Just as there is an apple and then there are apples (think Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Fuji, Honeycrisp, Cortland); there is coffee and then there are coffee varietals--hundreds of strains, both wild and cultivated, that make our favorite beverage so diverse and full of potential.
Similar to the world of wine, in which the word terroir is deployed to reference how a plant’s origin and growing conditions can impact an ultimate flavor profile, we can apply this concept to coffee as well. The distinct characteristics of coffees from different origins can, at least in part, be attributed to the particular plant varietal(s) grown in those regions. Here are some of the most common:
In the early 1700s, the French planted coffee on Reunion Island (then called Bourbon) in the middle of the Indian Ocean. These prolific plants (20-30% more productive than Typica varieties) came from the same stock as those given to them by the Dutch. After some subtle mutations, the Bourbon varietal was planted in Brazil in the next century and spread throughout Latin America.
A high-yielding but attention-demanding hybrid of Mundo Novo and Caturra, Catuai was bred in Brazil in the late 1940s. Its fruit holds stubbornly to the branch, which helps protect it from losing yield to high winds or rain.
A mutation of the Bourbon variety, Caturra was found near the town of Caturra, Brazil in the 1930s. It produces a higher yield than Bourbon, and this is generally due to the plant being shorter, higher yielding, and with smaller distance between the branches. A relatively recently selected botanical variety of Arabica that generally matures more quickly, Caturra produces more coffee and is more resistant to disease than older, traditional varieties.
Developed by the Colombian Coffee Growers’ Federation, Variedad Colombia is a hybrid of the Canephora (Robusta) and Arabica species. It is the result of an ongoing project to combat blights, while increasing yields. Over the last four decades, the Federation has developed a number of Variedad Colombias, including Castillo, known for its better cup quality and resistance to leaf rust.
Southwestern Ethiopia is coffee’s original homeland, and it remains a place where some of the original coffee varietals thrive. Each village has its own unique variety, passed down from generation to generation and impacted by the distinct terroir--soil, elevation, and climate--of Ethiopia’s subregions.
A natural hybrid of Typica and Bourbon, the disease-resistant and high-yielding Mundo Novo plant was first found in Brazil.
Timor is a hybrid of Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora (also called Robusta). Found on the island of Timor around the 1940s, it was cultivated because of its resistance to leaf rust (which most arabica coffee is susceptible to). In the Americas, it’s referred to as Hybrido de Timor; in Indonesia, Tim Tim or Bor Bor.
Originated from Yemeni stock, Typica was first brought to Malabar, India, and later to Indonesia by way of the Dutch. It later made its way to the West Indies to the French colony at Martinique. Typica has genetically evolved to produce new characteristics, often considered new varietals: Criollo (South America), Arabigo (Americas), Kona (Hawaii), Pluma Hidalgo (Mexico), Garundang (Sumatra), Jamaica Blue Mountain (Jamaica), San Bernado and San Ramon (Brazil), Kents and Chickumalgu (India). Typica is sweet and clean with a full body.