Types Of Coffee Beans: How They Taste And How They Differ

There are four species of coffee beans that people use to make coffee.

These are: Arabica, Robusta, Liberica & Excelsa.

Since each bean has a different flavor profile, history, areas where it grows, and best practices for brewing, I will break down what these are for each bean.

But first…

…A Table With All the Information In This Article

Type of Coffee BeanArabicaRobustaLibericaExcelsa
How much of the world’s coffee is made from this bean?55%43%1%<1%
What it looks like:Very dark oval bean with a much lighter creaseSmaller and lighter in color with a less deep crease than ArabicaLarge and flat. Often asymmetrical with a shallow crease down the middleSmaller and rounder than Liberica but still larger than Robusta
Flavor characteristics:Balance of sharp, sweet and bitterBitterness without acidity.Woody and smoky.Sharp and fruity.
Main coffee uses:Filter coffee, espressoInstant coffee and espressoFilter coffeeBlended with Arabica
Caffeine content:1.2-1.5%2.2-2.7%1.2%1%
First discovered:575 ADMid 1800s1790s1903
Country of origin:EthiopiaDR CongoLiberiaChad
Main country of cultivation:BrazilVietnamPhilippinesMalaysia

Arabica

Arabica (full name: Coffea Arabica) is the most common type of coffee. About 55% of commercially available coffee is made from Arabica beans.

History of Arabica

Arabica was the first coffee that was discovered by humans, at around 575 AD in Ethiopia.

It was the only commercially available coffee from the start of the coffee trade from 1000 AD to the late 1700s.

The name Arabica comes from the fact that the plant was first produced at scale in Yemen (a country in the south west of the Arabian peninsula) in the 1500s.

Arabica’s flavor profile

Arabica is considered to have the tastiest and most complex flavor profile of the four main types of beans. This is why a lot of coffee retailers specifically say that their coffee is 100% Arabica.

Arabica beans typically combine richer flavors like chocolate, butter, and nuts, with sharper flavors like berries and citrus. Other beans tend to only have either rich (in the case of Robusta and Liberica) or sharp (in the case of Excelsa) notes rather than a combination of both.

Arabica beans contain twice the amount of sugar, and significantly more acidity than many of the other types of bean. This can give the coffee a pleasantly sweet flavor if brewed correctly, however its high levels of acid mean the coffee can be sharp if it is either brewed for too short a time or if it is ground too coarsely.

The altitude at which Arabica is grown can impact its flavor. Arabica grown at higher altitudes (above 4,000 feet) typically have sharper, fruitier notes than those grown closer to sea level. These higher altitude beans tend to be the most expensive ones available.

What coffees are Arabica beans used in?

The majority of the coffee you can buy is Arabica coffee.

The only type of coffee product that typically does not use Arabica beans is instant coffee (although premium filter coffee brands often do).

Arabica beans are particularly well suited to filter coffee and cold brew where you want a lighter, sweeter drink than if you were to have an espresso.

How much caffeine does Arabica have?

Arabica coffee beans tend to be around 1.2-1.5% caffeine.

This means that a typical 8 oz serving of Arabica coffee will contain 120 milligrams of caffeine.

Arabica has about two thirds of the caffeine as the second most widely available coffee, Robusta.

Where is Arabica grown?

Arabica needs to be grown at a minimum altitude of 2700 feet (900 metres) and prefers temperatures of between 64-70 Fahrenheit (18-21 Celsius).

Every country that grows coffee grows at least some Arabica coffee with the exceptions of: Thailand, Cote D’ivoire, DR Congo and Laos.

It is little coincidence that these exceptions are four of the hottest countries that grow coffee as Arabica does not do well in temperatures consistently over 80 Fahrenheit (26 Celsius).

The countries that produce the most Arabica coffee are: Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia and Honduras.

Countries that are able to grow coffee at high altitudes tend to produce the most expensive Arabica. These include: Ethiopia, Kenya, Costa Rica and Jamaica.

Robusta

Robusta is the second most consumed coffee bean in the world. Around 43% of the coffee we drink is Robusta.

History of Robusta

Robusta (officially called: Coffea canephora) was first discovered in modern-day DR Congo in the mid 1800s.

Prior to the 1860s, the majority of the coffee being drank in Europe was grown in Java, Indonesia by the Dutch. That decade saw an outbreak of coffee leaf-rust, a fungal infectious disease that killed off the majority of the Arabica being grown there.

Robusta was discovered to be far more immune to the disease (thus the name being derived from the word “robust”) than Arabica and was therefore exported from Central and West Africa to South East Asia to be grown in its place.

Robusta gained popularity during the “first wave” of coffee (1906-1970s), where instant coffee was king in the USA, UK and Australia.

Robusta can be grown at scale much more cheaply than Arabica. As price was the main factor affecting consumer behaviour during the “first wave” of coffee, products containing Robusta were popular.

Although the coffee type is often derided by snobs, so long as there is demand for inexpensive instant coffee, Robusta will still be around.

There has also been some effort in the last couple of decades to try and create better tasting Robusta by applying growing techniques developed by speciality coffee producers on the bean.

Robusta’s flavor profile

Robusta has a bitter, earthy flavor, lacking the sharper notes of robusta. 

Its flavor profile is often compared negatively to Arabica, with critics claiming that Robusta is one-note, boring and even rubbery-tasting.

Defenders of Robusta argue that it is poorer cultivation methods, due to the fact that Robusta is mainly grown to just make instant coffee, rather than the bean itself that leads to Robusta’s relatively simple flavor.

One area where Robusta beats out Arabica is in its body. Robusta produces a thicker, more syrupy coffee than Arabica. This is why it’s often blended with Arabica for espresso coffee.

What coffees are Robusta used in?

Robusta is almost exclusively used in instant coffee and espresso blends.

The majority of instant coffee uses Robusta because of its low cultivation costs. There is a ceiling on the amount of money consumers are willing to pay for instant coffee and therefore it makes more financial sense to make it out of Robusta. 

There are some instant coffees made out of Arabica, but this is reflected in their price (think Douwe Egberts).

Many espresso blends contain some Robusta. This is because Robusta produces a thicker coffee than Arabica, allowing espresso to have more of its signature syrupy texture and crema.

Illy, Nespresso, Lavazza and Nescafe all produce espresso blends that contain Robusta, with Nespresso producing pods that are 100% Robusta.

Espresso blends typically contain 10-50% Robusta.

How much caffeine do Robusta beans contain?

Robusta typically contains 2.2-2.7% caffeine. This is about 50% more than Arabica and explains why instant coffee has a surprisingly large amount of caffeine in it (around 100 mg per 8 fl oz serving).

As the market for ultra caffeinated coffee grows, highlighted by the rise of brands like Death Wish Coffee, this may present an opportunity for Robusta to be grown with the care and attention on maximising the bean’s flavor that Arabica has.

Where is Robusta grown?

Robusta is typically grown in hotter temperatures (65-80 Farenheit or 18-30 Celsius) than Arabica. Unlike Arabica, Robusta prefers lower altitudes and it will struggle to grow at anything higher than 1500 feet.

Vietnam is, by a long way, the biggest producer of Robusta coffee. Forty percent of the Robusta in the world is grown in Vietnam.

Some of the other biggest producers of Robusta are: Brazil, Indonesia, Uganda and India.

Liberica 

Liberica is a bit like Robusta on steroids. The plant is more sturdy than Arabica (just like Robusta), and its flavor is even darker and more bitter than Robusta.

Only one percent of commercially available coffee is Liberica.

History of Liberica

Liberica (coffea liberica) was first discovered growing naturally in Liberia and Uganda in the 1790s.

The bean was first commercially grown in 1864 in the Philippines.

Much like with Robusta, Liberica was first grown in response to the coffee-leaf rust epidemic that destroyed Arabica plantations in South East Asia in the mid-late 1800s.

Whereas Robusta was grown in Indonesia, Vietnam and southern India, Liberica was grown in The Philippines – then a Spanish colony.

As Arabica started being grown in South and Central America, demand for Liberica waned to the point where it is rarely drunk outside of the Philippines.

This is largely because Liberica grows on plants that grow to 60 feet in height and therefore often need to be harvested with the help of a ladder. This meant that it could not be grown as cheaply as Robusta.

Even now, Liberica is still significantly more expensive than Arabica.

Liberica’s flavor profile

Liberica’s flavor is similar to Robusta but…more so.

It is very bitter, described as “woody” and “smoky” by those who enjoy it and “burnt-tasting” by those who don’t.

The coffee bean’s relatively large size and intense bitterness has earned Liberica the name “Kape Barako”, translated as “manly coffee” in the Philippines.

What coffees are Liberica used in?

Liberica is mainly drunk in Malaysia and the Philippines where it is either drunk black and strong (similar to Turkish coffee) or mixed with condensed milk.

It is expensive and hard to get a hold of outside of South East Asia, and therefore mainly marketed to coffee lovers who want to try something that they have never had before.

Unlike Robusta, Liberica is not commonly used in instant coffee or Espresso blends.

How much caffeine does Liberica have?

A Liberica bean contains on average 1.2% caffeine. This is lower than both Arabica and Robusta.

This means that a typical serving of Liberica filter coffee will contain around 90 mgs of caffeine.

Where is Liberica grown?

Liberica thrives in a hot, low-altitude environment, similar to Robusta. 

It grows on a larger, thicker plant (closer to a tree than a plant, really) than Robusta so it needs more flat space to be grown in.

Nearly all of the Liberica grown for consumption is in The Philippines and Malaysia, however the bean naturally grows in Liberia, Ivory Coast, Uganda and Costa Rica.

Excelsa

Excelsa is the new kid on the coffee block, having only been around for just over 100 years. 

In 2006 it was reclassified as a subspecies of Liberica, however there is still a lot of debate around this. Although the Excelsa bean and plant look very similar to Liberica (both are far larger than Arabica or Robusta) they differ greatly in flavor.

Excelsa is very difficult to find, even more so than Liberica. It accounts for a negligible amount (less that 0.1%) of the commercially available coffee in the world.

History of Excelsa

Excelsa (Coffea excelsa) was discovered in 1903 in Chad.

Although it still grows naturally in Chad and in other parts of Central Africa, the majority of Excelsa is now grown in South East Asia, particularly Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.

In 2006 it was reclassified as a subspecies of Liberica and there is some evidence of Excelsa being sold under the name Liberica.

Actually trying to buy Excelsa outside of South East Asia is difficult. I scoured the internet and although I could find the coffee beans available to purchase online, nothing would ship to the UK or US (I found one that would ship to Australia though).

There is not a lot of data collected on the amount of Excelsa that is grown, exported and consumed in the world because the International Coffee Organization (the body that collects data on these things) said the demand for Excelsa is not “commercially significant”.

Excelsa’s flavour profile

Excelsa has a sharp, fruity flavor profile. It is closer tasting to an Arabica than a Robusta, however unlike with Arabica it does not have the sweetness to round out any of the sharpness.

The coffee is occasionally blended with Arabica to help bring out the sharper notes in the Arabica.

What coffees are Excelsa used in?

Excelsa is rarely drunk outside of the countries that it is native to. However it is occasionally blended with Arabica to help bring out the coffee’s sharper, fruitier notes.

How much caffeine is in Excelsa?

Excelsa is very low in caffeine compared to the other varieties of bean. It typically contains less than 1% caffeine.

Where is Excelsa grown?

Excelsa prefers hot, dry conditions and low to medium altitudes (700-200 feet).

It grows in Malaysia, The Philippines, Indonesia, and Chad.

How to tell the difference between Arabica, Robusta, Liberica and Excelsa

You can tell the difference between the four types of beans just by looking at them. Here are some characteristics to look out for.

Arabica: Very dark oval bean with a deep seated crease down the middle.

Robusta: Lighter and smaller compared to Arabica with a less pronounced crease (partially due to its lighter color).

Liberica: Significantly larger and flatter than Arabica and Robusta. Has an uneven, almost jagged shape to it. Similar shade to Robusta.

Excelsa: Excelsia beans are smaller than Liberica but still larger than Arabica and Robusta. It is more spherical than Liberica, which is very flat for a bean.

So there we have it

Now you know what the different types of coffee are and can tell which one you are having (hint: it’s probably Arabica unless you’re drinking instant coffee).

If you’d like to know more about the bean behind your favorite drink, feel free to check out our article on the history of coffee.

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