The two of most common and commercially used types of coffee would be remembered by every barista when waking up in the middle of the night, and maybe they will tell you something even if you are not oriented in the coffee world. It's Arabica and Coffea Canephora (known as Robusta). However, there are thousands of other varieties that either occur naturally or develop and adapt to achieve specific coffee properties (eg resistance to various diseases, different flavor profiles, etc.) In this brief overview, we will briefly explain a few of procedures we use to cultivate our coffee and how the flavor of a coffee variety can be influenced, and thus what the tasting experience will be.
Overview of varieties
SL 28 is a native Kenyan coffee varietal created in the 1930’s by Scott Laboratories (derivative of ‘SL’). Botanists of this institute performed a series of crossbreeding experiments with different mutations of French Mission, Mocha and Yemeni Typica. Their aim was to find a high quality, high yield and disease resistant hybrid. One of the outcomes is SL 28 although yield is quite small. It has a copper colored leaf and produces broad bean sizes. In the cup it produces the famous "Blackcurrant Taste", so typical in the best Kenyan coffees (some account this to the ability of the cultivar to uptake phosphorous from the soil and convert it to phosphoric acid in the coffee seed, creating a unique berrylike flavor). Thus, the cup result can be intensely fruity, sweet, balanced and complex in flavor.
Another product of the Scott Laboratories in Kenya during the 1930’s is SL 34. It is a mutation of the French Mission varietal (Bourbon) suitable for both high and lower altitudes with good rainfall. It is characterized by dark bronze shoot tipped plants with a few green-tipped strains. The cultivar produces high yields of fine quality coffee but is susceptible to Coffee Leaf Rust and Coffee Berry Disease.
Together with Typica, Bourbon is the top produced C. arabica variety in the world. The name comes from its original origin of cultivation - the island that was once known as Île Bourbon. Peter Giuliano suggests, that other varieties from Africa or Yemen were possibly planted there as well, therefore the unique variety of Bourbon emerged on the island either by spontaneous mutation of a single variety or by open crossbreeding of multiple varieties.
Nowadays, you can still find the remnants of the original bourbon variety on Reunion, under the namesake Bourbon Pointu (exclusively sold in Japan).
Bourbon was later transplanted to Brazil in the 1860s, and from there spread throughout Latin America. Bourbons tend to be "bushier" than Typicas, with a rounder leaf shape. New leaf shoots are bright green. Bourbon seeds are much rounder and more compact than Typica seeds. Bourbon variety has approximately 30 % more yield per tree than Typica.
Bourbon variety matures into red, yellow, and orange colors. It is known to produce a complex acidity with extraordinary balance and caramel-like sweetness.!
Arabica Typica is the original cultivar discovered in the Kaffa Rainforest in Ethiopia centuries ago. Typica was the first coffee in the New World brought there by a French Naval officer in the 1700’s. In 1720 thousands of seedlings were sent to the French colony in Martinique. Typica has since spawned many mutations resulting in sub-types such as Hawaii Kona, Jamaican Blue Mountain, Java Typica, Guatemala Typica and Jember among others. Kent is for example a Typica mutation grown in India. Typica are low yielding varietals but have an excellent cup quality with sweet, distinct acidity and pleasant aftertaste. All should be tall with conical shape and dark tips.
There are over than 2500 original coffee varieties in Ethiopia, which are usually named after the name of village where they have been grown for centuries, but their exact origin is unknown. The most popular include Gesha, Harrar, Yirgacheffe, Djimma, Lekempti etc. Within these cultivars we distinguish another 20 variants. It is almost impossible to orientate in such a huge variety of varieties. The varieties grown in south-west Ethiopia in the regions of Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, Gesha usually have citrus and floral tones with a distinctive flavor of jasmine. In contrast, coffees from the eastern regions have intense tones of fruit and chocolate. This difference is due to a different microclimate, but it is by no means too generalizable.
Probably the most famed and sought after coffee cultivar nowadays. Geisha (or correctly gesha) was discovered in Abyssinia, south-western Ethiopia in 1931. In 2002, Daniel Peterson from Hacienda La Esmeralda found a few trees on his farm that were later discovered to be of gesha pedigree. How this varietal got to Jaramillo in Boquete, Panama is unclear; however, approximate historical chronology can be reconstructed: Ethiopia (1931), Kenya (1931-32), Tanzania (1936), Costa Rica (Don Pachi 1953-1963), Panama (?).
Since then the Esmeralda Especial became perhaps the most expensive and praised award-winning coffee, setting an online auction record in May 2007 when it sold for $130 a pound. The coffee won most of the competitions including Best of Panama (2009, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004), Coffee of the Year, Rainforest Alliance Cupping for Quality and many others.
Geisha trees grow so tall that sometimes a ladder is needed for picking the elongated cherries. To achieve the extraordinary cup profile (high sweetness, superior cleanliness, notes of berries, mandarin oranges, mango, papaya and distinct bergamot-like finish) the geisha trees need to be grown in extremely high elevations, e.g. Reserva de la Senora - 1,700 - 1,800 masl.
After the financial success of Esmeralda Especial, many Central American farmers decided to switch to geisha varietal, even in lower elevations. The outcome of this so called "geisha craze" will be seen in a few years.
In 1958, the Salvadoran Coffee Research Institute (ISIC) bred together Pacas and Maragojipe (Maragogype) to create the new variety Pacamara. Pacas is a Salvadoran high yield mutation of the arabica hybrid "San Ramón Bourbon", which was discovered in 1956 by two of the most prominent coffee producers of El Salvador, Don Alberto Pacas and Don Francisco De Sola with the help of Dr. William Cogwill of the University of Florida. Maragojipe (Maragogype) is a giant Typica a variety with large beans, high acidity, and a delicious flavor profile.
In fact, Pacamara has a very specific cup profile. Either people love it or hate it. The higher the Pacamara is grown, the better it cups. The flavor profile can demonstrate strong floral and spicy notes together with surprising balance and medium body.
Catimor is a cross between Timor coffee (resistant to rust) and Caturra coffee. It was created in Portugal in 1959. Maturation is early and production is very high with yields equal to or greater than the yield of other commercial coffee varietals.For this reason the method of fertilization and shade must be monitored very closely.
The Catimor T-8667 descendants are relatively small in stature, but have large coffee fruits and seeds.
The Catimor line T-5269 is strong and adapts well to lower regions between 2,000-3,000 feet with annual rainfall over 3,000 mm.
T-5175 is very productive and robust, but can have problems at either very high or very low altitudes. At low altitudes there is almost no difference in cup quality between Catimor and the other commercial coffee varietals, but at elevations greater than 4,000 feet Bourbon, Caturra, and Catuai have a better cup quality.
Catuai is a dwarf varietal crossbred from Mundo Novo and Caturra by Instituto Agronomico do Campinas in Brazil in 1949.
You can find both Yellow Catuai and Red Catuai varieties but the cup quality (refined and clean acidity) is hardly distinguishable. This hybrid is widely grown in areas with strong winds or rain since its short stature is highly resistant and tolerant to these natural elements.
Maragogype (also called elephant bean) is a variety of arabica that produces an extremely large, rather porous bean. It is a mutant that spontaneously appeared in Brazil, almost as though the giant of Latin-America thought regular beans were too puny and produced something in its own image.
It was first discovered growing near the town of Maragogype, in the northeastern state of Bahia. Subsequently it has been carried elsewhere in Latin America and generally adopts the flavor characteristics of the soil to which it has been transplanted.
The Maragogype varietal has become a rather rare, difficult-to-find coffee.
Most Maragogypes sold in North America are grown in Mexico, Nicaragua, or Guatemala. Those from Chiapas, Mexico, and the Coban district of Guatemala have the best reputation.
Caturra is a mutation of Coffee Bourbon discovered in 1935 near the town Caturra in Brazil. It is a mutation with high production and good quality (bright acidity, low-to-medium body, less clarity and sweetness than Bourbon) but requires extensive care and fertilisation. Its higher yield is caused by a single gene mutation, which has reappeared in other instances, creating the Pacas variety of El Salvador and the Villa Sarchi variety of Costa Rica.
It is short with a thick core and has many secondary branches. It has large leaves with wavy borders similar to Bourbon but smaller. It adapts well to almost any environment, but does best between 1,500-5,500 ft with annual precipitation between 2,500-3,500 mm. At higher altitudes quality increases, but production decreases.
Maracaturra, also called Maracatu, is a hybrid from Maragogype & Caturra. Originally from Brazil and is known for its large leaves, flowers and berries.
Today it is grown also in Central America, primarily in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico. Maracaturra gives a coffee with bright and complex acidity, with fruity character.