Deccan Coffee 101 | Coffee Varietal | India
Of the 25 or so Coffea plant species, two species, Coffea arabica (Arabica coffee) and Coffea canephora (Robusta coffee), account for almost all harvest. According to the International Coffee Organization, two other species, Coffea liberica (Liberica coffee) and Coffea dewevrei (Excelsa coffee) are also produced commercially, but in much smaller quantities unlikely to be available to most consumers.
Arabica coffee accounts for over 60 percent of worldwide commercial coffee production. It is the primary species of coffee grown in the Deccan Plateau of India, South and Central America and in Central and East Africa and is widely grown in other regions along with Robusta. Arabica grows best in shade, at higher elevations of 1,000–2,000 meters (about 3,300–6,000 feet). Arabica trees thrive in environments where annual rainfall averages 1,500–2,000 millimeters (59–79 inches) and temperatures average 15–24° C (59–75° F). The trees can tolerate lower temperatures, but not frost.
Coffea arabica is genetically different from the other coffee species: it has four sets of chromosomes rather than two. It is predominantly self-pollinating, so that Arabica seedlings usually vary little from their parents. The berries are oval, about 1 cm. in length, with flat seeds.
Arabica beans are generally considered to produce higher quality, better tasting coffee than Robusta. Most gourmet coffees are made from Arabica beans. Well-known Arabica beans include Indian Cattura, Catimore, Kent, Selection 9, BBTC and international arabica beans include Colombian Supremo, Ethiopian Sidamo, Jamaican Blue Mountain, Tarrazú, Costa Rica, and Guatemalan Antigua.
Although ‘Robusta’ is actually one of the two primary varieties of the Coffea canephora species rather than the species itself, the name is often used to refer to the species.
Robusta accounts for almost 40 percent of commercial coffee production — just about all coffee production that is not Arabica. Robusta is the predominant coffee grown in Southeast Asia (including south India) and West Africa. The world’s leading producer is Vietnam, which recently surpassed Brazil, where the beans are often called ‘conilon’.
Optimal growing conditions for Robusta differ from those for Arabica: Robusta grows in lower elevations, from sea level to 700 meters (about 2,300 feet). It prefers higher temperatures: 24–30° C (75–86° F), and more rainfall: 2000–3000 millimeters (79 – 118 inches).
Robusta beans have a more bitter taste than Arabica, as well as 40–50 percent higher caffeine levels. But, as suggested by its name, Robusta is a robust plant: it is resistant to Hemileia vastatrix, coffee berry disease, and other diseases to which Arabica is susceptible. And Robusta trees yield significantly more coffee beans than Arabica.
Because Robusta has more body than Arabica, it is often used in traditional Italian espresso blends where a full-bodied taste is desired. But more often Robusta is used in coffee blends as a less expensive substitute for Arabica. That’s why most high-quality or gourmet coffees will tout the fact that they are “100% Arabica coffee.”
Arabica or Robusta — enjoy your coffee!
So now, although you may not be a coffee botanist, you should have a little more knowledge of the plant behind those coffee beans. And the next time you enjoy a cup of coffee out in the garden, pick some fresh gardenias for the table. They’re cousins, after all.