Each coffee that is harvested from the coffee cherry, dried, roasted, ground, and brewed is a unique varietal. The easiest way to understand coffee varietals is by thinking about what you already know about apples. There are Granny Smith apples, Red Delicious apples, and Fuji apples. They’re all apples, but each has a unique flavor, texture, and appearance that makes them distinguishable from one another. Coffee is similar in this way. There are varietals such as Bourbon, Typica, or Caturra, that are sought after by producers for their distinct flavor, resilience to disease, or adaptability to a certain growing region.
At one time in distant history, prior to the 15th century when coffee began being deliberately cultivated, coffee plants grew in the wild in Ethiopia. These are considered to be Heirloom varietals. Heirloom, or sometimes referred to as heritage or traditional, varietals are coffee plants that have evolved naturally over time without significant human intervention. These varietals have typically developed unique genetic characteristics and adapted to specific local environments. Heirloom varietals are often associated with specific coffee-growing regions or countries and have been cultivated for generations. Examples of heirloom varietals include Typica, Bourbon, and Ethiopian Heirloom.
As coffee production skyrocketed over thousands of years, humans began specifically hybridizing coffee varietals. A coffee hybrid is a result of intentional crossbreeding between two or more distinct coffee varieties or species. The purpose of hybridization is to combine desirable traits from different parent plants, such as disease resistance, productivity, or flavor attributes. Hybrids are created through controlled breeding programs and are often developed to address specific challenges or to enhance certain characteristics. Here are five innovative hybrid coffee varietals that have had a significant impact on coffee production:
Caturra is a natural mutation of the Bourbon coffee variety and is known for its compact size and high productivity. It was developed in Brazil in the early 20th century and quickly gained popularity due to its excellent cup quality and adaptability to different growing conditions. Caturra's smaller size allows for denser planting, maximizing land usage and increasing yield per hectare.
SL28 and SL34 are hybrid varieties developed in the 1930s by Scott Laboratories (SL) in Kenya. These varietals were created by crossing traditional Bourbon coffee with various indigenous African coffee varieties. They are known for their exceptional cup quality, including vibrant acidity and complex flavors. SL28 and SL34 have been instrumental in establishing Kenya's reputation as a producer of high-quality specialty coffee.
Pacamara is a unique hybrid resulting from crossing the Pacas and Maragogipe varieties. It was first developed in El Salvador and is renowned for its large coffee cherries and distinctive cup profile. Pacamara often exhibits a complex flavor profile with notes of tropical fruit, floral tones, and bright acidity. It has gained popularity among specialty coffee enthusiasts for its unique characteristics and potential for exceptional cup quality.
Catimor is a group of hybrid coffee varieties that originated from the crossbreeding of Timor coffee (a natural hybrid of Arabica and Robusta) and Caturra or Mundo Novo. Catimor varieties were primarily developed to address coffee leaf rust (Hemileia vastatrix) and increase resistance to other diseases. These hybrids have shown improved resilience against pests and diseases, making them attractive to coffee farmers in regions prone to such challenges.
While not a hybrid in the traditional sense, the Gesha varietal has had a significant impact on the coffee industry. Originally from Ethiopia, the Gesha variety gained global recognition when it was introduced in Panama. Gesha’s unique flavor profile, characterized by floral and tea-like notes, captivated coffee connoisseurs and sparked a global demand for this exceptional coffee. The rise of Gesha has contributed to the exploration of unique flavor profiles and the development of specialty coffee auctions and competitions.
Next time you buy a coffee, take a look at the packaging and you’ll likely be able to learn which specific varietal your coffee is. Combined with processing method, country of origin, and elevation, knowing the coffee varietal can help you have a more intimate relationship with your coffee. I’d bet you’ll start to see many of the varietals mentioned here today.