What is Arabica coffee? All about the bean that conquered the world

Arabica coffee beans in burlap sacks
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The modern world has a love affair with coffee. We drink it hot, iced, cold-brewed, black or loaded with enough sugar and milk to make ice cream.

However, if it wasn’t for another love affair, coffee as we know it might not exist.

To understand the story, you need some background. Out of the hundreds of varieties of coffee that exist, we drink coffee from only two: Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora. When you’re buying coffee, you’ll see these varieties sold as Arabica and Robusta, respectively. 

Arabica coffee is the most common. When people first discovered that you could boil coffee beans and get a delicious drink, it was Arabica beans that were being boiled. Arabica coffee plants originated in Ethiopia but were turned into coffee just across the Bab al-Mandab Strait in Yemen, which is in Arabia. They spread across the world as coffee grew more popular.

Bab al-Mandab Strait
The Bab al-Mandab Strait is likely where coffee made its way to the Arabian peninsula from East Africa.

How Arabica coffee conquered the world

By the 1700s, coffee plants had reached as far as French Guiana, a region in South America. Coffee seeds were guarded in those days. Growers would happily sell the beans, but they kept a strict monopoly on their plants. The governor of French Guiana had no interest in selling any coffee seeds to other countries. However, his wife had a different opinion. 

She fell in love with an ambassador from Brazil, Francisco de Melo Palheta. Whether or not Francisco loved her back is a question for the ages. All we know is that he was able to convince her to smuggle out some coffee seeds in a bouquet of flowers that she gave him as a gift.

Painting of Francisco de Melo Palheta
A painting of Francisco de Melo Palheta, at left.

From there, Francisco took his coffee seeds back to Brazil. The plants grown from those seeds were the start of a coffee industry that is now the largest in the world and has spread to other countries in South America. This industry, set in motion by a smitten governor’s wife, now produces the majority of the Arabica coffee consumed in the world.

What is Arabica coffee?

Arabica coffee is the most widespread type of coffee in the world. At least 60 per cent of all coffee sold comes from the Arabica coffee plant.

After being developed in Yemen, the practice of brewing Arabica beans to make coffee spread throughout the Arabian peninsula. From there, traders took coffee around the world. (The trading port in Yemen is called Mocha. Sound familiar?) Arabica coffee was known in Europe by the 1600s and spread to the North American colonies. There it became popular after the American colonists had a disagreement with King George of England over tea and taxes.

Boston Tea Party
The Boston Tea Party.

What is the difference between Arabica and Robusta coffee?

Part of Arabica’s popularity undoubtedly stems from being the first on the scene. Robusta, or Coffea canephora, wasn’t even recognized as a species of coffee plant until the late 1800s. However, Robusta isn’t helped by having a taste that some people describe as being like burnt rubber.

The taste factor is largely responsible for Arabica’s popularity. At a glance, Robusta seems like it would be a better choice. It has nearly twice as much caffeine as Arabica. While Robusta has 2.7 per cent caffeine, Arabica has only 1.5 per cent.

Robusta is also easier to grow. Arabica prefers a higher altitude than Robusta and grows more slowly. It takes five to seven years to mature instead of Robusta’s two to three years. Robusta is also more resistant to insects thanks to its high caffeine and chlorogenic acid (CGA) levels. 

It would make sense for coffee growers to focus on Robusta. However, the high caffeine and CGA in Robusta make for a bitter taste. As a result, Robusta is mainly used in espresso blends, instant coffee, and as a filler mixed with Arabica.

Arabica coffee beans have more natural sugars and lipids. These factors make Arabica coffee taste smoother, less bitter, and slightly sweeter. The exact flavor of Arabica beans depends on how they are prepared. Beans are roasted for different amounts of time to achieve specific flavors and textures. 

How Arabica beans are roasted

Light roasts are roasted for the shortest amount of time. They have a mild flavor and are believed to retain more caffeine than darker roasts, although recent research calls this into question. 

Medium roast, sometimes called American roast due to its popularity in the U.S., has a stronger flavor and darker color. 

Medium-dark and dark roasts tend to have a more bitter flavor, but often have a smoother mouth-feel due to the oils released in the roasting process.

Coffee roasting for beginners graphic

Of course, roasting is only part of the flavor equation. In order to get the full benefit of a good cup of Arabica coffee, you also need to brew it properly.

How to brew Arabica coffee

Like everything coffee-related, brewing is somewhat a matter of taste. The best way to ensure your brew is satisfying is to start with coffee beans that have been roasted within the past 14 days. The longer coffee beans sit around after being roasted, the less flavor they have. 

The same rule applies to grinding your coffee. Whether you grind your beans at the store or at home, the sooner you use the grounds, the better your coffee will be. Ground coffee deteriorates more quickly.

For the best flavor, try a French press or Aeropress to brew your coffee. Both of these manual coffee makers use immersion to extract coffee from the grounds. In practical terms, this means the coffee grounds soak in water before being filtered out. The resulting coffee is rich and full of flavor.

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