Understanding coffee varietals: what are they and what do they mean?
We want to educate you about the coffee beans you buy
One of our missions is to educate and empower people all over the world, that’s right, not just the UK, to truly enjoy a great cup of coffee. One of the ways we want to do this is to educate people into the complexities that come with the whole process.
What are coffee varietals?
Just like wine, depending on where the grapes have grown and the conditions they have grown in, will change the flavour. It’s the same with coffee beans, it just sounds complex and hipster-like.
Depicting what each mean
To start off you’re probably familiar with Arabica coffee. But what is it? It was actually the first discovered growing in Ethiopia in the 10th century. It’s now known as the ‘Typica’ varietal, which has thousands of other varieties stemming from it. The way varieties are created is by natural mutation process, or cross-breeding programmes to increase diversity. Think dog breeding, kind of the same, right?
Typica is known as the varietal that all other’s stem from. The plant this bean grows on produces a more oval-shaped bean, the leaves are thin and copper coloured. Coffees which come from this plant often produce a sweetness and complexity in flavour and are low yielding compared to other varietals.
This specific type of varietal originated on the Island of Bourbon, which is also known as Reunion Island. It’s an early mutation from the Ethiopia Arabica species and yields slightly more coffee than the Typica varietal but is still low in yielding. The cherries ripen red, yellow and orange and is known to produce amazing complex acidity and great balance.
This variety was introduced in Brazil in the 1860s, some people say even earlier than that, which was to make up for the supply loss caused by a coffee leaf rust outbreak in Java and is one of the reasons that Brazil became so popular for coffee.
Bourbon grows best in altitudes of 1,100-2,000 metres above sea level and the coffee produced is similar to that of the Typica varietal. Bourbon is also known to be more productive that the Typica, producing 30-40% more coffee from plants.
For those looking to try coffee from the Bourbon varietal, you can try our Rwanda (Tiddy Mun).
The Heirloom varietal is close to the Typica by resemblance, but there’s no trace that they’re related in any way. The Heirloom is most commonly found in Ethiopia with over 1,000 different varieties growing in the Wild Forests of Ethiopia. The most common flavours which can be found are floral, citrus, cocoa, tea and wild berry tones.
Our wonderful Ethiopia single origin (King Canute) is from the Heirloom varietal and comes with incredible fruity flavours.
First discovered in Brazil in the 1940s, this varietal is a natural hybrid of Typica and Bourbon. It can be planted in a dense environment, is resistant to disease and is high in yield. The cherries are large and rounded and the beans produce sweet characteristics with low acidity and a thick mouthful. Mundo Novo is usually and better found in the lower producing regions of Brazil at altitudes between 1000 and 1200 metres above sea level.
Our very popular Brazil single origin (Nanny Rutt) is from this variety, if you’d like to give it a try.
The Caturra varietal is a cultivar from Brazil which is also a mutation of Bourbon. This specific varietal is high in yield; meaning more is produced. The tree it comes from won’t reach the same height as the Bourbon varietals which are grown on and is often referred to as a semi-dwarf plan. This means it’s much easier to hand pick the cherries when they’re ready. Caturra is most popular in Central Amercia, more specifically Colombia. The cherries usually ripen with a red or yellow pigmentation. Characteristics which can be expected are bright acidity and medium body.
If you’re looking for a coffee which comes from Caturra, we have a beautiful Peruvian single origin (Old Mother Nightshade) and a single origin from Nicaragua (The Great Bell) which you can purchase. These both also have Catuai in them, which you can read more about just below.
The Cutuai varietal is a hybrid of Mundo Novo and Caturra. It’s very resistant to the natural elements that coffee trees face in higher altitudes. Cutuai originated in Brazil but is widely produced around Central America. It comes red and yellow and produces high acidity.
Try reeling that one off to your friends at a dinner party! Although hard to pronounce, this varietal is actually one of the most recognisable ones due to the unusually large size of the bean – often referred to as ‘elephant beans’. It’s a mutation of the Typica varietal and was first discovered in Brazil. The yield comes low, but its desirable because of the size of it. The cherries ripen red and can have enhanced sweetness.
Ok so this is more logical as it’s named after the family who discovered it; the Pacas family. They first discovered it on their farm in El Salvador back in 1949. It’s a natural mutation of Bourbon and is similar in cup profile, but is more often a shorter tree meaning it’s easier for the farmers to pick and harvest the beans.
Pacamara is a cross-breed of the Pacas and Maragogype varietals. The trees and leaves are large, meaning they’re able to withstand the elements better and are usually grown in higher altitudes. It’s a very complex varietal and produces floral notes with great balance. This varietal however is low in yield and isn’t too resistant to disease, meaning it’s a rarer type of bean.
This varietal became increasingly popular after its discovery in 2004 on Hacienda La Esmeralda, a farm in Boquete, Panama. The owners of the farm (the Peterson family) noted certain characteristics from a specific set of trees during their daily cupping sessions throughout the harvest and decided to enter a lot into that year’s ‘Taste of Panama’ coffee competition.
Not only did the Geisha lot take first place, but it completely blew the judges away and achieved record breaking prices from auction buyers. This is literally the reason that this varietal is closely associated with Panama, when in fact it’s said to have been first discovered in Western Ethiopia, in a town called Gesha. Hence the name.
This varietal has temperamental yield, meaning it’s often low, but produces an incredible cup with very distinctive profiles. The characteristics which come out of this varietal are often floral and sweetness. You can find flavours such as rosewater, orange blossom, jasmine and apricot. The price for a 250g bag is in the region of £100, displaying its rarity and great flavours!
This varietal was created by botanists in the 1930s who’s aim it was to create different mutations of Typica and Bourbon. It’s grown on plants with copper looking leaves and the beans are broad. It originates in Kenya and comes with a low yield. The cup qualities from this mutated variety are ones which are in high demand; including lemon acidity, sweetness, balance and complexity.
Another varietal which was created as a mutation between Typica and Bourbon. It’s different to the SL28 in that the leaves are more bronze, rather than copper-like. SL34 is resistant to heavy rainfall and high altitudes meaning it creates a quality which is sought after. Typical characteristics are complex citrus acidity with a heavy mouthfeel.
Don’t be fooled, it isn’t named after the county in England but is named after one of the planters in India who was working on a selection programme in the 1920s. The main purpose of the development of this varietal was to become resistant to a particular disease known as ‘coffee leaf rust’ which attacks the leaves of the tree making it impossible to photosynthesise.
This varietal is a hybrid of Sarchimor and Red Catuai. The ripe has a deep red colour and is even across the cherry. The shape of the cherries in this varietal often resemble that of a grape, which is where the name ‘Uva’ came from – Uva is Grape in Portuguese. It’s a high yielding bean and has good resistance to disease.
Varietals don’t stop there, either!
This isn’t an exhaustive list of all the varietals there are out there, but they’re the most common ones. More often than not you’ll have experienced one of the above varietals or a mutation of one, like we said earlier on, they pretty much all stem from the Typica.
We’ll aim to write about more varietals as the time goes by, so feel free to keep coming back to this page to read more.