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We often liken coffee varietals to the many different grape varieties you come across in wine. Many people are able to differentiate not only between different wine origins, but are also able to appreciate the role that the type of grape plays in the resulting flavour. From Sauvignon to Riesling to Chardonnay, the actual cultivar has the power to dramatically alter the profile of the wine, whether that be in its sweetness, flavour or body. It is exactly the same with coffee, though not as many people know about it!
It is widely accepted that the species of Arabica coffee (Coffea Arabica) was first discovered growing in Ethiopia in around the 10th century. The varietal discovered at the time is now known as ‘Typica’ which is responsible for several thousand other varieties, all of which have either occurred through natural mutation or have been produced through several cross breeding programmes in an effort to increase genetic diversity.
It is acknowledged that this varietal is responsible for the development of all other varieties either through genetic mutation or cross breeding. It was the original varietal discovered in Ethiopia and spread to other producing regions when coffee was first commercialised by the Dutch. The leaves are thin and cooper coloured and the plant produces elongated oval-shaped beans. Coffees from a Typica plant often have outstanding sweetness and complexity, though they are relatively low yielding compared to other varietals.
This varietal originated on the Island of Bourbon (now known as Reunion Island) and is a mutation of early Arabica species from Ethiopia. It yields slightly more coffee than the Typica varietal but is relatively low yielding. The leaves are broad and cherries can ripen red, yellow or orange. This varietal is known for its amazing complex acidity and great balance.
These varieties are most commonly found in Ethiopia and they closely resemble the Typica varietal though there is no exact way of tracing their exact development. There are now over 1000 different heirloom varieties growing in the Wild Forests of Ethiopia and the first steps to separating them into lots are underway. These varieties are responsible for some of the most coveted cup profiles in the world – florals, citrus, cocoa, tea, wild berries…
This varietal originated in Brazil in the 1940’s and is a natural hybrid of Typica and Bourbon. It is high yielding, more resistant to disease and can be planted densely. The cherries are large and rounded and the beans display sweet characteristics with low acidity and a thick mouthfeel. Mundo Novo is most successfully cultivated in the lower producing regions of Brazil at altitudes of between 1000 and 1200 metres above sea level.
Caturra is a cultivar from Brazil and is a mutation of Bourbon which is much higher yielding. The tree will not reach the same height as Bourbon and is sometimes referred to as a semi-dwarf plant making it much easier to hand pick the ripe cherries. It is particularly popular in Central America and Colombia and the cherries can ripen with either red or yellow pigmentation. Typical characteristics associated with this varietal are bright acidity and medium body.
This varietal is a hybrid of Mundo Novo and Caturra and is highly resistant to natural elements that coffee trees face at higher altitudes. It originated in Brazil but is now widely planted throughout Central America. Both the red and yellow strains demonstrate high acidity.
This is probably one of the most easily recognised varietals due to the unusually large size of bean which are sometimes referred to as ‘elephant beans’. Marogogype is a mutation of Typica that was first discovered in Brazil – it is relatively low yielding but is often desirable due to its distinguishing size. The cherries usually ripen red and can have enhanced sweetness.
This varietal is named after the Pacas Family who first discovered it on their farm in El Salvador in 1949. It is a natural mutation of Bourbon and is very similar in cup profile but it is often a shorter tree making it easier to harvest.
Pacamara is a hybrid of the Pacas and Maragogype varietals and is thought to have been developed in El Salvador in 1958. The beans and leaves are very large and are well suited to high altitudes. It is a very complex varietal producing beautiful floral notes with great balance, though it is unfortunately very low yielding and is not too resistant to disease.
Geisha found global fame following a discovery made in 2004 on Hacienda La Esmeralda, a farm in Boquete, Panama. The owners of the farm (the Peterson family) noted particular 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. It is for this reason that this varietal is so closely associated with Panama, when in actual fact, it is thought to have originated in the town ‘Gesha’ in Western Ethiopia. The Geisha varietal is incredibly temperamental and low yielding but it produces the most astonishing cup profile with distinct floral aromatics and outstanding sweetness. Flavours of rosewater, orange blossom, jasmine and apricot are often found in a Panama Geisha and the price tends to really reflect the quality with 250g fetching as much as £100!
This varietal was created in the 1930s by Scott Laboratories as botanists searched for different mutations of Bourbon and Typica. It has copper coloured leaves and its beans are broad. It is native to Kenya and is relatively low yielding, however the cup qualities are highly sought after. Characteristics can include intense lemon acidity, great sweetness, balance and complexity.
SL34 was created in the 1930s as a mutation between Bourbon and Typica. It differs to SL28 as it has bronze tipped leaves. This could perhaps mean it has greater similarity to the Typica varietal. SL34 is known to be fairly resistant to heavy rainfall at high altitudes and produces top quality coffee with complex citrus acidity and a heavy mouthfeel.
This is considered to be a mutation of Typica that was named after one of the planters in India who was working on a selection programme in the 1920s. It was developed in an attempt to resist a disease known as coffee leaf rust which attacks the leaves of the tree making it impossible for it to photosynthesise.
This is a hybrid of Sarchimor & Red Catuai – it ripens really evenly and has a deep red colour. Cherries of this variety resemble the shape of a grape which is why it is called Uva (Grape in Portuguese). This is also a high yielding varietal with good disease resistance.