The History of the Arabica Bean
Walking down the aisles of your local grocery store or an extremely niche marketplace, you’ll see a lot of coffee produce marked as “Arabica beans” or “100% Arabica”. Ever wondered why that is? Among the different kinds of coffee beans grown around the world, Arabica is the most common and makes up about 60% to 70% of the world’s coffee production, with Robusta – its caffeine-rich counterpart, making up the remainder.
As this region’s expert coffee roasters with a team comprised of the best caffeine connoisseurs you’ll ever know, we’re going to dig deeper into the origins of the OG arabica coffee and help you learn more about this zesty bean.
Considered the ‘merlot’ of coffee, the discovery of the arabica bean dates back to nearly 1000 BC to the Kingdom of Kefa (present-day Ethiopia) where the Omoro tribe ate the bean, crushed it and mixed it with fat to make spheres the size of ping-pong balls that were consumed as stimulants – the same purpose that coffee serves.
In the 7th century, the plant species of Cofea Arabica crossed the Red Sea from Ethiopia to Yemen and into lower Arabia, hence the name ‘Arabica’. When arabica beans were transported to Egypt and Turkey, they roasted the coffee beans to brew the drink we all love to sip so much today and Arab scholars noted that coffee was useful in prolonging their working hours.
There are several other legendary accounts of the discovery of arabica and its consumption experiences. Moroccan mystic Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili observed birds feeding on the berries and feeling rejuvenated and active, and upon consumption, he too experienced similar vitality. Another famous account is that of Omar, a disciple of Sheikh Abu al-Hasan ash-Shadhili. Omar, who was known for his ability to cure the sick through prayer was once upon a time deported from Mecca to a desert cave, where sustenance was difficult to find. He chewed on the coffee berries he found in a nearby shrubbery and found them to be extremely bitter. When he tried to roast the beans, they became hard. He then boiled them to soften them, which then resulted in the fragrant brown liquid which enabled him to survive in the harsh desert conditions. This innovation of making a brew from roasted beans then spread all across the world, giving arabica coffee the position it enjoys today.
Coffee grower Ernesto Illy described arabica coffee as having an “intense, intricate aroma that can be reminiscent of flowers, fruit, honey, chocolate, caramel or toasted bread”. The bean is low in caffeine content, never exceeding 1.5% in weight and its rich quality and taste means that arabica sells at a higher premium than Robusta or Charrieriana, a caffeine-free bean newly discovered in Cameroon, Africa. Sub-varieties of Arabica include Typica, Bourbon, Gesha and various mutations of the same.
So you might call arabica the ‘Adam or Eve’ of all coffee, since it was the first type of coffee to ever be consumed? Despite finding its roots in present-day Ethiopia, arabica coffee is now cultivated all over the world. Different temperatures and climatic conditions means each country or region has a bean that tastes different from the other. Most arabica coffee is of the Typica sub-variety, which is known for its excellent cup quality and clean finish on the palate.