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Arabica Coffee: Why It’s So Revered by Coffee Lovers
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“100% Arabica Coffee!”
You see that boast in ads, on coffee packaging, and anywhere else a coffee producer might describe their beans or ground coffee.
But is that really such a big deal? In one way, it isn’t.
About 60% of the world’s coffee production is Arabica beans. Expensive, high-quality coffee is almost always 100% Arabica. And even though Arabica beans cost more than the other common option (robusta beans), chains like Starbucks and Dunkin’ only sell Arabica coffee.
However, you might be surprised by where robusta coffee shows up. Most instant coffee is made from robusta beans. More importantly, a number of the coffee blends you’d normally buy at the supermarket or on Amazon are made from both Arabica and robusta beans. That’s either to save the producers money, or to balance some of Arabica’s more “delicate” properties.
So what’s the big deal about Arabica coffee? Let’s find out.
What Is Arabica Coffee?
The definition of Arabica coffee is straightforward. It’s simply coffee that’s been brewed from beans that grow on the Coffea arabica plant.
Describing what Arabica coffee tastes like, though, is virtually impossible. First of all, there are many different Arabica varietals, each with different characteristics. And there are so many variables in the way plants are bred and grown, and in the way their beans are processed, that coffee from each farm and crop can taste completely different.
There’s one thing we can say, however. Coffee arabica is one of more than 100 different species of coffee – and Arabica plants unquestionably produce the world’s best-tasting beans.
Where Did Arabica Coffee Come From?
If you guessed “Arabia,” you were right. It’s believed that Arabica plants first grew in Ethiopia. During the 7th century they were brought to what was then called Arabia (and is now known as Yemen); that why Arabica coffee was originally called “Arabian.”
Coffea arabica was first cultivated in Arabia for domestic consumption during the Middle Ages. The coffee made from Arabica beans quickly became popular as a “social beverage” throughout Arabia, because Muslims were forbidden to drink alcohol. Travelers from other nations who sampled the beverage spread the word about it when they returned home, but Arabia forbade the export of Coffea arabica plants in order to maintain control of the crop.
In the mid-17th century, though, a pilgrim visiting Mecca smuggled a few plants back to India. They flourished, news of the Indian coffee plantation reached Europe almost immediately, and in a relatively-short time Arabica coffee was being cultivated, traded and sold around the world.
Where Is Arabica Coffee Grown?
It’s difficult to grow coffee in most parts of the world. It only flourishes in what’s known as the “Bean Belt” or the “Coffee Belt,” the region between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Countries in that region typically feature rich soil and tropical or sub-tropical climates, ideal for the growth of coffee plants.
Arabica plants are even pickier. They grow best in moderate temperatures, between 64° and 70°. If the heat gets much higher the beans develop and ripen too quickly, degrading their quality. And if the temperature gets higher than 85° or so, the plants can be seriously damaged. Arabica plants also grow best in high altitudes where there is ample rain and plenty of shade.
That limits where Arabica coffee can be successfully grown. Relatively small amounts are produced in nations like Bolivia, Panama and even the United States (thanks to Hawaii). But a few countries dominate the world’s Arabica bean production; Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, Honduras, Peru, Guatemala and Mexico top that list, with the combined output of Brazilian and Colombian Arabica far outdistancing the rest of the world. (Major coffee producers like Vietnam and Indonesia produce mostly robusta beans.)
What Does Arabica Coffee Taste Like?
As we’ve mentioned, the flavor of Arabica coffee beans that come from different countries – and even from neighboring farms – can vary widely.
Generally speaking, Arabica coffee will be aromatic, sweet and smooth, with low to medium acidity. It will often contain notes of chocolate or nuts, but a cup of coffee made from Arabica beans may just as easily taste of fruit, sugar, caramel – or any combination of those flavors.
Bottom line: a label saying 100% Arabica won’t tell you what the coffee will taste like, any more than it will guarantee high-quality. It only tells you that there are no robusta beans in the mix.
What can play a role in the taste of an Arabica coffee?
- Varietal: There are a number of Arabica cultivars, and each has its own characteristics. Some of the most common are Typica, Bourbon, Caturra, Kona and Pacamara, but there are many more – and each produces beans with different flavor profiles.
- Environment: The altitude, temperature, soil type, and even the amount of shade a plant receives can greatly affect the flavor and aroma of its beans. The farming methods used to grow the crop also make a big difference.
- Processing: What happens to the beans after they’re picked matters, too. Most Arabica beans are washed after they’re picked, creating a cleaner and lighter coffee with more acidity and fruitiness. In Brazil, Ecuador, Ethiopia and some smaller coffee-producing nations, the beans may be dried naturally, leading to a product with low acidity and lots of body.
Naturally, the roasting process, the brewing method and the freshness of the beans will also contribute to the predominant flavors of an Arabica coffee.
The best way to “predict” what an Arabica tastes like is by checking its nation of origin – and just as importantly, the region of the country where it was grown. There are too many regions to summarize briefly, but here’s a general idea of what to expect from the major Arabica-producing countries.
- Brazil: Sweet, and may be soft or bold. Flavor profiles often include fruit, berries and sugar.
- Colombia: Mild and smooth, clean with good acidity, and medium-to-full bodied. Flavor profiles vary widely depending on region of origin.
- Ethiopia: Light to medium body with high acidity, with complex flavors that often include fruit tones.
- Honduras: Some Honduran coffees are light and sweet with tropical fruit or berry notes, others are dark with caramel notes.
- Peru: Medium body and acidity, full flavor with a gentle finish. Chocolate and nutty undertones are common.
How Does Arabica Compare to Other Types of Coffee?
The two types of beans commonly found in America are Arabica and robusta.
Robusta plants (Coffea canephora) are hardier than Arabica plants, so they are able to grow in more diverse environments. They can endure higher (and lower) temperatures, they can grow at lower altitudes, and they are more resistant to pests and disease. Even though Arabica beans are generally viewed as superior, those are some of the reasons why almost 40% of the world’s coffee output is robusta. It can grow where Arabica can’t.
There are other reasons as well.
- Robusta plants produce higher yields than Arabica plants.
- Robusta is more economical to grow, because the plants’ hardiness allows growers to plow under their fields after the season and use the same land for planting the next year.
- Robusta coffee beans contain nearly twice the caffeine found in Arabica beans; they’re often added to Arabica blends to boost their caffeine content.
- Robusta beans produce a richer crema when used to make espresso and they add extra body to espresso blends; these last two reasons increase the market for robusta beans.
What about the taste difference?
We’ve already discussed the types of flavors that Arabica beans can produce. By comparison, robusta coffee has a harsher taste, with little ability to provide subtle flavors and undertones. In fact, some critics compare robusta’s taste to that of oatmeal.
Arabica is also more aromatic than Robusta; that may be because Arabica contains 60% more lipids.
We can’t ignore the fact that Asian growers produce two other types of coffee beans that rarely make it to the West, liberica and excelsa. Actually, excelsa has recently been reclassified as a member of the liberica family, but they have very different flavor profiles.
Liberica coffee is an acquired taste, with the flavors of nuts and wood predominating. It’s wildly popular in the Phillippines, but it’s distasteful to most Western palates. Liberica only makes up about 2% of worldwide coffee production. Excelsa coffee, on the other hand, has an unusual mix of light and dark flavors, sometimes tasting fruity and roasty at the same time.
Excelsa might be more popular in America if it were more readily available. Only about 5% of the world’s production is Excelsa beans, however, and they’re quickly gobbled up by Asian markets or by companies seeking an ingredient to contribute flavor depth to coffee blends.
In short, Arabica really is the best-tasting coffee you can find.
Does Arabica Coffee Provide Health Benefits?
It’s been well-established that coffee is good for you.
Coffee has been linked to heart health benefits and improved blood sugar control, and it may help with fat burning and weight loss. Regular coffee drinking appears to offer protection against some common neurodegenerative diseases, reduce the risks of liver disease and some forms of cancer, and even help people live longer.
But there has been research showing that Arabica coffee is better for you than robusta coffee. It has higher levels of chlorogenic acids, choline and trigonelline, and those are all very good things.
Chlorogenic acids are antioxidants that fight the free radicals which damage the body’s systems and organs, leading to serious illness and disease. Choline is a nutrient essential to the body’s metabolic function. Trigonelline is a potent weapon against bacteria, viruses and even tumors.
So while coffee provides noteworthy health benefits, Arabica coffee provides the highest levels of those benefits.
How to Get the Most Enjoyment from Arabica Coffee
Selecting a high-quality Arabica coffee with a taste you love isn’t enough. There are ways to ensure it delivers all of the flavor and aroma you expect.
Here are a few of them.
- Purchase whole bean coffee, not ground coffee. The ground stuff loses much of its essence if it sits in the bag or can for a while. A small investment in a home grinder pays big dividends, allowing you to preserve all of the beans’ flavor and aroma until right before you’re ready to brew.
- Purchase single-origin coffee. Single-origin means that all of the beans came from the same field, farm or plantation; when all beans are from the same source, that accentuates the coffee’s flavor, aroma and acidity.
- Purchase organic coffee: For obvious reasons, organic products are better for your health. But organic coffee’s flavor is also enhanced by the pure, untainted soil it’s grown in.
- Buy beans from coffee roasters: The roasted coffee beans that sit in supermarket bins or on the shelf may have been there for days, months or even longer. When you purchase your light roast, medium roast or dark roast beans directly from the source, you’ll usually receive them within days of roasting – meaning you’ll have fresh, delicious beans.
Arabica coffee is the best the industry has to offer, and there are so many different Arabica beans to choose from that it could be years before you find your absolute favorite.
What could be more enjoyable than that?
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