You’ll notice how wines often have a category that they’ll fall under, for example,“Merlot” or a “Pinot Noir” – this is in respect to its varietal. The reason this nomenclature has taken prominence has to do with that fact that you as the drinker will understand each varietal has their unique taste attributes that are identifiable and familiar. They're all wines, but all are different in their own way.
You can look at coffee in a similar vain. To give you an idea of a few of the most commonly seen in coffee here's a few.
First off in Ethiopia, we have what is known as the Ethiopian Heirloom.
Ethiopian Heirloom? Why the generic name? Well, it's estimated that there are somewhere in-between six and ten thousand coffee varietals in Ethiopia. Six and ten thousand! And due to this colossal figure, there hasn’t been the genetic testing to allow buyers to distinguish the varietal. With the cross pollination that naturally happens in the wild, the name ‘Ethiopian Heirloom’ exists as a catch all phrase to describe this happenstance. However, that really makes Ethiopian quite a mystery – and an interesting mystery with that as each village or town could potentially have a different varietal which could carry very unique properties.
Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, meaning it was only naturally found here. How did it get to other side of the world?
From Ethiopia, one coffee plant was moved to Yemen, and from there the Dutch stole (yes, stole) a few trees and planted them on the Island of Java (an Indonesian island). The Dutch government wanted to give something to the King of France and they 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 one plant was cared for. Thankfully they did this, because this one plant is actually the ancestor to most of the coffee we have in the world. Its seeds were taken and planted elsewhere in the world; first in Latin America & the Island of Bourbon (off the eastern coast of Africa – now known as Reunion Island). This very important tree was christened the name “The Noble Tree” because of how significant it was in terms of the wide range of coffee we have today.
The varietal of coffee that was planted in Latin America from “The Noble Tree” is known as Typica – from the Latin word ordinary. It’s really 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 varietal of coffee from this Noble Tree that was planted off the coast of Africa on the Island of Bourbon… is known as 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 differing factors was productivity – or number of cherries produced – as this plant is about 30% more productive than Typica. With this extra productivity, it was definitely coveted 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 compared to Typica.
In Brazil a mutation of the bourbon plant resulted in a smaller, and even more productive version of this shrub. Based on the geographical location of being just outside of the town Caturra, this specific plant was given that name. Based on this additional productivity and also a compact size, it was an easy decision for farmers to choose to plant – and as a result it has become immensely popular. The coffee has bright acidity although a bit less clarity when comparing to Bourbon.
A varietal that has quite the unique story is Catimor. This is part Caturra varietal and part Timor Hybrid. Timor Hybrid is quite an interesting a varietal because it is actually part Robusta and part Arabica coffee (where as every other varietal we’ve talked about has been 100% Arabica). With this brings some Robusta characteristics to the bean, like a more bitter taste, more caffeine and more resistance to bugs. However, as these cross-mixed varietals bring the best of both worlds, they appealed to the farmers and grew in their popularity.
What happens when a varietal from Ethiopia is planted in Panama and entered in a competition compared against other Panamanian coffees? It stands out. Big-time. It breaks price records. It sends a ripple through the specialty coffee industry. What was the exceptionally sought after varietal called?
With specialty coffee roasters this varietal has a mystical feeling to it; a special unicorn-like-aura because of the allure and reputation gained from the record breaking auctions.
Part of what makes this coffee so interesting (besides the taste) is that it has history rooted in Ethiopia, however with being transplanted and grown in a different country its taste profile has characteristics from both regions. We've featured Geisha coffee that is from Malawi and Guatamala, which in both cases had a taste profile that representing this unique back story.
The amount of coffee varietals is significant. As you may have noticed from the few that we have discussed here, there is a significant amount of mutation and cross-pollination that has taken place, which has lead to so many unique varietals being commonplace today.
There could be thousands of varietals in Ethiopia alone and it’s difficult to pinpoint every one without diving into genetic testing. That is something that specialty coffee organizations would like to do in the future, however it isn’t a feasible project as of today.