The Three Species of Coffee: Arabica, Canephora(Robusta) and Liberica
The Coffee we have everyday comes from coffee beans, or coffee seeds of a fruit, also known as coffee cherries. The cherries develop on a coffee plant.
As is the case with any other plant, there are various species of coffee plants. This means that the coffee we get from the species can be slightly or substantially different.
Now, there are many different species of coffee. If we were to divide the species of citruses for example, we might have lemons, oranges and grapefruits. For coffee plants, there are three major players.
The three major species of coffee are:
- Canephora (Robusta)
Let’s take a good look at each of them.
Probably the biggest player at the moment. Together with the advent of specialty coffee and the significant shift of perception towards ‘good’ coffee, the Arabica species is the most popular and sought after commodity in the global coffee marketplace. According to Mamoru Taguchi (from his book, コーヒーのおいしさ方程式) about 60%~70% of the global coffee traded is the Arabica species which says a lot.
Its’ most unique and distinct feature is the rich flavors, the delightful aromas, the bright acidities and the pleasant touch to the palate when roasted and brewed into coffee.
The arabica plants, unlike the Robusta species, are rather weak against harsh climates and diseases. They also despise direct sunlight, high temperatures and cold temperatures.
This delicate aspect makes it very difficult to grow them in lower altitudes, and hence you find most arabica plants grown in higher altitudes with cooler climates and with shade trees to avoid direct sunlight.
Canephora ( Robusta )
The second-most commonly distributed species in the coffee marketplace. About 30% of the coffee produced around the world (mostly Brazil, Vietnam, India and Indonesia) is Canephora, or Robusta which is more commonly used nowadays.
Robusta coffee is rather inferior in taste compared to Arabica due to its harsh acidity and bitterness. This makes it very difficult to consume solely as black coffee and usually requires milk and sugar to cover such aspects. It’s used in instant coffees, as well as blends by large coffee companies. You may not find many micro-roasters handling Robusta.
Why does Robusta produce inferior tastes compared to Arabica?
The answer lies in the environment. Robusta species can be grown in lower altitudes and very harsh climates. Also, not much care and attention is needed to grow Robusta. It’s kind of like the weed in your backyard. So, the Robusta usually grows under poor soil conditions, meaning that it may not bear the best fruits and seeds.
I have nothing negative to say about Robusta. It really has many advantages and was the predominantly necessary crop of the post-World War 2. Some people may also not want to spend so much just to have 100% arabica coffee. Blend coffee including Robusta can be very cheap and affordable so that works out really well.
The shift from quantity to quality has significantly changed the perception towards Robusta. But still, many people appreciate the Robusta species; there’s a growing community dedicated to producing Specialty Robusta.
This is probably the least cultivated species; native to countries in Western Africa such as Liberia.
In historic terms, this species stands together with the two species mentioned above to form ” The Big Three ” coffee plant species.
But the reality at present is the duopoly of the Arabica and the Robusta species with regards to the global coffee market.
There are still some countries which grow Liberica but it’s probably not so often you’ll get to see and try the Liberica coffee beans. They also tend to be very expensive but it might be worth it to actually obtain and try some.
The Unpredictable and Exciting Times ahead
As I mentioned above, the two major species that will most likely be involved in the global coffee markets for a while will be the Arabica and Robusta. The third wave of coffee has definitely devalued the image of the Robusta coffee while increasing importance of the many different varieties of the Arabica Coffee like the Geisha, Pacamara, and Caturra. However, changes in perception for Robusta have started to take place and there are movements towards creating high-quality Robusta coffee.
But who knows, the evolution of perception for high-quality coffee has been very rapid in the recent years and that may be the case for the near future. We might be globally consuming Robusta in the next decade and growing more Liberica coffee. It’s unpredictable and yet fascinating at the same time. I look forward to seeing the results of our shift in perception towards coffee for the coming years.
One thing that won’t change is that we’ll always be enjoying our daily dose of coffee. Rock on.