Varieties of Coffee
The coffee plant naturally occurs in nature in over 100 different species. All are
native to equatorial Africa and a few Indian Ocean islands. The Coffea arabica species
is the most widely grown coffee accounting for approximately 75 percent of the world's
production. Only a few arabica varieties produce the finest coffees and are usually
high grown at altitudes of 3000 to 6000 feet. The Coffea canephora species also
occurs in nature in a number of varieties and is usually referred to as robusta.
The robusta species are higher in caffeine content than arabica coffee and considered
filler coffee for arabica blends. These two species account for almost all of the
commercially grown coffee today.
The two most desirable naturally occurring varieties of arabica are the Bourbon
variety native to the island of Réunion and the Typica variety native to
the highlands of Ethiopia. These two varieties are referred to as heirloom varieties and usually produce
the finest coffees. One draw back to their commercial use is that they only produce about one pound of
processed coffee each year. But since they produce the best coffee when grown in shade
at high elevations they are still widely grown. They are also more susceptible to insect attack and disease but this problem is greatly reduced at the higher elevations.
Just like all other agricultural crops growers must weigh the benefits of volume
verses quality and the coffee industry is no exception. As a result a number of
hybrids have been created in an effort to increase production and disease resistance
while minimizing the loss of cup quality. Nature has done its part as well with
the discovery of naturally occurring mutations over the years.
The Bourbon variety of arabica was discovered on Réunion Island near Madagascar
in the 1600's. At that time the island was called Bourbon after the royal house
of France and hence the name. This variety produces high quality coffee when shade
grown and the acidity and flavor characteristics improve with elevation. The seeds
are small and dense and somewhat rounded and the leaves are broad and round with
a waxy dark green color.
The Typica variety is the coffee that was originally cultivated in Yemen for hundreds
of years before its discovery by Europeans in the early 1600's. It was also the
first variety to be propagated around the world by the Dutch and other European
countries during that same time. This variety produces an excellent cup of coffee
when high grown in the shade. The Typica and Bourbon varieties are typically considered the producers of the world's finest
One of the natural mutations of the Bourbon variety is the Maragogype discovered
in Brazil near a town of the same name. The seeds of this variety are very large
and are called elephant beans by some. The flavor characteristics are mild and the
acidity is subtle and sweet. Because of its low yield and less than perfect cup
the cultivation of this variety is limited.
The Caturra variety is a natural mutation of the Bourbon variety also discovered
in Brazil. The production volume is large compared to the Bourbon variety and can
produce a fine cup when cultivated properly. This requires pruning and fertilization
practices to ensure the high yields and good cup quality.
The Mundo Novo variety is a naturally occurring hybrid between the Bourbon and Typica
varieties. This variety was also discovered in Brazil and possesses good resistance
to disease. The high production and sturdiness of the plant has made it popular
in Brazil. The cherry usually mature later than other coffee varieties. The cup
quality varies and is not considered an exemplary coffee unless extreme care is
given to fertilization and cultivation.
Catuai is a manufactured hybrid between the Mundo Novo and Caturra varieties. It
is disease resistant and can be planted closer together to produce higher yields.
The ripe cherries may be either red or yellow and the cup profile can be greatly
influenced by fertilization.
The Pacas variety is a natural mutation of the Caturra plant thought to originate
in El Salvador. The Caturra was brought from Brazil where it was first discovered
as a mutation of the Bourbon varietal. Pacas performs well at higher elevations
and is a good producer with high yields. The cup quality is good to very good. About
30% of the El Salvador coffee is of this varietal.
Pacamara is a hybrid formed by crossing the local Pacas varietal with the Brazilian
mutant Maragogype producing a very large bean and good yields. The cup quality is
soft but complex. It accounts for about 3% of the El Salvador coffee crop.
Hibrido de Timor is a natural hybrid of arabica and robusta which resembles arabica
coffee and has 44 chromosomes unlike robusta coffee that only has 22. This coffee
is primarily cultivated in Indonesia and more specifically East Timore. The plant
is resistant to disease and produces high yields but is not considered a quality
coffee in the cup.
Catimor is a hybrid between the Hibrido de Timor and the Caturra mutant found in
Brazil. It was first created in Portugal in 1959. It is resistant to disease and
has high yields. It was initially propagated widely throughout Latin America but
has recently fallen from favor because of the cup quality.
Blue Mountain is a famous coffee varietal favored for its resistance to the coffee
berry disease and ability to thrive in high altitudes. It was first discovered in Jamaica
and is a natural mutation of the Typica variety. Blue mountain coffee, however, cannot
adapt to all climates and maintain its high quality flavor profile. The Jamaican
varietal by the same name commands an extraordinary price.
Geisha is a relatively new star in the coffee varietal arena. It is thought to have
originated from seeds collected in Ethiopia and initially propagated in Kenya in
1932. The offspring were transported to Tanzania in 1936 and the first plantings
were brought to Costa Rica in 1953. From there the Geisha was planted in Panama
in the 1960's. In recent years the Geisha has won numerous cupping competitions
and is currently only available from a few estates in Panama.
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