The terms "cultivar" and "varietal" are often used interchangeably in casual conversation, but they do have specific meanings in botany and agriculture and when it comes to coffee it is important to know the difference. This is not only to determine the base flavour profiles of different cultivars and varietals, but also other equally important factors such as the growing conditions that are common factors as well disease resistance and sustainability.
The Nuances of Coffee Taxonomy
In coffee taxonomy, Coffea is the genus, and within it, there are several species, such as Coffea arabica, Coffea canephora (robusta), Coffea liberica, and more. Within each of these species, there are further distinctions, often referred to as "varietals" or "cultivars," which is where some confusion and questions arise like "what is a coffee varietal?" and "what is a coffee cultivar?".
A coffee varietal is a natural sub-type of a species. For instance, within Coffea arabica, there are naturally occurring varietals like Typica and Bourbon. These varietals happen naturally and have been discovered and named due to their unique attributes.
A coffee cultivar, on the other hand, is a cultivated variety that has been intentionally bred or selected by humans. This could involve cross-breeding different varietals or selectively breeding a varietal for specific traits.
For example, the Pacamara coffee cultivar is a hybrid of Pacas and Maragogipe varietals, created by humans for specific characteristics. In the coffee industry, however, these terms are often used interchangeably. For instance, many people refer to all types of Coffea arabica - whether they're naturally occurring or human-bred - as "varietals." While this is not strictly correct from a botanical perspective, it's common parlance in the world of coffee. But if you want to be scientifically accurate, which if we want the language and study of coffee to mature, natural sub-types are varietals, and human-cultivated sub-types are cultivars.
The coffee family tree
Coffee imports have created an incredibly detailed Coffee Family Tree, which try's to detail the somewhat complex relationship between varietals, cultivars, species and subtypes which just shows how complicated and nuanced the relationships are in the world of coffee. The author even explains himself that "The information backing where these varieties come from, the providence of a given coffee is really shaky a lot of times. Looking online, you are maybe looking at really one source repeated five times." which is an inherent problem with the internet that people just repeat what they've read elsewhere.
The genetic relationships between coffee varietals and cultivars are much more complex, often involving backcrossing and multi-generational selective breeding. Additionally, the development of a cultivar might involve multiple parent varietals, so understanding the complex relationship between all the different varieties is almost impossible, and that is before we have even tasted them all!
How Do We Know Which Varietal or Cultivar we are Drinking?
Here is where the complex relationship collides with traceability, coffee importers and roasters want the highest level of traceability to comply with CSR and ESG objectives, to make sure they are using coffee from farms that have sustainable and fair trade practices, but also to provide a level of detail to the consumer and to themselves about the quality of the coffee they are producing. Different cultivars and varietals have flavour profiles that will suit different roasting patterns. This complex world of using repeatable roasting patterns completely falls apart if the roaster doesn't know what type of coffee they are roasting.
The supply chain of coffee can be even more complicated, at the level of the individual farm or estate, farmers may choose to plant several different varietals or cultivars. For instance, they might plant Geisha for its high cup quality, Caturra for its high yield, and Pacamara for its disease resistance. All these beans could be harvested together and end up mixed in the same batch.
Even within a single varietal or cultivar, there can be genetic diversity due to natural variations and mutations. For instance, even though all the trees might be of the Bourbon varietal, subtle differences between individual trees could result in slightly different beans. These would also be harvested together and mixed in the same batch. When the harvested coffee cherries are sent to a washing station or mill for processing, there's another opportunity for mixing.
Many washing stations or mills serve numerous smallholder farmers, each of whom might grow different varietals or cultivars. So the cherries from many farms, representing a variety of coffee types, could be processed together and end up mixed in the same lot. Further down the supply chain, exporters and importers might also create blends from different farms, regions, or even countries. They might do this to achieve a specific flavour profile, ensure consistency, or for other reasons.
Some countries, like Ethiopia, have thousands of local, yet to be classified, varietals growing wild. In these cases, it's common for coffee from one region to be a mix of many different varietals, all of which are usually processed together. By the time green coffee beans are shipped to roasters around the world, they might represent a mix of several different species, varietals, or cultivars of coffee.
This complex mixture contributes to the diversity and complexity of flavours we enjoy in our cups of coffee.
There's a strong trend towards single-origin coffees and micro-lots. These are coffees from a specific place, often a single farm, and sometimes even a specific part of that farm, and they represent a single varietal or cultivar. This allows roasters and coffee lovers to appreciate the unique characteristics that each coffee type can offer.
The Best Coffee Varietals
Typica and Bourbon are two of the most genetically significant and oldest varietals in the world of coffee. They both belong to the Coffea arabica species, which is known for producing some of the world's finest coffees.
Also known as Arabica Typica, it is the base genetic parent for many other varietals and cultivars. Typica originated from Yemen, and then it was spread around the globe during the expansion of coffee cultivation. It's believed to be one of the first varietals to be cultivated for beverage production. Its influence can be seen in numerous modern varietals and cultivars that trace their lineage back to it. Despite its relatively low yield compared to newer cultivars, Typica is still grown today due to the excellent quality of its beans. Some key typica subtypes to look out for are the following;
- Kona: This is the Typica variety grown in the Kona region of Hawaii. It's known for its characteristic bright acidity and rich, medium-bodied flavour.
- Maragogipe: This is a mutation of Typica discovered in Brazil. It's often called "elephant bean" due to the large size of the coffee cherries and beans.
- Sumatra: Also known as "Java-Nica" or "Jember", this is a Typica-based varietal grown widely in Indonesia, particularly on the islands of Sumatra and Java.
- Creole or Criollo: This is a sub-variety of Typica that is often found in Central and South America. It's essentially Typica that has adapted to the local growing conditions over generations.
- Blue Mountain: This Typica sub-variety is grown in the Blue Mountain region of Jamaica and is known for its mild flavour and high quality. These are all technically sub-varieties of Typica but are often referred to as different varietals due to their unique characteristics and adaptations to their specific growing conditions.
The Bourbon varietal is a natural mutation of Typica. It was first identified on the Island of Bourbon (now Réunion), east of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean. Bourbon plants are known for their higher yield compared to Typica, although they require more careful cultivation as they're less resistant to diseases and pests. The beans of the Bourbon varietal are highly valued for their deep sweetness and balanced, complex acidity.
- Caturra: A natural mutation of Bourbon first discovered in Brazil. It's a dwarf plant that allows for higher density planting. Caturra is widely grown in Latin America due to its high yield and good cup quality.
- Catuai: A hybrid of Mundo Novo and Caturra, both derivatives of Bourbon. Catuai is resistant to wind and rain, is compact, and can be planted densely, which makes it an attractive choice for farmers.
- Pacas: Found in El Salvador, Pacas is a natural mutation of Bourbon. Like Caturra, it's a dwarf variety that allows for dense planting. Pacas is highly resistant to disease and has a good yield, which led to it becoming the dominant varietal in El Salvador.
- Mundo Novo: A hybrid of Typica and Bourbon first cultivated in Brazil. It combines the high yield of Bourbon with the hardiness of Typica. Mundo Novo plants are large and have a good yield, but they require more time to mature than some other varietals.
- Pink Bourbon: This varietal is a relatively rare mutation of the Red Bourbon variety. The beans, which come from a tree with pink-coloured cherries, have won numerous quality awards in recent years. Pink Bourbon is gaining attention for its complex acidity and sweet flavour profile that's often described as floral and fruity. However, it's not clear whether Pink Bourbon is a true varietal or just a mutation, as it appears to be genetically identical to other types of Bourbon.
Their contribution to coffee's genetic diversity and the qualities of beans they produce isn't debatable. Typica and Bourbon are cornerstone varietals in the history and cultivation of coffee. Their impact can be seen in the lineage of many other coffee varietals and cultivars, some of which combine the desirable traits of these foundational varietals with the robustness, disease resistance, or yield improvements achieved through selective breeding or natural mutation.