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While there are many types or varieties of coffee out there in the consumer market, there are really only two main species of coffee plant.
Just a few years ago, it was enough to know whether your coffee was Arabica or Robusta, the two main species of the coffee plant. Arabica, the more delicate of the two plants, produces flavorful coffee with many nuances in the cup. Robusta, on the other hand, tends to be flatter and bitterer. Arabica is more expensive to grow. It is very picky about growing conditions, and it doesn’t produce as heavily as the Robusta plant. Robusta coffee plants are, as the name implies, robust. They resist many of the diseases to which the Arabica crop succumbs, and they’re far less particular about the conditions under which they grow.
Thanks to some heavy marketing by standard supermarket brands, most coffee drinkers know that Arabica coffee is the more prized of the two main species of coffee. Fewer coffee lovers are aware that there are actually hundreds of species of coffee besides Arabica and Robusta, but only a couple of them are grown and harvested for beverage outside those two. In addition, there are dozens of varieties within the Arabica coffee family, most of them either deliberately hybridized for specific qualities or natural hybrids found in the wild and cultivated because they offered something unique.
Those coffee beans have names like Bourbon, Pacamara, Gesha and SL-32. Some of them are very specific to particular areas and coffee-growing regions – the heirloom varieties of Ethiopian coffee, for example. Others, like Bourbon, are widespread and grow in many different countries and regions of the world.
Each of these beans has a specific cup profile, though there are wide variances among the actual cup flavor, depending on the climate, soil and care the coffee plant received while it was growing, and the type of processing the coffee bean went through after the coffee cherry was picked.
Today, specialty coffee lovers want to know far more about the coffees they enjoy than whether the beans are Arabica or Robusta. There are many factors that affect the flavor of the brewed coffee, and coffee consumers want to know more and more about those factors when they buy a pound of coffee beans. Get to know the many varieties of coffee beans and learn a whole new level of appreciation for the not-so-humble beverage that is made from them.
Arabica v. Typica
Most of today’s coffee beans are hybrids or mutants of Coffea Arabica v. typica, originating in Ethiopia, where many heirloom varieties of Typica are still grown and marketed. In fact, there are more than 1,000 typica varieties grown in Ethiopia, and are similar to the typica varieties that grow in Yemen. Typica trees were probably the first coffee trees to make the migration to the Americas. Many coffee experts view the qualities of Ethiopian coffees as the standard by which to judge other coffees. There is no describing a “typical” cup profile for these heirloom coffees. Depending on the region, the specific variety and the processing, the cup may be light to medium bodied, and may have fruity, citrus, floral or winey flavors intermingling. Ethiopian coffees grown in the Yirgacheffe and Harrar regions are generally regarded as among the best in the world.
The Bourbon variety is a natural mutation of typica, that was found on the island of Bourbon, now called Réunion, by French missionariee. They cultivated it and carefully bred it to produce a balanced cup of coffee with bright fruit flavors and an underlying caramel sweetness. Bourbon (pronounced Bor BONN) spread widely throughout Africa and the Americas, largely through the French colonies and holdings. The Bourbon bush produces more coffee than Typica bushes, but is more susceptible to disease. It is also the “mother” to many other varieties of coffee on the market today.
Catimor is a cross between the Caturra variety and Timor, a hybrid that crossed Arabica beans with Robusta beans in an attempt to breed a disease-resistant coffee plant. Timor is widely regarded as inferior because of the harsher flavors imparted by the robusta. Coffee experts find the same criticisms of Catimor coffee, but there are strains grown in India, El Salvador and Nicaragua that can overcome the sourness and astringency if they are processed properly.
Another Caturra hybrid, Catuai was developed in the 1950s-60s in Brazil by crossing Caturra with Mundo Novo, a typica/Bourbon hybrid. It includes variations Red Catuai, Yellow Catuai and Ouru Verde, and is widely grown in Brazil. It exhibits some of the better characteristics of good Brazilian coffee: bright acidity with an underlying sweetness.
A natural mutant of the Bourbon strain, Caturra was found in Brazil in 1937, but it didn’t do very well in the lower regions of that country. In the higher altitudes of Colombia and other Central American countries, however, it flourishes and produces a cup with light body and bright, citric acidity. It is one of the mother strains for a number of other varieties, including Catuai, Catimor and Maracatu.
A relative newcomer in the world of coffee varieties, Gesha originates near the Ethiopian town of Gesha, but is best known as a Panamanian coffee. In 2007, a Gesha from Hacienda Esmeralda took the judges of the Panamanian Cup of Excellence competition by surprise with its complex layers of flavors and silky mouth feel. It took top honors in that competition and has consistently scored high in competitions since. Gesha is among the most prized varieties of coffee beans on the market today.
Icatu is a Catimor hybrid that is widely planted in Brazil. Because it was recrossed with Arabica varieties, it does better in the cup than other Catimors, especially when it is dry-processed, allowing the plum, berry and chocolate flavors to shine.
Jackson is a Bourbon variety that grows in Rwanda and Burundi. The flavor is similar to Bourbon, but it has a delicate acidic edge that Bourbon lacks. In recent years, as production and processing advances are made in those two countries, Burundi and Rwanda are starting to acquire a name for high quality coffee.
Jamaican Blue Mountain
Jamaican Blue Mountain is not just the name of the coffee growing region, it is the name of the coffee variety that grows best there. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee is one of the first coffees to grow in the New World, and unlike many others that flourish in the Americas, it is a Typica strain. The Jamaican Blue Mountain name can be used for any coffee grown within the region, but not all coffees that bear the name are of the JBM strain. On the other hand, you can buy JBM coffee that is grown in Hawaii. The typical cup profile is light in body, balanced in flavor and mild in acid.
Jember is an Indonesian strain of Typica that is a combination of Kent and S228. It may be referred to as S795. It was developed for hardiness in the 1940s and is widely grown throughout Indonesia. It exhibits the qualities associated with Indonesian coffees: heavy body, buttery richness and maple, brown sugar and caramel sweetness.
Kent is a precursor of Jember, developed on an estate in Mysore, India in the 1920s. Its primary characteristic is disease resistance, particularly to coffee leaf rust. It was adopted and widely planted throughout the region, but was nearly wiped out entirely by a new wave of coffee leaf rust. Some heirloom trees remain and are being cultivated carefully. It features a much lighter body than most Indonesian coffees, with hints of floral and spice in the flavor.
Typica coffees seem to flourish on the Hawaiian Islands. Kona Typica is descended from Typica trees imported from Brazil originally, and later, from Guatemala. The Guatemalan Typica trees are commonly referred to as Kona Typica coffee, however, many coffee farmers grow Kona Typica, Red Caturra, Jamaican Blue Mountain and other coffee varieties side by side and mix them when harvesting. The coffee is clean, mild and balanced.
This cross between Maragogype and Caturra is a large coffee bean that is grown at the higher altitudes in Central America. It features complex acidity and ripe fruit flavors.
Maragogype (mara go hee pe) is a mutation of the Typica coffee plant that grows in Brazil. It’s primary feature is the enormous size of its coffee beans, which has earned it the nickname Elephant Bean coffee. It is one of the base varieties in a number of other varieties. The cup has a heavy, buttery body and hints of citrus and floral flavors.
This mutation of Typica/Bourbon originated near Harrar, Ethiopia, and is grown in Hawaii and Yemen. Its very small bean size distinguishes it from other coffee beans, as does the pronounced chocolate flavor in the cup.
This natural hybrid between Typica and Bourbon coffee plants is a heavy producer and resistant to most diseases that affect coffee plants. It has some natural flavor defects that can be overcome with a lot of fertilizer and soil modifications. It is a base for a number of popular varieties. On its own, it is slightly bitter without the sweetness of either of its progenitors.
Pacas and Maragogype combine in the Pacamara coffee bean, which originated in El Salvador in 1958. Most Pacamara still grows in El Salvador, but neighboring Central American countries also supply some Pacamara. In the cup, it is very balanced with sweet acidity and floral notes overlaying citrus flavors.
A natural Bourbon mutation from El Salvador, it retains many of the qualities that make Bourbon coffee beans so popular. It offers higher yields and done well at higher elevations. It balances sweetness and acidity and has floral and spice notes.
Pache coffee beans grow in Guatemala. The typica mutation has two distinct variations: Pache Comum and Pache Colis. They are heavy producers that offer a smooth, flat flavor profile which makes it popular as a blender coffee.
Ruiru 11 was meant to be the next big thing in Kenyan coffee – a wild Arabica with the resistance of a Robusta. It was developed at Ruiru, Kenya, but its flavors don’t live up to the standards for Kenyan coffees because of the Robusta content in its DNA.
SL-34 and SL-38
The SL stands for Scott Labs, where the famous Kenyan coffee strain was developed. Two SLs – SL-34 and SL-28 – make up nearly 90% of Kenya’s coffee exports. They are the basis for Kenya’s reputation for fine, wild coffees with fruit/wine flavors and long, sweet finishes that are commonly called “blueberry bombs.”
Villa Sarchi is a Bourbon hybrid developed near the town of Sarchi. It does very well using organic and sustainable farming methods, and features medium body and refined acidity with intense fruit flavors in the cup.
Like Villa Sarchi, Villalobos is grown in Costa Rica, but is a mutation of Typica rather than Bourbon. The plant does well at high elevations and in poor soil, making it very popular with Costa Rican farmers. In the cup, it offers outstanding sweetness and high, fine acidity.