Varietals, Cultivar, and Tales of Adventure
You may have noticed we have been labeling some of our coffees with some new terminology lately, such as Maragogype or Bourbon, for example. These names denote the botanical varietal of the coffee in question. I thought that it would be of interest to delve a little deeper into what varietals are, how they came to be, and what effect they can have on the flavour you experience in the cup.
First let me clear up exactly what a coffee “bean” is. Coffee is actually NOT a bean at all, but is in fact the seed of the cherries produced by the coffee tree. It seems to of picked up the term “bean” somewhere along the way due its similar appearance to various commonly consumed legumes.
Coffee belongs to the genus Coffea from the larger Rubiaceae family of plants. There are several species of coffee tree that produce cherries from which the seeds are extracted. The two most commonly cultivated types are Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora, more commonly known as Arabica and Robusta.
A southwestern region of Ethiopia, known as Kaffa, is widely considered the birthplace of the coffee we know, and where Arabica was fist discovered. It is thought that from there it travelled across the gulf of Aden, through the movement of slaves, to Yemen, where it is recorded as being cultivated from as early as the 15th century. Coffee didn’t make it out of Arabia until early in the 16th century when it was smuggled by the Sufi Baba Budan back to his native India. From there the Dutch took specimens back to the Netherlands and subsequently began the cultivation of coffee on the island of Java in Indonesia. By the mid 17th century Dutch controlled Java was the largest supplier of coffee to Europe and at the beginning of the 19th century they were the world’s second largest producer of coffee after Brazil. This wasn’t to last, with the arrival of coffee leaf rust, a fungal disease that thrived in the humid climate of Java, decimating the islands plantations. This lead to most of the Arabica there being replaced with its hardier cousin Robusta.
Coffee made it’s way to South America via a different route. In 1720 French naval officer Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu was on leave in Paris from his posting in Martinique. There he convinced the court to let him take a coffee specimen growing in the Botanical gardens, a gift to Louis XIV by the mayor of Amsterdam, back with him to Martinique. The voyage was fraught with difficulty with the specimen surviving storms, physical attacks, and drought, with De Clieu resorting to using his own water ration to keep his coffee plant alive. Once back in Martinique the tree was planted and quickly flourished in the tropical climate, thus revealing the potential of this new crop to the French court. They promptly set about repeating the success at Martinique in their other tropical colonies, most significantly on the island of Reunion, at the time known as Bourbon. As the coffee planted in Martinique and Reunion developed, its genetics mutated and spawned two distinct varietals of significant importance, Typica at Martinique and Bourbon at Reunion. These two varietals spawned from the seven seeds that Baba Budan smuggled out of Yemen have gone on to form the genetic base for nearly all the coffee grown around the world today. As the spread of Typica and Bourbon increased so did their genetic mutation, as they adapted to their new environments. Along with these natural mutations deliberate cross breeding was being undertaken with the aim of increasing the yield and decease resistance of the plants.
Today nearly all producing countries have distinct mutated varietals descended from Typica and Bourbon. An example of this is Pacas, a natural dwarf mutation of Bourbon that was discovered El Salvador. It shares the cup characteristics of Bourbon but it grows to a smaller size and it has be suggested that this is in response to the strong winds that blow into El Salvador off the Pacific ocean.
When other varietals are the result of the deliberate crossing of genetics they are better referred to as cultivars, as they have been cultivated for specific cup characteristics or disease resistant qualities. An example of this would be the Icatu cultivar developed in Brazil. Carrying both Robusta and Bourbon genes, it has the disease resistance qualities of the Robusta with the more desirable cup characteristics of Bourbon.
Coffee is grown in the equatorial belt between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Only here do the necessary combination of conditions exist for coffee to flourish- temperature, rainfall, and altitude. Coffee especially thrives on the fertile slopes of the volcanic mountain ranges that straddle the equator and it is here that some of the world’s best coffees are produced. While varietal can play a large part in the final cup profile most of what gives coffee its unique flavors is a combination of contributing factors rather than just an individual one like genetics. Alongside the climatic conditions and altitude of when and where the coffee is grown, the care and attention that is tendered to the coffee while it is growing and once it has been harvested are major influences on what flavour is possible from any given coffee.
It is up to the roaster to realize this potential by roasting the coffee in a way that showcases the characteristics developed by genetics, terroir, and the farmer’s hand, without overshadowing them with the degree of roast or improper roast profiles.
Although the subject of varietals has been studied in depth for quite some time now, most research has taken place outside of the original cradle of coffee, Ethiopia. One of the more exciting aspects of the current boom in appreciation of specialty coffee is the light being shone back to the source of all Arabica coffees. It is coming to light that Ethiopia boasts over 10,000 naturally occurring varietals in it’s repertoire, all having developed over the centuries according to the specific microclimates in which they exist. There is still so much to discover about this plant that dominates our lives and this leaves us quite excited about the future of our industry.