You'll have heard of Arabica coffee beans, and you probably have a rough idea that if coffee is Arabica, it's the best coffee available, is this true, or is there more to it?
That's what we're going to explore with this post, and in reading it you're going to discover loads more about Arabica coffee and other types of coffee.
What Exactly Are Arabica Coffee Beans?
Arabica, or Coffea Arabica to give it it's full title, is a species of coffee tree, with various varietals (varieties, we just use the word varietals because it makes us sound clever), and it's one of the two main commercially used coffee species.
So Arabica coffee beans are the seeds of the fruit (cherries) that grow on the various varietals of the Arabica coffee tree. They're trees or shrubs, by the way, although they're often referred to as coffee plants.
Where did Arabica Coffee Originate?
Arabica coffee was discovered by a goat herder... wait, what? No it flipping wasn't! ;-). Well OK, I can't be 100% certain, but this is a tale which I don't believe has any truth to it.
If you do a bit of Googling it won't be long before you find the story about Kaldi the goatherd, and if you haven't, it goes something like this:
Kaldi was an Ethiopian goatherd, apparently he noticed his goats munching on some berries and then doing goat parkour and riding skateboards, kitesurfing, all sorts.
OK I may have made up some of that. Anyway, he apparently took these cherries to a local Catholic Monastery, because that makes sense.
The abbot of the Monastery lobbed them on the fire, and then noticed an amazing aroma, so he threw water on the fire, and then decided to taste the resulting sludge. OK, I'd probably do that, it sounds like fun.
He shared his discovery with the other monks, and there we have it, a story (first written by a Christian chap called Antoine Faustus Nairon) which appears to suggest that coffee is Christian discovery after all.
This legend is very similar to an earlier one about the discovery of coffee which involves a Sufi mystic called Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili, or Sheikh al-Shadhili.
This story is also set in Ethiopia, but here we have energetic birds instead of hyperactive goats, which lead to our protagonist wanting some of what these birds had been on, trying some of these berries for himself, and noticing the same energy boost the birds had received.
At least we know that the character in this story is a real person, but this doesn't ring true to me either, because when have you ever noticed a bird not being energetic?
Have you ever seen a sparrow chilling out, a Robin having a rest, or a Resplendent quetzal (which is a real bird by the way although it does look made up) yawning while nonchalantly nibbling a fig?
So unless the birds in question were displaying some kind of super powers, I'm really not entirely sure how a bird could stand out for being energetic. So I'm not buying that one either.
There's another story about the origins of Arabica coffee that sounds more believable to me.
This story which comes from Arabic tradition, depicts a Civet initially being responsible for dispersing coffee beans into the Ethiopian highlands, where it was used & cultivated for quite some time by the Oromo people, before being eventually discovered by merchants who took it to Yemen.
There's historical evidence to support the fact that coffee was first imported to Yemen from Ethiopia by merchants, plus, the Oromo people native to the Oromia region of Ethiopia and parts of Kenya, have a very long documented history with coffee.
This history is thought to way pre-date coffee being brewed, this probably came much later, it's thought that it began with mixing whole coffee cherries with animal fat to make a snack that was carried in a dedicated leather pouch to keep them satiated and energised during long and tiring hunting & gathering expeditions.
So this seems like a much more sensible explanation of the true origins of coffee, although we'll never know for sure.
I do realise, by the way, that most of the people who share the goatherd story do so as a fun little anecdote, but there are some people who literally quote this as the true origins of coffee, which just gets my goat, and yes that pun was intended, sorry.
Arabica Vs Robusta
The other main species of coffee tree that we use the seeds from, is Robusta - Coffea Canephora.
Robusta is a far more robust species, hence the name. It's more hardy, easier to grow and cheaper to produce.
Robusta also has roughly double the caffeine content vs Arabica, and most Robusta coffee beans are fairly harsh and overpowering where taste is concerned, known for bitter astringency.
I say "most", because this is partly down to the way most Robusta is produced, and there is some really interesting high quality Robusta being produced, which I think is really quite an exciting developing area of coffee that we'll see a lot of movement in during the next few years.
Robusta is usually blended with Arabica, rather than being used on its own, and in small percentages, it can help to create amazing espresso blends.
As I've said, I think this will start changing in the future, I think there will be an increasing number of really interesting Robusta beans being produced that people will want to drink on their own and not as part of an Arabica Robusta blend.
Currently though, the vast majority of Robusta is used via blends.
Is Arabica The Best Kind of Coffee?
Kind of, but it's not quite as simple as that. Although the best quality coffee beans that are currently used commercially, are Arabica, this doesn't mean that all Arabica beans are the best.
You'll sometimes see the cheapest, worst tasting (in my opinion, each to their own) jars of instant coffee proudly boasting to be "100% Arabica", and most of the beans sitting on supermarket shelves are also 100% Arabica, does this mean they're all the best quality Arabica?
The simple answer to the question "Is Arabica the best type of coffee" is: Not all Arabica is made equally.
Arabica CAN be the best quality coffee, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is.
If you're producing Arabica coffee to be sold on the commodities market, you have to produce it as cheaply as possible, as you have no control over the cost price.
If the current price per pound has dropped to one dollar forty five for example, as it did in 2022, or even down to below 90 cents per pound as it did in 2019, and you're a farmer with produce to sell, that's what you're getting for your coffee beans - regardless of how much it actually cost you to produce.
So when you're producing coffee, whether you're a small family owned coffee farm or a much bigger operation, you need to produce it as cheaply as you can, and the cheapest produced Arabica coffee isn't going to be the best quality.
To grow coffee as low cost as possible, you need to grow it at a relatively low altitude, as higher grown coffee is much more expensive to produce.
You'll probably need to use the sun grown method (in some cases turning huge expanses of tropical forest into what look like vineyards, just row after row of coffee trees), and a lot of the time this kind of coffee production requires the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
You'll need to choose the lowest cost process from start to finish, including harvesting and processing, and the result is that the lowest cost coffee to produce is very unlikely to be the best quality coffee beans, leading to the best tasting coffee.
What Does Arabica Coffee Taste Like?
That really depends, there's so much variety when it comes to Arabica coffee beans. It depends on the origin of the coffee, the varietals or mix of varietals, how it was roasted & how it was brewed.
If you're thinking that "coffee just tastes like coffee", this is a sentiment that comes from "normal" mainstream coffee, it's really not the case when it comes to speciality coffee.
This isn't coffee snobbery, by the way, it's fact.
Most of the coffee beans that most of us Brits have been consuming up until fairly recently, have been big brand or generic brand commodity coffee that is produced, traded, roasted and imported in huge volumes.
This kind of coffee ends being a much of a muchness when it comes to the taste in the cup, simply due to the nature of these kinds of coffee beans.
To explain this I'll tell you a little story, don't worry, this one doesn't involve goat herders ;-).
When jack came down the beanstalk, being chased by the giant (who's often portrayed as the bad guy, but when you think about it, he was a burglary victim, Jack was the perpetrator) in addition to the goose or the chicken or whatever it was, some kind of golden egg laying poultry, he also pilfered a few magical plants.
Jack came to realise that the seeds of the cherries of this magical plant, are packed full of magic.
He developed a little business for himself selling the freshly picked and carefully processed magical seeds, which gave the drinker all kinds of super powers, invisibility, flight, X-ray vision & so on.
Little did Jack know, however, that while he was drawing the attention of the angry giant, there was another tea leaf up there too, by the name of Joe, who nabbed as many of these magical plants as he could get his hands on.
Being more business minded than Jack, Joe developed a huge operation, processing and distributing these magical beans all over the magical fairy tale kingdom.
Joe's beans, however, were being produced on the kind of commercial scale that made it impossible to result in beans that retained the same kind of magic in them when they reached the customer, as with Jack's beans.
Joe's customers had mild magical abilities as a result of consuming the resulting magical brew, while Jacks customers could walk through walls, teleport, fly, and all manner of other impressive and convenient side effects of making their magical elixir from these magic packed beans.
When we're talking about coffee beans we're mainly talking about taste, although the magical powers analogy actually isn't all that far off when you consider the energy and mood enhancing quality of coffee!
Basically, coffee beans are treated very differently all the way from growing right through to being brewed, depending on what market they're headed for, and the kind of coffee most of us grew up with in the UK, tends to taste like "coffee".
This is why many people who've not yet tried speciality coffee, often don't get it, until you've experienced what this kind of coffee has to offer, it probably seems a bit weird.
This doesn't mean speciality Arabica coffee beans taste weird.
I had a comment on one of my Instagram videos not long ago, from someone who declared that speciality coffee tasted sour & strange.
When I asked for more info, it turned out that they had one experience with speciality coffee at a well known speciality coffee shop in London, and from this one experience, they'd determined that they this kind of coffee isn't for them.
What had clearly happened here is that the first coffee they'd tried was one that didn't agree with their taste buds, and given where this was, I'd imagine that this was quite an interesting coffee, possibly a light roast natural processed coffee.
I'd recommend if you're trying speciality coffee, start out with something similar to what you're used to, rather than jumping in at the deep end.
Heart & Graft (a very well known Manchester based roaster) have a great idea in this regard, that they were using at the Manchester Coffee Festival recently.
They had four urns of different coffee on a rotating wheel, starting out with a more "normal" tasting specialty coffee, which most people who were more used to drinking mainstream coffee would probably be a bit more familiar with. This was tasty, enjoyable, and easy drinking.
They then took the visitor on a journey, tasting slightly more interesting coffees until they got around to their "Crazyhorse", warning that anyone who started out with crazyhorse who isn't used to this kind of coffee, may have a bit of a shock.
This was a natural processed Honduran, and it didn't shock me as I've tasted some really wild speciality coffees, but I can definitely see how someone who things coffee just tastes like coffee, would get a shock when tasting coffee that doesn't actually taste much like coffee at all ;-).
This probably had more in common with mulled wine in terms of flavours, than a "normal" cup of coffee.
I really enjoy tasting weird and wonderful coffees like this, although I also love my espresso blends, and I definitely wouldn't use a bean like when making a flat white.
Some people do use fruity, funky naturals for milkies, and each to their own, but to me it often makes them taste like the milk is off. But as black coffee, I love this kind of Arabica.
But most speciality coffees don't taste this wild and funky.
If you want it you can certainly find it, our Cranberry & Pomegranate Kenya or Melon & Toffee Ethiopia for example, are different & interesting coffees for anyone who wants to try something a bit off the beaten path in terms of the coffees that are considered more "normal".
However, if you're transitioning from having spent years drinking "coffee that just tastes like coffee", you'd be better off starting out with Arabica coffee beans along the lines of Millionaire's Shortbread Honduras, Dark Chocolate Sumatra Mandheling, Choc & Nut Colombia or Cherry & Caramel Brazil.
Light Roast Lovers Collection
What About Fairtrade Arabica?
The Fairtrade logo on a bag of Arabica coffee means that the producer is enrolled in the Fairtrade scheme.
It means the producer is guaranteed to receive a set price for their coffee beans, which is higher than the commodity price, and they also receive the Fairtrade premium.
This doesn't necessarily mean that Fairtrade coffee is better quality than Arabica coffee beans that don't carry the Fairtrade logo, and although the Fairtrade price producers receive for their beans is higher than the commodity price, generally speaking the price paid for speciality coffee beans is much higher.
What About Other Coffee Species?
Arabica and Robusta are the main coffee species that are currently used commercially, they're not the only coffee species, though - there are many.
Coffea Liberica is a coffee species that is seeing a resurgence. This species was particularly popular in the late 1800s, at a time that Arabica producers were really struggling with leaf rust.
It became apparent that it was a bit harder for big producers to work with, it has to be very carefully processed and roasted in order to taste good.
Back in the late 19th century thought most of the roasters were bigger operations, roasting beans in large volumes. These days there are large numbers of small batch roasters who have the roasting chops to be able to give these beans the care they require in order to end up tasting great.
Which Varietals of Arabica Are Best?
There are lots of varietals and cultivars of varietals, and you've probably heard of some of these even if you weren't aware of what they are. Typica, Bourbon, Kona, Blue Mountain and Geisha are varietals you may have heard of.
There are also many cultivars of varietals (cultivated variants), hybrids and crosses, which are usually referred to also as varietals although technically speaking they're not.
For more info on all the different varietals, cultivars and so on, see: coffee plants of the world - SCA.
There really isn't a "best" where these are concerned, it's just personal preference. The great thing about speciality coffee is there's just so much choice, try lots of different coffees and you'll start to figure out in time what coffee beans you have a preference for.
So Which Arabica is The Best Arabica?
The best quality Arabica coffee beans are those that have been produced literally from start to finish with quality in mind.
There's a huge difference between the speciality coffee market and the commodity coffee market. Speciality coffee is priced based on quality, the better the quality, the more the producer gets for it.
Coffee that is being produced for the speciality coffee market is cupped by SCA Q graders, it has to score over 80/100 to be classed as SCA approved speciality coffee, and generally speaking the price increases with each additional point.
So this isn't a case of coming up with a fancy brand name or high quality packaging, it's literally a case of doing everything possible to produce the best tasting coffee.
Not all coffee producers are fortunate enough to be able to even consider producing for the speciality market, I think it's important to make that clear.
The location of the farm is one of the keys to the potential cup quality, the specific conditions in that area including the soil condition, altitude & shade. The producer also needs to be able to afford the costs involved in being SCA graded, or to be part of a COOP that shares the costs with its members.
But those who are able to produce coffee beans that have the potential to become SCA scored 80 or above, have a lot of incentive to pull out all the stops and produce the best quality coffee beans they possibly can.
I'm not only talking about the fact that price is linked to quality score. I can imagine that there's a huge amount of pride and sense of accomplishment in being awarded a high quality score, after all time, effort and investment that will have gone into it.
The Best of The Best Arabica Coffee Beans
OK so we've ascertained that not all Arabica coffee beans are the same, and that the best quality Arabica beans are those that have been produced with quality in mind, in that they've been produced for the the speciality coffee market, rather than being produced with the commodities market in mind.
But which are the best of the best Arabica coffee beans? In other words, which are the best speciality coffee beans?
The word "best" is hugely subjective, your best won't necessarily by my best, so a lot of it is just down to personal taste. Higher scoring coffees into the high 80s and beyond, have been awarded a higher score by the Q graders, this doesn't necessarily mean that you'll prefer a SCA 87 bean over an 82, or 83, for example.
The Best Arabica Coffee Beans For You
This is really what it comes down to. While there's a big difference in quality from commodity Arabica to speciality Arabica coffee beans, a lot of the difference in taste from one speciality coffee to another comes down to personal preference.
I've tasted some very high scoring coffees that I think are very vibrant and full of flavour, but aren't necessarily my "cup of tea". If you're looking for a coffee that tastes like tropical fruits, for example, and you find a high scoring speciality Arabica that tastes just like tropical fruits, then you might declare that to be the best coffee you've ever tasted.
If, on the other hand you tend to prefer low acidity, sweeter coffees with chocolate and caramel notes, you might not find that this particular coffee bean is one of your favourites despite it being scored higher than some of your favourite beans.