the original Arabica coffees first exported from Ethiopia and remains one of the most commonly grown coffees worldwide – hence the name, Typica. Typica is well adapted to cold conditions and flourishes at high altitudes, producing richly flavorful brews. In particular, Central American Typica is of very high quality. However, Typica is also low yielding and susceptible to common diseases like coffee leaf rust. It is grown throughout the Americas but is most prominent in Peru, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic.
In some cases, the Typica coffee variety is given a different name to specify the growing region, especially if that region is famous enough to justify a price increase. For example, Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee and Hawaiian Kona Coffee are Typica. Even though they are both Typica varieties, these two coffees have unique tasting notes because of the growing environment, processing, and roasting influences. Here’s a more detail
Besides Typica, Bourbon is the other genetic parent of most coffee we know and love today. It was one of the earliest coffees taken from Ethiopia to be grown commercially. The name Bourbon has nothing to do with the flavor of bourbon liquor; it comes from the fact that it was first cultivated exclusively on Bourbon Island. Like Typica, it has excellent cup qualities when grown at high altitudes but is at high risk of disease and produces only low yields.
Once leaving the island, Bourbon coffee spread worldwide, and it is now grown mainly in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru. There are several varieties of Bourbon with slightly different flavor profiles that have resulted from natural mutations of the plant. These are called Red Bourbon, Yellow Bourbon, and Orange Bourbon. Here’s an article that discusses what Bourbon coffee is in more detail, its origins, and more.
Caturra is a natural mutation of the Bourbon variety that was discovered in Brazil in the early 20th century. The mutation causes it to grow smaller than its parent plant and thus produce a higher yield per acre because Caturra plants can be grown more densely. At the same time, it is also more susceptible to coffee leaf rust. The mutation is what lends it its name; Caturra means “small” in the local language.
Caturra was never officially grown in Brazil, despite being discovered there. Instead, it became popular in Central America, particularly Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama. At one point, it made up a significant portion of the Colombian coffee crop, but it has since been largely replaced by Castillo, which is more resistant to coffee leaf rust. Castillo is a version of Catimor, which we’ll discuss below. Here’s where you can learn more about the Caturra coffee variety.
Catuai is a hybrid of Caturra and another variety called Mundo Novo, which is a highly productive cross of Typica and Bourbon. The result is an even higher-yielding crop that one can plant at nearly double the density of Bourbon. Like all of its genetic parents, it is at risk of major coffee diseases, but its shape makes it easier to apply herbicides and pesticides.
Catuai was developed in Brazil by the Instituto Agronomico of Sao Paulo State starting in 1949, and it was first grown commercially in 1972. The name means “very good” in the Guarani language of the region. It is still grown in Brazil and is now also an important crop in Central America. However, it is more prized for its yield than its flavor in most cases.
Here’s where you can learn more about the Catuai coffee variety.
Mundo Novo is a cross between Typica and Bourbon, known for its tall stature and high productivity. The hybridization initially occurred naturally in the municipality of Mundo Novo, Brazil, in 1943. Agronomists then improved the hybrid through selection for another ten years before widely distributing the plants to Brazilian farmers. Mundo Novo is primarily grown in Brazil, Peru, and Malawi.
Pacamara is a hybrid first developed in El Salvador, combining two other Arabica varieties, Pacas and Maragogipe. Pacamara coffee beans are challenging to grow, with limited disease resistance and a tendency to mutate between generations. But it remains popular due to its exceptionally high cup quality when cultivated successfully.
- Pacas is a natural mutation of Bourbon, which like several others discussed already, grows smaller than its parent, allowing a more dense planting and higher yields. It was discovered in El Salvador in 1949 and still makes up a large percentage of that country’s coffee production.
- Maragogipe is a natural mutation of Typica discovered in Brazil in 1870. It produces low yields of notably large coffee beans, but the cup quality can be very high when well cultivated. It has also been hybridized with Caturra to produce the less common but no less delicious Maracaturra variety.
Ethiopia Heirloom aka Ethiopian Landrace
While Bourbon and Typica were the two Arabica varieties that left Ethiopia and took over the world, thousands of other varieties continue to grow in the country, either cultivated or wild. Until recently, these have been collectively known as Ethiopian Heirloom varietals, and you’ll still find that term on many bags of coffee beans. However, “Ethiopian Landrace” is becoming increasingly common as more work is being done on documenting and organizing the various cultivars.
SL28 is one of the most famous African varieties of Arabica. The not-very-excitingly-named was developed in Kenya by Scott Labs, thus the SL moniker. In the 1930s, Scott Labs engineered many Arabica hybrids, including SL14 and SL34. SL28 is the most renowned for its unique flavor profile. It has since spread beyond Kenya and is grown in Uganda, Malawi, and Zimbabwe.
SL28 plants, distant relatives of the Bourbon variety, are susceptible to common coffee diseases but are drought resistant and very hardy. They can be left alone for years and returned to production without missing a beat.
Geisha coffee (also known as Gesha) is one of the most famous Arabica coffee varieties among coffee lovers, thanks to its exceptionally high cup quality. Geisha coffee is known for delicate floral, jasmine, and peach-like aromas when grown at high altitudes. It consistently receives record-high scores – and thus fetches record-high prices – in cupping competitions.
While the term Geisha is widely used, the Geisha variety that coffee geeks are head-over-heels for is Panamanian Geisha, which is a genetically different plant grown in Panama and Malawi. Panamanian Geisha derives from an Ethiopian Heirloom coffee discovered in the Ethiopian forest in the 1930s and brought to Central America. It is challenging to grow due to brittle branches and disease vulnerability, but those who grow it well are rewarded.
There are many examples of Arabica/Robusta hybrids that were bred to take advantage of the best qualities of each. Experts generally regard Arabica coffee to have superior flavors, while Robusta coffee is easier to grow, higher yielding, and more resistant to pests and diseases. These hybrids generally have lower cup quality than pure Arabica coffee.
Interestingly, the first Arabica/Robusta hybrid wasn’t bred at all. It occurred naturally on the island of Timor, which lends its name to the variety. Timor coffee arose when cultivators introduced Robusta plants to the island to combat a coffee leaf rust epidemic. It spontaneously bred with the already established Arabica plants and created a disease-resistant hybrid that has since been bred with other varieties.
For example, Catimor is a hybrid of Timor and Caturra coffees introduced in Brazil in the 1960s. There are now many strains of Catimor, but they are all similar in that they pair the coffee leaf resistance of Timor with the high yield of the dwarf Caturra plants.
Another example is Sarchimor, which combines Timor with the less well-known Villa Sarchi variety. As with Catimor, Sarchimor refers to a group of similar cultivars. The most common was bred in Brazil and offers excellent resistance to coffee rust.
Notably, both Sarchimor and Catimor are classified as Arabica coffee. So your bag of 100% Arabica coffee may contain one of these hybrids.
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 flavors 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 specialty 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 flavors, 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 flavorful 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 flavored 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 flavors.
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 flavors 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 flavor 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/