Coffee Varieties Explained
Like different grape varieties that are used for wine making, and the myriad kinds of apples and tomato variations available in your local green grocer, coffee has an extensive family tree of seed varieties.
Macintosh, Fuji, Red Delicious, Braeburn and Granny Smith are some of the apple varieties that you may know. Supposedly there are 7,500 different apple cultivars!
Similarly grapes for wine come in many varieties. Some of the better known are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec and Sangiovese but there are many others. Some are offshoots or hybrids of other varieties while some have been selectively cross bred.
Coffee, like these other fruits, has a complex number of varieties alternately referred to as cultivars. And like the examples cited above, there are distinctive differences in taste, appearance and other characteristics depending upon the plant and its ancestry. People who have been drinking specialty coffee for years have usually heard the distinction between arabica and robusta coffees. This is a very broad classification difference and, generally speaking, all of the better higher grown coffees are of the arabica species and that is all that you will find at Willoughby's. But, within the arabica family tree there lies much differentiation and history.
Historically, wild coffee originated in Ethiopia and a branch of that heirloom family of varietals continues to this day still offering exotic flavors. But, the first cultivated coffees, those planted by humankind from Ethiopian seed, originated in Yemen and represent the most popular coffees available today. The two main branches of the cultivated arabica coffee tree are Bourbon and Typica.
Bourbon plants are low yielding, fairly tall bushes. The name comes from the Island of Bourbon in the Indian Ocean, today called Reunion, where the trees were planted in the early eighteenth century from seeds held in French greenhouses. From there it was propagated in northern Africa and then on to the Caribbean and the western hemisphere. Bourbon spread in large number throughout Brazil where it was further modified. Then, the plant returned to Africa where, after many experiments, it was planted extensively throughout the central and eastern portions of the continent. Today, some of the best examples of Bourbon come from Kenya as SL-28 and SL-34 varieties (SL stands for Scott Labs), Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi and Democratic Republic of Congo. The best Bourbons are big, juicy, complex coffees with long, dry finishes. Varieties of Bourbon include: Red, Orange and Pink Bourbon; Jackson and Mbrizi (Rwanda, Burundi), Caturra and Villa Sarchi (Central America), and Pacas (El Salvador). Bourbons are generally shade grown except in Brazil where it is not common. The leaves of Bourbon plants are long with wavy edges. Bourbon is thought to be a natural mutation of Typica.
Typica is the direct descendant of the original Yemen plantings centuries ago; it forms the baseline 'normal' genetic pattern coffee for this reason. Typica made its way to the Americas about 1725 by storied French naval officer Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu who stowed half a dozen plants aboard his ship bound for Martinique. The sole surviving plant had created a population of nearly 19 million trees on that island within 50 years, as well as having spread extensively throughout the Americas. Typica plants are even lower yielding than Bourbon. Today, the best examples of Typica plants in the Americas are grown in Guatemala, Hawaii and Jamaica's Blue Mountains. In the east they can be found in Papua New Guinea, Java and Sumatra. The leaves of the plant are green tinged with copper. Notable flavors and traits are sweetness, clean cup and background smoky or zesty character.
Ethiopia is a world of coffee within itself and there are quite a few varieties whose names are almost completely unknown. Perhaps the best known of them today is Gesha/Abyssinia or as it is more commonly called Geisha. This elongated bean and a likely cousin of the longberry has been a rising star. It was brought to stardom by the Peterson family in Boquete, Panama who first planted it, along with several hundred other varieties, mainly obscure unknown ones, in an effort to see what would grow well in their highly desirable micro climate. After raising and cupping these many candidates they knew they had something special in the Geisha. Its flavor profile is especially fruity and floral - and different. That pleasant difference, and lack of availability anywhere else, allowed Geisha to become a scarce treasure and, after winning a number of coffee competitions, it started to garner record setting prices. In turn, the high prices Geisha commanded led to an explosive number of plantings throughout Boquete and other places in the Americas as other farmers wanted a piece of the pie. The lesson here is that there may be as yet unknown discoveries or re-discoveries that will delight us in future if we remain open to experimentation.