Coffee Varieties

In wine, varieties reign supreme. Everybody knows what a Merlot is, or a Chardonnay. But in the coffee world, they’re less understood. You might know of Geisha, but do you know the difference between a Bourbon and a Typica?

Coffee varieties can affect the flavor of the coffee. Some, like Bourbon, are known for their sweet taste. Others, like Gesha/Geisha, are known for tea-like qualities. But coffee flavor isn’t just about the variety: it’s also about the growing conditions, processing, and more. The uniqueness of a high-quality coffee is part of what makes this beverage so wonderful.

Some Coffee Varieties You Should Know
There are many coffee varieties around the world, and we couldn’t hope to cover all of them in just one article. However, we’re going to take a quick look at some of the most famous or noteworthy Arabica varieties.

Typica coffee is one of the earliest and most important coffee varieties, having been around for centuries and engendered numerous others. Notable Typica varieties include Java, Maragogype, and Timor Hybrid (more on that last one in a little bit).
You’ll find this plant being farmed in Central America, Jamaica, and Asia. The WCR label it as low-yield, high-quality, and susceptible to rust and pests. It’s often described as having a clean, sweet acidity.

A natural mutation of Typica, Bourbon is a high-quality, medium-yield coffee known for its sweet taste. It has, however, low resistance to leaf rust, coffee berry borer, and other diseases and pests. It’s commonly grown in Burundi and Rwanda, as well as throughout Latin America.
Why should you know about Bourbon? For the same reasons why you should know about Typica: its early appearance in the “coffee variety tree” makes it a common variety that has also engendered numerous others.

Ethiopian Heirloom
While most Arabica coffee varieties come from Typica or Bourbon, coffee originally comes from Ethiopia – and Kew Gardens have established that the country holds 95% of coffee’s genetic diversity. When you see “Ethiopian Heirloom” written on a bag of coffee, it means that it was probably grown wild or in a lightly cultivated garden.

Gesha/Geisha originated in the village of Gesha, Ethiopia, but remained under the radar until 2004 in Panama with Hacienda La Esmeralda. Since then, Panamanian Geisha has become one of the industry’s most-famous coffees. With most coffee championship finalists using it, and a recent green bean auction price of US $601/lb, it’s become a byword for excellence – and exclusivity.

It has a distinctive profile: tea-like with a jasmine aroma, orange blossom and bergamot notes, and delicate florals.

As for the plant, it grows best at high altitudes (WCR recommend above 1,400 m.a.s.l.), is low-yielding, and can be delicate. While it has earned high prices at auction, there have been horror stories of producers growing it outside of Panama only to see their plants die in incompatible climates and soil.

SL28 and SL34
By far the most creatively named varietals, Scott Laboratories was hired by the Kenyan government to develop stronger, drought resistant varieties. The result was a coffee that has a unique, sweet, citric and balanced flavor even though it suffers from very low yields on the trees.

This is only an introduction to the wonderful world of coffee varieties. There are many more that deserve attention: Pacas, Pacamara, Maracaturra, Rume Sudan, Laurina… The list goes on and on.


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