We see these words on coffee bags and read about them in articles, but what are the coffee varieties and their effect on your cup?
We don't generally enter a café and ask for a Bourbon varietal latte in the way we would order a glass of wine in a bar. However, the coffee industry inherits terminology from the wine industry. In wine circles, everybody knows the difference between a Shiraz and a Sav Blanc. Whereas, in the coffee world, varieties are much less understood.
There's also a common misuse of the terms so firstly, let's set things straight.
Variety vs Varietal
In general, a subspecies of a plant is known as a variety. It is the plant classification that falls beneath species.
Varieties are very important in the global landscape. Some produce great yields, some have a unique flavour profile, and others grow better in a particular climate.
A varietal refers to a specific instance, or product of a variety. A plant that forms a single origin coffee, being of a single subspecies from one farm, is correctly known as a varietal, e.g. a Gesha Varietal. A varietal is a product of, or brewed liquid from, a variety.
A cultivar, another term used in coffee agriculture, refers to a hybrid of plants created by humans and not occurring in a wild setting. Confused yet?
Lexicon aside, it can be eye-opening to learn of the coffee plant varieties, as these each have different strengths and weaknesses and can give their resultant cup of coffee a distinct taste and profile.
The Coffee Family Tree
To understand coffee plant varieties, we can start with a simple biology lesson: let’s discuss the coffee plant. Coffee or coffea is a shrub from which coffee cherries grow.
The cherries and dried and de-pulped through various processing methods, and it is through these roasted beans that the coffee drink is extracted.
The two main commercially viable beans are the Arabica or Robusta varieties. Some less popular species such as the Liberica exist. However, due to lack of yield or complexity of production, these are not commonly available commercially on an international scale.
The Arabica is the bean most associated with specialty coffee. It has a much higher sugar ratio and is generally sweeter, with a more complex flavour, aroma and smoothness with pleasant acidity.
Robusta is used more widely for commodity coffee due to its cheaper pricing. It is known to present more bitterness and nuttiness than Arabica. The Arabica vs Robusta debate is one for a whole other blog post but sit tight. Today, we are taking a journey down the family [coffee] tree of the Arabica variety.
To begin, coffee farmers will choose the species based on their climate and location, yield, and biological resistance to pests and diseases among other factors. The two original varieties of the Arabica species are the Typica and Bourbon.
Typica is one of the earliest forms of coffee, having been around for centuries and being the parent of several hybrid species. It is considered to be the original variety from which all others came forth.
It was spread around the world by the Dutch for commercial crops and produces an excellent quality cup, though has lower yields.
For many coffee lovers, it has been the standard cup quality of coffee from which other varieties are compared and measured.
Sweet, clean, bright citrus acidity.
The cherries of the Bourbon plant mature more quickly than Typica. The name Bourbon comes from the French, having planted this seed on the island of Bourbon, now known as Reunion, in the Indian Ocean.
It is known for its fruity sweetness, great balance and acidity. It is often a prized coffee variety, popular in Latin America, Rwanda, and Burundi however are not particularly resistant to pests and disease compared to newer varieties.
Sweet, fruity, chocolatey
A hybrid of Typica and Bourbon, it is named after the Brazilian location in which it was discovered. It is favoured in high altitude regions and is of a higher disease and pest resilience.
Lower acidity, heavier body
Also discovered in Brazil and a mutation of Bourbon, with a higher yield than earlier plants and dwarf in size, making it favourable for handpicking. Quality increases with altitude however yield decreases. It is common in Brazil and throughout Latin America.
Higher acidity, citrus notes
A Hybrid of Caturra and Mundo Nuovo, bred in Brazil to have the dwarf characteristics of the Caturra and resilience of Mundo Nuovo. Favourable in areas of wind and rain as the fruit does not fall from the plant as easily as other cultivars. It is known more for resilience than quality. However, in the right location, it can produce a high-quality cup.
High acidity, occasional bitterness
Prized for its unusually large beans, Maragogype is a Typica mutation first found in Brazil. It is hard to come by lots and therefore coffee varietals featuring this bean. It has a lower yield and is less commonly grown.
High acidity, citrus fruit and spice
Spoken of with reverence in coffee circles, this plant's name (often misspelt as Geisha) is derived from its town of origin in Ethiopia. The variety has gained popularity in Costa Rica following extremely high bids of crops at auction in the early 2000s. It is highly regarded in the specialty coffee industry due to its unique cup qualities.
Tea-like, vanilla, Jasmine
A Kenyan Cultivar bred from drought resistance. Known for its distinct fruitiness.
Sweet, bright acidity, fruits & berries
Bred for hardiness to disease, this variety is a cross between Caturra and Timor coffee (Timor has Robusta inheritance). It is often thought to sacrifice resilience for flavour.
Though the Catimor can provide a challenge in achieving excellence in the final cup, with the right cultivation, processing and roast, it can produce a crisp and pleasant acidity.
High acidity, nutty, herbal, berry
When you see this name on a box of coffee it is likely not attributable to one of the above categories. It is likely to have been grown wild or in a lightly cultivated garden. Studies show that Ethiopia holds up to 95% of coffee’s genetic diversity. However, many of these hybrids remain uncategorized.
Image via A Perfect Daily Grind
The above is a snapshot of some of the more common varieties of plants and their origins. Please note that tasting notes are generalized as many factors including processing and roasting influence the final taste.
This guide will help you get started on deciphering the description on your bags of freshly roasted coffee. You may even find you enjoy a variety of coffee beans more than others.
As you begin to learn more about how coffee varieties affect your cup, your appreciation of the #craftingbeautiful process will grow.
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- The World Atlas of Coffee by James Hoffman. Published by Firefly Books Ltd. 2014