Arabica and Robusta are the two most known coffee species. They are grown across the world in areas that fall between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn.
traditional coffee roasting
But are they the only ones?
The Botanical Kew Gardens in London have identified 124 different species of the Genus Coffea in Africa, Asia and Australasia.
Almost all the coffee that we drink is either Coffea Arabica or Coffea Canephora (also called Robusta).
Arabica accounts for about two thirds of the world coffee consumption, while Robusta comprises almost the rest of it. A third species accounts for about 2% of the world’s coffee production - Coffea Liberica.
Liberica has been brought to Asia from West Africa in the 19th century where it was farmed on a large scale after the big outbreak of coffee leaf rust, a disease which affected all of the arabica coffee crops grown across the continent.
Now it’s mostly produced in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia and outside of these areas it is relatively unknown.
The Coffea Liberica tree when matured can be about 20m high. It produces large cherries, has bigger yields and it is more robust than Coffea Arabica.
Liberica doesn’t have many fans. It is known for its distinctive aroma and taste, that are often described as smokey and bitter, jackfruit-like. Though if a proper care has been taken during the process of the beans, this species can surprise you with some citrusy notes.
Let’s take a look now at the Coffea Canephora. It is native to West Africa, known for its robust qualities and low cost of production. Robusta (as it is more commonly known) can be farmed at altitudes as low as 100 metres above sea level and it can also thrive at much higher temperatures than Arabica.
Robusta plantation in India
Although Coffea Canephora is a parent of Coffea Arabica, there are a lot of differences.
The fruit of robusta plants is naturally higher in caffeine, and its seeds which we all know as coffee beans are smaller, harder and more round than arabica ones.
This high caffeine content acts as a natural pesticide and helps to protect the plant from most insects. There are obvious benefits here for the farmer, who can expect higher yields from her crop. This does however come at a cost in the cup.
Due to the low sugar content and almost twice the amount of caffeine when compared to arabica, robusta has a low reputation within the speciality environment. Its profile often tends towards woody, earthy and rubbery flavours.
Due to the ease of growing and the low cost of farming it - as well as the ability to produce long lasting thick crema - robusta is often used in instant coffee and lower quality coffee blends.
At this stage I would like to acknowledge that robusta may well have potential to produce a good quality coffee. If we paid this species as much attention as we afford to arabica, who knows where this could take us.
Arabica accounts for two thirds of the worlds coffee production. Originating in forests of Ethiopia, Yemen and South Sudan, it then spread throughout the world.
Coffea Arabica is considered the highest quality species, producing the best cup of coffee. Arabica is grown at medium to high altitudes and prefers a cooler climate. The perfect temperature for arabica to thrive is between 18 - 22℃.
Coffea Arabica contains almost 60% more lipids and almost twice the concentration of sugars when compared to Robusta. When roasted and brewed well, it can give you complexity of aromas and flavours without bitterness. Due to the lower caffeine content, arabica trees are less resistant to pests and diseases, which makes farming it more expensive and risky for the farmer although the potential rewards are also much higher as the grower can expect a much better price if she manages to reduce good quality beans.
Speaking of risk, the Kew scientist at the Royal Botanic Garden reveals that due to the ongoing climate change over a half of the wild coffee species are in danger of extinction. I invite you to read more about it on the kew website here.
Personally, I hope the specialty coffee industry develops a more open-mind when considering other species of the Genus Coffea, which would lead us to even more exciting coffee and a brighter future for the coffee farmers.