A short guide to coffee varieties
Have you come across these words on a coffee packaging: Caturra, Typica, Bourbon, Geisha (or Gesha), and wondered what in the world are these fancy alien languages? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. It might be confusing at first but once you understand what it really means, you’ll be a coffee pro in no time. Let’s dive into it.
Breaking down the coffee plant
As you may or may not know, coffee beans that we consume are actually the seed of coffee cherries that grow on the coffee plant (for easier illustration, head over to our coffee comic here). Coffee plant is of the Coffea genus, which is part of the Rubiacea family. There are about 100 species of coffee but only a few of them are commercially relevant - namely, Arabica (Coffea arabica), Robusta (Coffea canephora) and Liberica (Coffea liberica).
Both variety and cultivar are a taxonomic rank below species. A variety occurs naturally, and clones itself readily from seed while cultivar is produced by horticultural or agricultural techniques (a cultivated variety).
Common coffee varieties
Since there are so many coffee varieties that exist (which will take more than one post for us to share about them all), we will be covering the most common varieties for now.
- One of the earliest and most important coffee variety
- Believed to have originated in Ethiopia and travelled to many regions in the world (including Yemen, India, Java, Amsterdam, France, Netherlands, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil, Martinique, Jamaica, Santo Domingo, Cuba, Costa Rica, El Salvador...you get the idea)
- Low yield, high quality but also susceptible to rust and pests
- In terms of flavour, can expect sweet acidity
- A natural mutation of Typica
- Has ~30% more yield than Typica
- High quality, susceptible to leaf rust, pest attack and other diseases
- Introduced by French missionaries from Yemen to Bourbon Island
- Well known for its sweet taste
- A natural mutation of Bourbon, discovered in Brazil
- Commonly grown in Central America
- High yield, has a gene mutation that causes it to grow smaller
- Can expect bright acidity
- A natural mutation of Typica, first found in Brazil
- Due to the mutation, the plant leaves and beans are especially large
- Also known as “elephant coffee beans” (not to be confused with elephant dung coffee)
- Originated in the village of Gesha, Ethiopia in the 1930s and distributed to Panama in the 1960s
- Became well known when it won “Best of Panama” auction in 2004
- Highly regarded for its complexity and floral/fruity characteristics
- An umbrella term for the thousands of unidentified varieties native to Ethiopia (the birthplace of coffee)
- Cross pollination that occurs naturally in the wild makes it difficult for farmers to genetically identify all varieties, therefore a general term is used
Is coffee variety important?
In short - yes. Just like durian, your Musang King will taste different compared to your D24. Coffee variety can potentially affect the final flavour of your coffee. But do remember that coffee flavour is also influenced by other factors like growing condition, processing methods and more.
While coffee variety may not tell you everything about coffee flavour, knowing the meaning behind words on your coffee packaging helps keep you ahead on your coffee journey. Go explore and taste as many varieties as you can, expand your understanding and palate - you will grow to appreciate coffee more.
P.S: If you would like to learn more, World Coffee Research has a catalog of coffee varieties.
P.P.S: You may also come across “variety” and “varietal” - “variety” is a noun and “varietal” is an adjective, yet both have been used interchangeably in the coffee world.
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