You might think of coffee as a monolithic commodity whose variation in flavor mostly has to do with where it is grown, but beyond that is simply a delicious drink that helps us wake up. Though there is a lot of variation in where coffee is grown and the terroir can certainly impact the taste, there is so much more than what meets the eye by the time it reaches our coffee brewers.
Coffee is a tropical fruit. Before it’s processed, it is harvested as a cherry and the seed of that cherry is the product we refer to as a coffee bean. Most of the coffee we roast in specialty coffee is of the Arabica species of coffee (another species you may have heard of is Robusta). Like many fruits we know and love, there isn’t just one kind of coffee plant. For example, when we think about apples, any number of varieties might come to mind: Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, Red Delicious, to name a few. Just like apples, there are many kinds of coffee plants. We commonly refer to this as coffee varieties, although many coffee plants are technically cultivars, which means they’re a cultivated variety (achieved by an agricultural technique as opposed to being found in nature). When coffee reaches you in its roasted form, it can be a blend of multiple varieties or just one. We’re going to give you a breakdown below of some foundational coffee varieties, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Also, a note about the variety vs. varietal phrasing. In coffee, we use the word “variety” when using it as a noun (i.e., “Bourbon Variety”). We use the word “varietal” when using it as an adjective (i.e., “this single varietal coffee from Colombia is great”)
Since Ethiopia is where coffee originated, Heirloom is a term we use to describe the varieties native to Ethiopia. Combined with the fact that Ethiopia does not classify their coffee varieties the way the rest of the world does, the term heirloom has been used as a catch all for Ethiopian coffees by specialty coffee importers for years since they are not usually labeled as “bourbon” or “typica” etc.
Because of this, it’s impossible to identify uniform tasting characteristics across all heirloom varieties. However, a common flavor we taste is iced tea with lemon.
You will see this variety in many of One Village Coffee’s blends and single origins. It’s a very famous and widespread variety and descended from the coffee plant that the French tried to plant in the 1700s on the island of Bourbon, off the coast of Madagascar. From there, it spread to other parts of the world including Brazil, and other parts of South and Central America. What we think of as Bourbon today is a distinctly Latin American variety.
According to World Coffee Research, “Today in Latin America, Bourbon itself has largely been replaced by varieties that descend from it (notably including Caturra, Catuai, and Mundo Novo), although Bourbon itself is still cultivated in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru.”
Bourbon is known for growing at high elevations and producing a high quality cup. It’s known for having a sweet and complex flavor and being more delicate.
Like the Bourbon, Typica is one of the most culturally and genetically important arabica coffees in the world. In the 15th century it originated in Ethiopia, like all arabica coffee, and made its way to Yemen, India, the Netherlands, and eventually to South and Central America where it was the main coffee plant until the 1940s. Due to the fact that it is a low yielding plant and highly susceptible to disease, it has largely been replaced by hardier varieties.
Generally we taste a high degree of sweetness and a very clean body.
This variety is one of the most well known varieties in Africa. It originated in Kenya in the 1930s in Scott Agricultural Laboratories (hence the SL acronym). It’s known for having a tangy and bright flavor, which we commonly associate with Kenyan coffees.
Caturra is a natural mutation of the Bourbon variety. It was discovered in Brazil on a plantation in the early 1900s. In this case, Caturra is a true “variety” instead of a cultivar since it is a natural mutation. Since then, caturra has spread throughout Central America to the point that it is now one of the most important coffees in the region. According to World Coffee Research, “in Colombia, Caturra was thought to represent nearly half of the country’s production until a government-sponsored program beginning in 2008 incentivised renovation of over three billion coffee trees with the leaf-rust resistant Castillo variety (which has Caturra parentage).” Coffee leaf rust is a fungus (scientific name Hemileia vastatrix) which is known for devastating whole coffee plantations. While Caturra itself might be susceptible to rust, it’s place in the coffee genus makes it one of the more important varieties. It is known for being one of the parents of the Catimor family of cultivars. Caturra is known for being high in acidity.
Originating in Brazil, this variety is a blend between the aforementioned Caturra and another variety called Mundo Novo. It’s a more compact plant which allows it to be planted close together, resulting in a higher crop yield. The plants can produce either red or yellow cherries. Red cherries are preferred because of their cleaner acidity.
We hope this information helps you dig even deeper into each coffee you drink. These were a sampling of the many varieties you may come across. Which other coffee varieties are you curious to learn about? Let us know in the comments!
SCAA archives, A Botanist’s Guide to Specialty Coffee
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