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Nuts and beans about coffee: an intro to Arabica vs Robusta and international species

With cafés booming and world-class coffees at our fingertips, in this article a coffee lover breaks down the various types of coffees for Ahram Online

Leonardo Vaquero Otero, with contributions by Dahlia Ferrer, Wednesday 21 Sep 2011
Coffee bean bush
Coffee bean bush, Photo: AFP
Views: 5756
Views: 5756

Although unemployment affects coffee consumption, making people consume a bit less, it cannot be said that the love of coffee is down. A look around at coffee shops proves that coffee isn't doing badly, despite the recession. In fact, it’s gotten beyond just having your cup of wake-me-up watery caffeine. For the past two years, young Americans say they drank a cup of gourmet coffee within their day, according to the National Coffee Drinking Trends 2011 report.

It begs the question, then, with tendencies shifting towards gourmet and really enjoying the experience: what is a high-grade, gourmet coffee and what’s the difference around the world?

There are four types of coffees: arabica, robusta, liberica and the sublime. Within these four types you can find a host of different species that we will mention later. Of these four types, the first two are the most important:

A native of Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, the Arabian is one of the oldest species. It grows in tropical zone plateaus or mountain areas between 700 and 2,000 metres, especially in Latin America, Central America and some African countries.

Relatively fragile, it is particularly susceptible to diseases, especially a type of mange. Tropical-natured, the optimum temperature for this coffee is between 17 and 23 º C. The Arabica represents ¾ of the world’s coffee production, which is prized for its aromatic qualities and comparatively delicate flavour. The main varieties have exotic names like Moka with it's characteristic fruity flavour, Bourbon or Maragogype.

The Arabica and Robusta bean can be distinguished from each other in colour and the shape of the ridge that divides the seed. Arabica is dark brown, elongated and the telltale sign is its wavy groove down the centre.

Although its flavour is more delicate, the aroma is actually more intense. They are fragrant, sweet, full, slightly acidic and often chocolaty, with a clear hazel cream tending to reddish and a pleasant bitter touch. Likewise, the caffeine is in a relatively mild ratio between 0.9% and 1.7%.

Among the Arabica coffee producing countries are: Brazil, Cameroon, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Haiti, Jamaica, Java, Kenya, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Tanzania and Venezuela.

Canephora robusta coffee was discovered in the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) in the late nineteenth century. It grows wild in the forests of tropical Africa. Today, it is grown mainly in Africa, mainly in Ivory Coast, Angola and Zaire, but also in India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Brazil and the Philippines. Robusta grows plentifully in plains and likes a humid, tropical climate.

Robusta replicates faster, is vigorous (hence the name "robust"), more resistant to diseases and their performance is higher than Arabica. So from the farming standpoint, it should be the more popular of the two, except that Arabic beats it with its superior aroma.

The Robusta bean is round, light brown and its furrow is straight.

It has a stronger flavour and is often blended with other coffees. They are rough, astringent, slightly bitter and fragrant with a creamy brown tending to grey. Likewise, caffeine has a ratio of between 1.6% and 2.8%.

A fascinating difference the naked eye cannot detect: Robusta has half the number of chromosomes of the Arabica bean.

Coffee species
Different species of coffee fall within the four categories mentioned above. So far no precise description of many of the different species exists, nor is there an exact count, only an estimate of between 25 - 40, according to studies.

To summarise the most important species within Arabica and Robusta:

Armenia. Produced in Colombia. Soft, very aromatic acid. Harvested by hand.

Barahona. Variety produced in the Dominican Republic. Arabica. Acidic with good body.

Brazil. Strong. Arabica. Dense body, completely lacks acidity. Within this group varieties include Minas Gerais, Santos, light and soft, and Riyadh.

Bucaramanga. Produced in Colombia. Arabica. Intense flavour. Harvested by hand.

Cameroon. Robusta. Requires no washing, with lots of caffeine, strong, bitter, dense. Unscented.

Cibao Altura. Arabica. Produced in the Dominican Republic. Soft, slightly acid and aromatic.

Colombia Natural. Arabica. Soft, very aromatic, acidic.

Costa Rica. Tarrazu variety. Arabica. Tasty flavour, somewhere between Nicaragua and Brazil, neutral acidity.

Cuba. Arabica. Very smooth, acidity, body, very light.

Dijimmahm. Arabica. Ethiopia. The coffee is very pure because processing is done manually, without chemical aids.

Excelso/Supreme Medellin. Produced in Colombia. Arabica. Soft, very aromatic, acidic.

Guatemala. Maragogype. Arabica. Sweet taste, more aromatic than the old class.

Guatemala. Classic variety. Arabica. Very smooth, no acidity, very neutral.

Guatemala. Volcano gold. Arabica. It is the kind most gourmet in Guatemala. More intense flavour and more body.

Hawaii. Kona. Arabica. Very fruity, fine acidity, intense aroma, light body.

High Grown. Arabica. Produced in Honduras and Mexico. It is characterised by a low level of caffeine.

India. Mysore. Arabica. Taste is dry and hard, dense body and light aroma, neutral acidity.

Jamaica. Blue Mountain. Arabica. The most precious coffee in the world, very little output. Very smooth, no acidity, light body and low caffeine content.

Kenya AA. Arabica. Fruity, medium flavour.

Kopi Luwak. Arabica. It is the world's most expensive coffee and worth an article on its own.

Mexico. Arabica, and within that there are “mild” subspecies. Among the varieties produced are the Coatepec, Pluma Hidalgo, Jaltenango and Natural Marago Atoyac, just to name a few. In this regard, Mexico is the world's leading producer of organic coffee and one of the first famous gourmet coffees.

Moka from Harrar or Ethiopia. Arabica. In Ethiopia: exceptional quality and characteristic taste.

Nicaragua. Caracolillo. Arabica. It’s a mutation of the previous class that only has one seed instead of two. Much more intense flavour.

Nicaragua.SHG. Arabica. Selective harvesting by hand, intermediate flavour, low acidity, medium body.

Papua New Guinea. Arabica. Strong, exotic taste and great body.

Prima Lavado (prime washed). Arabica. Produced in Mexico. It is characterised by a low level of caffeine.

Puerto Rico. Yauco. Arabica. Intense flavour, body, dense chocolate.

Strictly Hard Bean. Arabica. Produced in Guatemala and Costa Rica. Considered one of the best coffees in the world. The seed is blue, bright and large.

Strictly Hard Grown. Arabica. Produced in Honduras. Excellent coffee with good aroma.

Tanzania. Arabica. Very smooth. Sweet and fruity flavour. Great aroma.

Uganda. Robusta. Coffee washing and drying in the sun, strong flavour with high caffeine and no aroma.

If you haven’t noticed, there were only two Robusta beans on this list; implying, again, the preference for the Arabic bean.

Most coffee shops in Egypt don't sell beans by the country, but rather sell a quality, consistent blend of beans from different parts of the world packaged under one brand that is generally appealing to everyone. However, coffee lovers will notice big differences between the pure international coffees and how they are prepared.



Leo Vaquero Otero, the co-author is a connoisseur of many things, including coffee. He has been the executive director of various 5-Star hotels, including in the exotic Canary Islands and acclaimed Anfi resorts. To his Bachelor’s degree from the Centro Superior de Hostelería in Galicia (Spain), his certificate from the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain) and Ecole Hôtelière in Laussane (Switzerland), Otero adds real-world experience and a gleaming reputation. Today he is a sought-after consultant for multi-million dollar tourism and hotel projects around the world. He offers Ahram Online his expertise stemming from his exposure to all kinds of delicacies, both in the kitchen and at the table of world-class restaurants.


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