Coffee drinkers have long selected their beans of choice based on roast degree or country of origin. Increasingly, some specialty coffee consumers are searching for certain processing methods. But the subject of coffee varieties, or cultivars, has yet to trickle down to a consumer level– which is a shame. Different coffee varieties have different cup characteristics, and identifying a coffee’s varietal characteristics can add to your appreciation of that morning cup.
What is a Cultivar?
You likely already know something about grape varieties, or in the very least apples. Even if you can’t tell the difference between Pinot noir or Syrah, you probably know Granny smith apples are tart and Red Delicious apples are anything but delicious. (I, for one, usually go for Fuji apples at the supermarket.) But what is a variety anyway?
The International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants defines a cultivar as:
an assemblage of plants that (a) has been selected for a particular character or combination of characters, (b) is distinct, uniform and stable in those characters, and (c) when propagated by appropriate means, retains those characters.
In the case of coffee, many commercially grown varieties are the result of random mutation, such as Bourbon or Caturra. In other cases, such as Pacamara or Castillo, coffee cultivars were intentionally bred for certain characteristics, be it yield, disease resistance, or flavor.
Any random retail bag of coffee is likely to contain multiple coffee varieties, even if it’s a single estate coffee. Most coffee farms grow multiple varieties, and it’s much easier to blend all of the cherries together during harvesting. If you happen to get your hands on a single cultivar microlot, it’s probably something special. (We still dream about the best espresso we ever had: a 100% Typica lot from Hacienda la Papaya in Ecuador. )
Some Common Varieties
Although there are hundreds of commercially grown coffee varieties, the coffee varieties you’re likely to encounter vary by country and region. Here are a few of our favorites:
Typica — In 1706 a coffee plant was brought from the island of Java to a greenhouse in Amsterdam. This single tree would prove instrumental in introducing coffee to the Americas. Typica tends to be a low-yielding variety, which leads to great sweetness in the cup, but often makes it less profitable for farmers. Throw in the fact that Typica also is fairly susceptible to diseases like leaf rust, and it’s pretty rare to find 100% Typica lot.
Bourbon — in the 1700s, the French brought coffee plants from Yemen to Réunion island, then called Bourbon. Over time, the coffee adapted to its new environment coffee from this island was brought to Brazil and part East Africa, where it is still one of the most prominent coffee varieties. In fact, according to World Coffee Research, over 97% of coffee cultivars in the world are derived from Typica and Bourbon. Although highly susceptible to disease, bourbon is known for its superior cup characteristics.
Caturra — Caturra is a natural mutation of bourbon, first discovered in Brazil in the early 1900s. As a dwarf variety, it’s easier to pick. Coupled with its higher yields, it’s easy to see why this variety became popular with producers. Still, the cup quality can be quite high, with a prominent acidity at higher elevations.
Geisha/Gesha — Although coffee professionals disagree on how to spell it, Geisha/Gesha’s distinctive floral aromas and tropical fruit flavors makes it one of the most coveted varieties. This Ethiopia heirloom variety has become synonymous with Boquete, Panama where it was rediscovered in the early 2000s. Since then the cultivar has spread across the Americas and even back to its native Ethiopia.
SL28 & SL34 — In the early 20th century Scott Laboratories in Kenya carried out extensive coffee breeding research. Two of the successful cultivars to emerge from their experiments were SL28 and SL34, which are related to the Bourbon and Typica genetic groups respectively. Because coffee is typically blended together at washing stations in Kenya, these two varieties are usually found together, along with other common Kenya varieties like Batian or Ruiru 11. Expect high acidity with tart fruit characteristics, like red currents or grapefruit.