Coffee Varietals: A Guide to Coffee Varieties

Coffee Varietals: A Guide to Coffee Varieties

Jun 16, 2024Meagan Mason

Names like Merlot and Pinot Noir are well-known among wine aficionados, representing specific grape varieties that bring unique characteristics to wine. In a similar way, coffee enthusiasts may come across names such as Caturra, Heirloom, or Margogipe on their coffee bags. These names indicate distinct coffee varieties, each with unique attributes cultivated for particular regional conditions or resistance to specific diseases.

These coffee varieties contribute significantly to the richness of the coffee experience, offering a range of flavors and qualities for enthusiasts to enjoy. Each type is carefully grown to enhance its specific traits, much like how different grape varieties influence the taste and look of different wines.

What's A Coffee Varietal Anyway?

Varietals refer to specific subspecies or cultivated types of coffee plants, each with distinct traits and flavor profiles due to their genetic makeup and the environments in which they are grown.

Major Coffee Varietals:

  • Arabica (Coffea arabica): Offers smooth, complex flavors with lower caffeine levels.
  • Robusta (Coffea canephora): Characterized by a stronger and more pungent taste with higher caffeine content.
  • Liberica (Coffea liberica): Known for a unique, woody taste and larger, irregular beans.
  • Excelsa (Coffea excelsa): A subtype of Liberica, recognized for its tart, fruity flavor.

Factors Influencing Varietal Characteristics:

  • Geography: The altitude, climate, and soil conditions significantly affect the taste and quality of coffee varietals.
  • Cultivation: Farming methods, such as whether the coffee is shade-grown or sun-grown, influence the flavor.
  • Processing: The method of processing (washed, natural, or honey) impacts the final taste profile.

Popular Arabica Varietals:

  • Bourbon: Known for its sweet and complex flavors with good acidity.
  • Typica: Appreciated for its clean and balanced taste with high sweetness.
  • SL28 and SL34: Renowned for their strong, wine-like flavors and excellent quality.
  • Geisha (Gesha): Highly esteemed for its floral, jasmine-like aroma and bright acidity.

Selecting specific varietals can enhance the coffee-drinking experience, offering unique sensory experiences that highlight the diversity in the world of coffee. Each varietal brings its own set of flavors and characteristics, contributing to a richer appreciation of coffee’s complexities.

The Coffee Family Tree

The origin of the coffee family tree begins with the Rubiaceae varietal and with the evolution of cross-pollinations and genetic tests for interspecific hybrid variations to tweak the cup profile of blends, we are seeing the specialty coffee industry progressing in leaps and bounds.

Of course, if you look at a 'family tree' of coffee you'll find the Arabica variety at the top in the form of Typica and Bourbon.

A natural hybrid of these two and then filtered even more to create a breed called Catuai which is a hybrid of mundo novo and caturra.

It offered the best of both parents and their unique flavor characteristics for a balanced cup.

Then we move onto the late 1940s when Timor coffee was discovered and this hybrid was used to combat the effect of coffee leaf rust disease. The flavor of Caturra and the disease-resistance abilities (to prevent leaf rust) of Timor made it a worthy hybrid and thus Catimor was created.

Popular Coffee Varietals:

Typica Varietal

Originating from the first coffee tree brought to Latin America, Typica is celebrated for its clean and sweet flavors. It is widely appreciated for its high-quality cup, making it a reliable choice for those desiring a delightful coffee experience. Typica is often used in renowned coffees such as Kona and Jamaican Blue Mountain.

Bourbon Varietal

First appearing on the Island of Bourbon, Bourbon beans are a mutation of the Typica varietal. It offers about 30% higher productivity compared to Typica, making it attractive to farmers. Bourbon is renowned for its complex and sweet flavor, with many farms in Central and South America cultivating this varietal.

Caturra Varietal

Caturra, a compact and more productive relative of Bourbon, originated near the town of Caturra in Brazil. Its smaller size and higher yield make it a popular choice among farmers. While it may not have the same clarity as Bourbon, Caturra is valued for its bright acidity and practicality in cultivation.

Catimor Varietal

Catimor is an interesting blend, combining traits from Caturra and the Timor Hybrid, which is part Arabica and part Robusta. This varietal exhibits the robustness and resistance of Robusta while retaining preferred Arabica characteristics. Higher bitterness, increased caffeine content, and pest resistance make Catimor a practical option for many farmers.

Geisha Varietal

Geisha, with origins in Ethiopia and popularized in Panama, has greatly impacted specialty coffee. Known for its unique flavor profile and high quality, this varietal has set price records and holds an esteemed place among coffee enthusiasts. Geisha’s rich history and performance in global auctions contribute to its near-legendary status.

Pacamara Varietal

Pacamara is a hybrid of Maragogype and Pacas, developed to offer better yields than Maragogype while retaining large bean size. This varietal strikes a balance between quality and farming practicality, making it a favored choice among growers looking to maximize both yield and bean quality.

Obata Varietal

Obata is a rarer varietal with roots in Sarchimor and Mundo Novo, known for its impressive yield and resistance to coffee leaf rust. This makes it a sustainable option for farms facing shifting climate conditions. The success of Obata in Honduran farms highlights its potential for producing high-quality coffee while maintaining farm resilience.

Topazio Varietal

Created in Brazil by the Agronomic Institute of Campinas in the 1960s, Topazio is a hybrid of Red Catuai and Mundo Novo. Known for its robust nature, this varietal supports innovative agricultural practices and offers Brazilian farmers a strong option suited for varying conditions. Topazio represents the progress and scientific advancements in coffee cultivation.


Ethiopian Heirloom

Ethiopia is renowned for its unique coffee varieties, collectively known as 'Ethiopian Heirloom'. This term encompasses the vast range of between six and ten thousand different coffee types found in the country. Given the complex nature and sheer number of these varieties, precise genetic testing presents a significant challenge. Natural cross-pollination adds another layer of complexity to the identification process.

In Ethiopia, each village or town might have its own distinct coffee, each variety possessing unique attributes. This local distinctiveness contributes to the allure and mystery surrounding Ethiopian coffee.

Key Points:

  • Origin: Ethiopia
  • Varieties: Between 6,000 and 10,000
  • Unique Traits: Varies by locality
  • Significance: Recognized as the birthplace of coffee

With its deep-rooted history and captivating diversity, Ethiopian coffee continues to capture the interest of coffee enthusiasts around the world.

Understanding Coffee Varietals

The vast and ever-expanding world of coffee varietals is marked by mutation and cross-pollination. Particularly in regions like Ethiopia, the diversity is immense. Identifying each type would necessitate detailed genetic testing. Specialty coffee organizations continue to pursue this ambitious goal.

For those passionate about coffee, exploring these varieties can be both thrilling and a bit overwhelming. Each variety offers unique characteristics that enhance appreciation for every cup. From casual drinkers to seasoned connoisseurs, there's always more to discover.

For a global catalog of Arabica and Robusta varieties, World Coffee Research serves as an invaluable resource, offering insights into this rich and diverse world.

Hopefully, after reading this, you have a bit of a better understanding of what coffee varietals are and how a few of the main varietals differ.

While you're here, why not see what coffee we have to offer? 


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