If you know about coffee slightly more than the average consumer, you know there are two main types of coffee plants: Arabica and Robusta. Believe it or not, there are many varieties of the two coffee genus of Arabica and Robusta. So many varietals, in fact, that a comprehensive infographic for coffee professionals to
reference. See below.
Taking a look at the table, you may notice there are some varietals possess more generic-sounding names like “mocha”, while others inherited the name of their regional parentage. A plethora of varietals pops up naturally as coffee is a highly cultivated plant. You may notice in the key section the number indicator “1” refers to Interspecific Hybrids: a new varietal created by humans cross-pollinating two separate types (varietals) of coffee. Typically this is a mix of Arabica and Robusta. If you read our article, “Climate Change and Coffee,” one of the solutions mentioned to the growing crisis is the creation of newer coffee plants that are hardier but maintain their Specialty Coffee Association standard. This is exactly what an interspecific hybrid is.
The number indicator “4” refers to “Intraspecific Hybrid” which is a cross between two of the same variety located in different regions, allowing for slight variations in the variety but not changing the majority of the genetic makeup of the coffee fruit.
Notice how Intraspecific Hybrid “4” is located under the Arabica side of the chart while “Interspecific Hybrid “1” lies on the Robusta side of the chart.
In this article, though, we will be discussing the finer varietals located on the Arabica side to the chart, as to appease the Coffee Gods. Some of the varietals we carry or have carried, at our cafe-roastery in Whitehouse Station, NJ. The truth is that varietals can be difficult to locate because of our commitment to Fair-Trade coffee which typically manifests itself through coffee-cops, who often mix the coffee during the processing phase. When you see the word “micro-lot” you can almost be sure that the coffee is of a single varietal.
All of this aside, let’s jump into it and take a look at the varietals of:
Typica, Geisha, Bourbon, Heirloom, and Caturra.
According to World Coffee Research:
“By the late 1600s, coffee trees had left Yemen and were growing in India. These seeds gave rise to coffee plantations in the Mysore region known as Malabar at that time. Recent genetic fingerprinting results indicate that both Typica- and Bourbon-like varieties were included in this introduction from Yemen to India. The Typica branch likely separated from Bourbon when the Dutch sent seeds in 1696 and 1699 from Malabar coast of India to Batavia, today called Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, located on the populous island of Java....the isolation of the Typica branch and it’s subsequent movement around the world likely originated when the seeds came to Indonesia from India, not directly from Yemen as is often told.”
The article goes on to state that the rise of the Typica variety of coffee was when a single plant was taken from Indonesia to Amsterdam where it became the single variety that we now know of today. It was later taken to the New World where it mainly grows today.
Word Coffee Research characterizes the Typica variety as:
“One of the most culturally and genetically important C. arabica coffees in the world, with high quality in Central America. Very high susceptibility to coffee leaf rust, well-adapted to the coldest conditions.”
The bean Typica yields are large compared to, say, an Ethiopia, it is grown better at high-altitude and its yield is often small. Typica is complicated to grow as it is highly susceptible to disease and leaf rust.
Sweet, Clean, Bodacious
Regions grown: Sumatra (Indonesia), Pluma Hidalgo (Oaxaca, Mexico), and Blue Mountain (Jamaica).
Bourbon coffee is strikingly similar to Typica and, unfortunately, didn’t earn its name by having the qualities of Bourbon whiskey. World Coffee Research describes the history of Bourbon coffee:
“French missionaries introduced Bourbon from Yemen to Bourbon Island (now La Réunion)—giving it the name it has today—in the early 1700s. Until the mid-19th century, Bourbon did not leave the island. But beginning in the mid-1800s, the variety spread to new parts of the world as the missionaries moved to establish footholds in Africa and the Americas.
The Bourbon variety was introduced to Brazil around 1860, and from there rapidly spread north into other parts of South and Central America, where it is still cultivated today.”
There are many high-quality varietals that descended from Bourbon such as Caturra. Bourbon has a very good potential for growing at higher altitudes. The yield potential is medium, more than Typica, but it shares Typica’s susceptibility to plant disease and leaf rust. There are many different types of Bourbon’s since its geographic location has shifted all over the world ( all coffee’s geographic location has). There exist Bourbon varietals in East Africa, but the quality does not compare to types that have flourished in the Americas.
Sweet, Delicate, Complex Acidity
Regions grown: El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru.
The Geisha variety is the most revered and treasured coffee in the world. The Panama Geisha variety won the 2018 best-coffee award. Green beans can cost up to $2.0/pound. It can costs upwards of $600/pound roasted, $9/shot of espresso, or $20 for a traditional cup.
“Panamanian Geisha has exceptionally high quality at high altitudes. The term "Geisha" is often applied to other coffees that do not share the distinct genetics of Panamanian Geisha. Geisha is also cultivated widely in Malawi.”
Geisha tracks its lineage to Ethiopia: the cradle of coffee, but its direct lineage is a mystery. The coffee was originally collected next to a mountain in Ethiopia whose name translates to “Gesha” in English, the spelling was later changed to “Geisha.” The World Coffee Research tries to reign in the confusion over what defines “Geisha” coffee and what does not:
“There is significant confusion about Geisha because there are multiple genetically distinct plant types that have been referred to as Geisha, many of which share similar geographic origins in Ethiopia. Recent genetic diversity analyses conducted by World Coffee Research confirm that Panamanian Geisha descendent from T2722 is distinct and uniform”
At Black River Roasters, we have had few Geishas. The main Geisha we carried was a non-organic Colombian. The Geisha plant is tolerant to leaf rust but susceptible to plant disease. The bean size is on the smaller side but has an exceptional cupping quality at higher altitudes.
Delicate floral, jasmine, and peach-like aromas.
Regions grown: Colombia, Panama, Ethiopia, and Costa Rica.
A mutation of the Bourbon plant, Caturra was discovered in Brazil in the early 20th century. Caturra possesses a single-gene mutation that causes it to grow smaller, categorizing it as a “dwarf” plant. This quality of this varietal is good, but it goes through a “weeding out” selection process where the seeds from the highest performing plants are used to grow the next generation of coffee plants. This varietal has a place on our list because of its natural genetic mutation of a previous discussed varietal (Bourbon), and it’s relevance in the coffee community.
“It was introduced in Guatemala in the 1940s, but widespread commercial adoption didn’t happen for another three decades. From Guatemala, it was introduced to Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama. Today, it is one of the most economically important coffees in Central America, to the extent that it is often used as a “benchmark” against which new cultivars are tested. In Colombia, Caturra was thought to represent nearly half of the country’s production until a government-sponsored program beginning in 2008 incentivized renovation of over three billion coffee trees with the leaf-rust resistant Castillo variety (which has Caturra parentage).”
It goes on to say that Caturra blazed the path to higher-density growing practices because of it’s dwarfish stature. It has a good possibility of producing quality coffee at high altitude and doubly produces a good yield amount. Like many higher-quality varietals, Caturra is highly susceptible to plant diseases and to leaf rust.
Example of leaf rust: https://cafealtura.com/coffee-leaf-rust/
Medium-light bodied. Bright Acidity.
Regions grown: Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua
Ethiopian coffees are the Stradivarius of the specialty coffee industry. The only country that consumes as much coffee as it produces is Ethiopia, with many small farms not exporting their lots. “Heirloom” is a word for an old cultivar. Essentially, any coffee variety that has been grown for over a hundred years that remains untouched by human engineering or natural genetic mutations/cross-breeding. Heirloom varieties exist not only in Ethiopia but in Asia and Latin America as well. For the purposes of the specification, we will be discussing Ethiopia Heirlooms here.
It is a complex term because many importers who could not identify what a specific (Ethiopian) variety was slapped the label “heirloom” on it. And indeed there is a problem with deleting the term from the coffee dictionary. Because there are thousands upon thousands of micro varietals located in Ethiopia, putting a name to each one will be confusing, and not exactly helpful in distinguishing one from the other since many of them have very slight differences to begin with. We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater although James Harper of The Perfect Daily Grind writes:
“Jimma Agricultural Research Centre has ongoing efforts to genetically document different coffee varieties and some buyers are collaborating to develop a common language for these varieties.”
We can only hope that we can eventually differentiate these unique varietals and let the ones that shine, truly shine through.