Coffee Varietals Explained:
To any wine-fanatic, seeing a name like Merlot or Pinot Noir is commonplace. They mean something. These aren’t just fancy names assigned at random, it refers to the variety of grape used to make the wine. Both Merlot and Pinot Noir are types of wine, but have key differences when it comes to how they look and taste. You can look at coffee in a similar way.
As you can imagine, in coffee, the variety—or varietal if used as an adjective—tells you what type of coffee cherry the beans come from. If you see Caturra, Heirloom or Margogipe written on your bag of coffee, it corresponds to one variety from the few thousands of coffee varietals found around the world.
They’ve also been cultivated by horticulture professionals for the best performance - in terms of quality or yield – in a specific region or terroir or perhaps to be resistant to a specific plant disease or droughts.
The nomenclature can also be useful to you, as the drinker, as you will soon realize that each variety has its own unique attributes that distinguish one from the other.
To give you an idea of some of the most common varieties, we will look at a few in depth:
Hailing from Ethiopia is this generically-named gem.
Why the generic name? Well, it's estimated that there are between six and ten thousand coffee varieties in Ethiopia alone — yes, six to ten thousand! Due to this colossal figure, there hasn’t been enough genetic testing to allow buyers to distinguish one from another. With the cross-pollination that occurs naturally in the wild, the name ‘Ethiopian Heirloom’ exists as an umbrella term to describe all variants. This is what really makes Ethiopian coffee quite a mystery—and an interesting one at that. Each village or town could potentially have a different variety, with its own unique properties.
Ethiopia is said to be the birthplace of coffee, meaning that at some point in time it was only naturally found here.
So how did it make its way to the other side of the world?
Brief Coffee History: A Run-Down:
Long ago, a coffee plant was brought from Ethiopia to Yemen. From Yemen, the Dutch stole - yes, stole - some trees, and planted them on the Island of Java (the biggest of the Indonesian islands). Years later, the Dutch government wanted to give a gift to the King of France, and decided that a coffee tree would be a fantastic gift.
France took this stolen gift with open arms and a greenhouse was established where this single plant was treated like royalty and properly cared for. Thankfully for us, they did this, because this one plant is the ancestor to most of the coffee we have in the world today.
Its seeds were taken and planted around the world; first in Latin America & the Island of Bourbon (an island off of the Eastern coast of Africa, which is now known as Reunion Island). This very important tree was christened with the name “The Noble Tree” because of how significant it was in widening the range of coffee we have today.
The coffee varietal that was planted in Latin America from The Noble Tree is known as Typica—from the Latin word ordinary. It has become quite a popular varietal, and is known for cleanliness, sweetness and tends to have excellent cup quality. This is the coffee varietal you’ll be drinking if you’re having Kona or Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.
The coffee varietal from The Noble Tree that was planted off the coast of Africa on the Island of Bourbon is known as - you guessed it - Bourbon! Why isn’t this known as Typica as well? The plant actually ended up mutating into a different variety and significantly changed from the Typica plant.
One of the key differences is the productivity—or number of cherries the plant will produce—as the Bourbon plant is about 30% more productive than Typica. With this extra productivity, it became quite desirable, and the seeds of this new varietal were planted in different parts of Central & South America.
Bourbon is known for having a bit more complexity and sweetness in the taste profile, when compared to Typica.
In Brazil, a mutation of the bourbon plant resulted in a smaller, and even more productive version of this shrub. Since it was planted just outside of the town of Caturra, Brazil, the variety was given this name. Based on the higher productivity and its compact size, it was an easy decision for farmers needing a good go-to plant to maximize the use of their land – and as a result it has become immensely popular. The coffees’ taste tends to have a bright acidity with potentially less clarity than Bourbon.
One varietal that has quite the unique background is Catimor. This is part Caturra, and part Timor Hybrid - Timor Hybrid in itself is an interesting a varietal, because it is actually part Robusta and part Arabica. To contrast, every other variety we have discussed is 100% Arabica. With this brings some of Robusta’s characteristics to the bean, such as more of a bitter taste, more caffeine and more resistance to bugs. As these cross-mixed varietals bring the best of both worlds of, they appealed to the farmers and have become immensely popular.
What happens when a variety from Ethiopia is planted in Panama, gets used in competitions around the world and put up against some of the best coffees available?
The answer? It stands out big-time, it breaks price records, and sends ripples through the specialty coffee industry. What is this exceptionally sought-after variety called?
Among specialty coffee roasters, this variety has a mystical feeling to it; a special unicorn-like-aura because of the allure and reputation it has gained in record breaking auctions.
Part of what makes this coffee so interesting (besides the taste) is that its history is rooted in Ethiopia. Interestingly, after being transplanted and grown in a different country, its taste profile has characteristics from both regions.
We've featured Geisha coffee from Malawi and Guatemala—which in both cases presented taste profiles that reflected their unique back stories.
This incredibly large coffee varietal is a hybrid of Maragogype and Pacas. Maragogype is a natural mutation of the Typica variety discovered in Brazil in 1870. Maragogype doesn’t produce very many cherries, so this is why Pacamara is generally preferred by farmers.
Obatã is a rarely seen varietal that has quite the lineage!
It descends from Sarchimor and Mundo Novo. Sarchimor is a mix of Timor (which is actually a hybrid of two coffee species, Coffee Arabica and Coffea Canephora - also known as Robusta) and Villa Sarchi (a natural mutation of Bourbon). Mundo Novo is a hybrid of Bourbon and Typica.
Katia Duke, producer of the Honduran Finca San Isidro, explained to us why she planted this varietal on her farm:
“The year 2012 was a very difficult year for us. Between 60-80% of our plantation was destroyed by [coffee leaf] rust (a fungus, also known as Hemileia vastatrix)! Our plant was mostly Catuai and Caturra. We were in love with the results in cup of these varieties, but it was clear that we did not take into account the climatic changes that we were going to face! The Obatã variety brought us a new alternative to keep us in business… its yields are incredible, it is a plant resistant to rust. However, it is demanding in terms of nutrients and management.”
“My challenge is to show that with a variety like this, I can protect my farm from natural events. And with good management and care, I can achieve an excellent cup of coffee, as we did by winning the second place in a tri-national competition.”
This coffee was developed at the Agronomic Institute of Campinas (IAC) in Brazil in the 1960s. This institute helps provide Brazilian farmers with innovative varietals that best suits their specific conditions.
Topazio is a cross between Red Catuai (which is a hybrid of Mundo Novo and Caturra) and Mundo Novo (hybrid of the two original coffee varietals, Bourbon and Typica). This hybrid is intended to provide the benefits of the parent varietals.
The sheer number of coffee varietals is staggering. As you may have noticed from the few that we’ve discussed in this article, there is a significant amount of mutation and cross-pollination that has taken place, which continues to lead to the growing number of unique varieties we see today.
There are thousands of coffee varietals in Ethiopia alone, and it’s difficult to pinpoint every single one without jumping into some serious genetic testing. This task is definitely something that specialty coffee organizations would like to do in the future, but unfortunately, it just isn’t a feasible project at this point in time.