Ok, so you’ve picked a decent roaster, and now you’re on their website looking at the dozens of different coffees that are available. Each one has three or four different pieces of information that’s supposed to tell you something about the coffee. For the next three posts we’ll look at some of this information: varietal, processing method and origin.
First up: varietals!
Arabica and Robusta
Arabica and robusta are two species of coffee. Generally, arabica has more complexity and better flavour although it is lower yielding and more susceptible to disease. Robusta is a very hardy plant, that produces a lot of seeds but unfortunately tastes…not great (think burned rubber and cat hair). In the world of specialty coffee, you’re unlikely to find much robusta coffee (although there have been some specialty grade robustas). So when we talk about varieties (the noun) or varietals (the adjective) in coffee, you can take it for granted that we’re talking about sub-varieties of arabica.
Varietals are the spice of life
There are hundreds of coffee varieties that combine characteristics of two or more other varieties in order to produce a combination of characteristics that didn’t exist before. The goal of creating a new variety is usually disease resistance, increased yield, better cup quality and so on.
Think of it like wine – there’s a chardonnay grape, a sauvignon grape etc. Each grape makes a wine that tastes different, and it’s the same with coffee. There are way too many varities to list here, but you’re likely to find bourbon, typica, caturra, catuai, pacamara, and many others on a regular basis.
It all started in Ethiopia
If you get a coffee from Ethiopia, chances are it’s an “heirloom” varietal. Ethiopia is a bit unusual because it’s where coffee originated from thousands of years ago. As a result there are many thousands of wild varietals present in the country. Instead of trying to list them all, most people just refer to Ethiopan coffee as a generic “heirloom” varietal.
Typica and Bourbon
Some time in the late 17th century, coffee made its way from Ethiopia to Yemen, where it started being cultivated as a crop. There’s a rich and storied history here that is broadly outside the scope of this blog, but World Coffee Research has a really great write up on it. Suffice it to say that the seeds that made this journey were of the Typica and Bourbon varietals, and are the genetic ancestors of modern arabica coffee.
Geisha is one of the most sought-after varietals in the world, with people paying quite frankly absurd prices for tiny amounts of the stuff. It has strong links to Panama, having been discovered by the owners of Hacienda La Esmeralda in Boquete. I’ve been lucky enough to taste one or two Geishas and they were astonishing, so if you’re ever offered a Geisha I very much recommend trying it. Just don’t pay £260 for 240g of the stuff!
And so on…
There are many more coffee varieties, each offering something different in terms of flavour. I could spend some time writing really dry and boring descriptions of a few more, but I often find linguistic descriptions of flavour a poor substitute for actually tasting something.Instead, I would suggest that as with many things in life, the best way to understand it is to try it for yourself. So next time you pick up a bag of coffee, or order at your favourite café, make a note of the variety. You might discover a new favourite!