You will come across many names of bean or 'varietal' as you delve deeper into the world of good coffee. What do all those names mean, how do you know what is what? Well that was a question I used to be lost in and to be honest, it's a world that you never stop learning. However, it is not as complex as it sounds at first and there is a wealth of reading out there; some of it is very dry and dull. Coffee is for drinking and yes some people can get a little obsessed with the detail.
The main thing to remember is not to get too hung up on it all. Like all things in life, some people find the detail interesting.
I believe one should actively seek new beans, perhaps one you have never heard of, or perhaps something processed differently, maybe a new region, and try them different things as often as you can. In many ways coffee is much like wine, there are good crops, and bad crops, OK crops and absolutely sublime crops. Each season will bring subtle differences in weather and it's often these very subtle differences that can change a coffee from nice, to superb, or indeed what was a superb coffee into some more mediocre.
Top quality coffee, like all good things, is not mass produced. Growing, harvesting and processing the very finest coffee is a labour intensive process. It is often done on relatively small farms and estates and each season there is a finite amount of green coffee available from each grower.
As the coffee season moves around the globe, different regions come into harvest so there is always something new out there to try.
When doing some research for this site, I happened across this article below, which is quite informative without being either too lengthy nor too dry. Make a coffee, hopefully a good one, sit in a comfy chair and have a read.
With wine, we think of ordering by a specific variety alongside its origin. With coffee, I believe this will also eventually happen. The more we dig into where the coffee industry is heading, the more convinced I am that we are closely following the wine industry.
The cup characteristics of coffee are not only determined by the origin of the bean. Its varietal (variety or cultivar) plays a major role in this also. Varietal is a term generally used in the wine industry to describe a wine made from a specific variety of grape (example: Shiraz or Merlot); these varietals give the wine a particular taste and profile, and this also happens in the coffee.
To understand the coffee varietals, it’s important to start with its biology. Coffee or Coffea is a shrub that produces berries from which coffee is extracted. The two main commercial species are C. Arabica and C. Canephora, or more commonly known as Robusta. There are other less popular species like: C. Liberica, Excelsa, Stenophylla, Mauritiana and Racemosa. These are not considered commercially viable, because of their lack of self pollination, complexity or lack of yield.
C. Arabica is the most highly recognised species; this is because of its higher quality traits. Arabica is native to the Southwestern Highland of Ethiopia, South Eastern Sudan and northern Kenya. The lower quality C. Canephora grows more easily in adverse conditions and altitude, and it’s presumed that it is native to Sub Saharan Africa, from Guinea to Uganda and southern Sudan.
Coffea plants are classified in the family of the Rubiaceae. They are small trees that may grow to five metres when unpruned. The bloom is a white fragrant flower followed by oval berries that are green when immature, they ripen to yellow, then red (best time to pick) before turning black. Under and over ripe berries will create problems in the cup; that’s why selective picking is a very important variable in specialty coffee.
Coffee varietals are the hybrids or natural mutations of these two species; it’s believed that the two original varietals of C. Arabica are Typica and Bourbon. The main decision maker for farmers in what varietal to use on their land is based on production (quantity of yield per coffee tree) and resistance to biological or climate problems (frost and insects). I personally think this is slowly changing, as farmers are starting to focus more on higher cup quality profiles and lower yields (Example: Gesha). We are going to talk about the more common varietals used in the industry. For information about others, refer to the diagram (not all mutations and hybrids are listed).
Typica is the start from which most of the coffee varietals have been developed. It has longer seeds than its brother cultivar, Bourbon, and it was the first coffee in the new world. This varietal is known for its low production but excellent cup quality. It’s mainly used in Central America, Jamaica and Indonesia, and in my personal experience, it delivers a cup that generally has a sweet acidity or maleic acid (think of apples and pears) and a medium body.
Bourbon coffee plants produce 20% to 30% more yield than the Typica varietal. Its berries have a less conical shape and mature more quickly. The name comes from the French; they planted this varietal in the Island of Bourbon, now called Reunion, in the Indian Ocean. It’s planted and used widely in Brazil, but currently is also being used actively in Central America. In my opinion, most Bourbons that I have tried are known for their fruity characteristics and bright acidity similar to wine.
Caturra is a natural mutation of the Bourbon varietal; it was first found in the town of Caturra in Brazil. This varietal produces a higher yield than its father; this is mainly due to the fact the plant is shorter. It’s also more disease resistant than older traditional varietals. Caturra is more commonly used in Colombia. In my experience, this varietal generally shows a more citric acidity like lemon and lime notes.
Maragogype is a natural mutation of the Typica and was discovered in Brazil. This varietal is known for its very large bean size and has a lower yield than the Typica and Bourbon varietals. In my opinion, it’s very difficult to find good lots of this varietal, but when you find them, they can have a very good cup quality – delicate and high acidity.
Gesha is often misspelled as Geisha. Its name and origin comes from a town called Gesha, located in the south of Ethiopia. It’s thought that it is a wild shrub mutation of the Typica, but this is not confirmed. This varietal is known for its elongated seeds and low yield. Its unique cup profile makes it highly regarded in the coffee industry. Generally, this varietal shows high traits of jasmine and vanilla.
Catuai is a high yielding varietal that resulted in a cross between Mundo Novo and Caturra. The fruit does not fall from the plant easily, making it favourable for areas where you can experience high winds or rain. In my experience, Catuai delivers a high sweet cup, but this varietal is more renowned for its resistance, rather than for its quality.
Catimor is a cross between Timor coffee (resistant to rust) and Caturra. It was created in Portugal; its maturation is early and delivers high yields, but it needs strict methods of fertilization and shade. This varietal can have problems at higher altitudes, where there’s a considerable difference in cup profile between it and the other commercial varietals. In personal experience, this varietal shows a very high sour acidity, making it taste a little salty or stringent; it may be because of its Robusta inheritance. Also, this varietal is known more for its resistance and production rather than its quality.
There are many more varietals, hybrids and mutations. I have highlighted the most important ones to show how each have a particular taste, flavour and profile.
Historically, farmers choose the varietals they want to grow based on production and resistance, rather than cup quality. That’s why in most origin profiles we have a blend of different varietals, instead of just a 100% single varietal.
This, in a sense, is because farmers want to lower their risk of losing crops because of climate and disease, and they don’t regard varietal quality as more important. The balance for them is to use varietals that offer a ‘respectable cup’ with good production and resistance like the Caturra, Catuai and Catimor.
There is a new generation of farmers who are leading the single varietal revolution. They don’t care about the low yields or vulnerability to disease and prefer to direct the emphasis towards quality. This is why we are starting to see micro lots that have 100% single varietals like Gesha, Typica, or Yellow, Red and Orange Bourbon. These are exceptional coffees and are raising the bar to even higher standards.
A brilliant article by: Andres Latorre Canon – Latorre & Dutch Coffee Traders
Other notable varietals:
These varieties most resemble the Typica variety though there is no exact way of tracing their development. There are over 1000 different varieties growing in the wild forests of Ethiopia. These varieties are responsible for some of the most coverted cup profiles in the world.