Coffee varietals

Coffee cherries

As you sit down to enjoy your delicious coffee, I would like you to briefly consider what creates such a fantastic tasting cup. The main factors contributing to producing exceptional coffee are the agronomy and ecology of the farm, the processing methods, the roasting, and the preparation - the bit where I come in. I would like to focus this post on another increasingly important factor: the variety or cultivar of the coffee plant. Much like wine grapes and beer hops, certain coffee varieties have specific physiologies and flavour profiles. Recently, the speciality coffee industry has begun to focus on the individual varieties, and how they impact on the flavour of the final cup. The main species of coffee grown for the speciality coffee industry is Coffea Arabica. C. Arabica is thought to have evolved from the area spanning northern Kenya, the south-western highlands of Ethiopia and south-eastern Sudan. The two main botanical cultivars of C. Arabica are Typica and Bourbon. Most varieties are derived from these through plant breeding and natural mutations. Bourbon derived hybrids tend to be a higher yielding, more resistant cultivars than Typica varieties and, as a rule, they tend to produce a higher quality cup.

Traditionally, coffee farmers’ choice of varietals was made from a production viewpoint. Different varieties perform differently in different ecological conditions. A great example of this comes from our Square Mile Kenya Kangocho Peaberry, which we have on the brew bar this week. This is composed of two varieties: SL-28 and SL-34. In Kenya, the cultivar SL-34 outperforms its competitor SL-28 at lower altitudes. However, in terms of cup quality, SL-28 is the favoured of the two. Increasingly, farmers are now choosing coffees because of their culinary merits, rather than their ability to produce consistently high yielding crops. Such a drive towards such high quality, low yielding varietals will, of course, be reflected in the pricing - possibly creating a pricing structure more akin to that seen in the wine industry. SL types comprise 90% of Kenyan coffees and are Bourbon derived cultivars. SL-28 cultivars produce a flavour profile that can be intensely citrusy, balanced, sweet and complex in flavour. SL-34 flavour is characterised by its complex citric acidity, heavy mouthfeel and a clean, sweet finish. Quality Kenyan coffees show bright, complex acidity; some are clean, while others display red wine like characteristics.

So what is a peaberry? In the coffee cherry there are normally two seeds. However, in around 5% of the cherries, just one seed gets fertilised and an oval shaped bean develops – a peaberry.  Peaberry beans are thought to roast better because of their oval shape. Some believe the improved quality could also be due to more careful selection for processing.

Also on offer this week is our Nicaragua Limoncillo Pacamara Natural ‘Funky’ 2012. Pacamara was bred at the Genetic Department of the Salvadoran Institute for Coffee Research in 1958. Plant breeders at this institute artificially crossed the Pacas and Red Maragogipe varieties. The Pacas variety is short in size, highly productive, and well-adapted to local conditions whilst the Maragogipe cultivars are high yielding due to their seed size, and are considered to produce better cup quality. Pacamaras tend to produce better cup quality at higher elevations, generally with floral aromas, full body and a creamy character. They have a medium to high acidity creating a cup which is crisp, juicy and bright. Their flavours can be very complex (we get strawberry from this particular coffee), and are usually followed by a pleasant and long aftertaste with a final sweet note.

One of the reasons that we at Brew Lab are very proud to work with Has Bean coffee roasters is that the fantastically personable owner Steve Leighton makes regular trips to origin and works closely with producers. One amazing benefit of this close relationship is that Steve can now attempt to push the farmers to separate out different varieties during picking to create a greater plethora of cup flavour profiles, to the betterment of the coffee drinking community. In fact, the ability to do this may be one of the reasons behind the success of the last two world barista champions, both of whom were from producing countries.

So has the speciality coffee industry reached the point that the wine industry has achieved in characterising varieties? In certain ways it has - but it has a long way to go. I can, for example, tell you that if I see a packet of coffee with El Salvador Red Bourbon written on it, it will almost certainly be sweet. I can further tell you that South/Central American coffees tend to be more well-rounded than African coffees. Unfortunately, the coffee industry isn’t even close to the wine industry in terms of characterising varieties’ flavour profiles.  The main reasons for this are the comparative youth of the industry, and interaction with other factors, notably processing method. For example, recently I received two very different tasting bags of coffee, of the same variety, from the same farm, grown in the same plots, and processed in an almost identical manner with the difference being that one coffee had been turned once every hour instead of every two hours. Clearly it’s going to take a lot of hard work from the roasters and the farmers to untangle these factors!

Featured photo licensed under Creative Commons from barloventomagico.