Cultivars (or varieties or varietals)
Fun fact: There is a technical distinction between cultivar and variety/varietal. A cultivar is actually a type of variety that is, well, cultivated, meaning it is the result of intentional human activity. Most specialty coffee is cultivated, though not all, so the term is often used interchangeably (you’ll find we use ‘cultivar’ on our labels, but it’s mainly because it’s spelled the same in English and French and thus makes our label a teensy bit cleaner, but we’re not picky about which word is used).
Why they matter: it helps to think of wine. We all have our preferences. Some of us might walk straight to the French aisle and pick up a Pinot Noir. Others might favour a Malbec from the slopes of the Andes. Others still might ponder the selection, weighing factors such as what they might be pairing with it, or else take a gamble on more adventurous varietals from obscure wine regions. The point is, once you get to know a thing or two about wine, you probably won’t blindly grab whatever bottle is closest to the cash register. Otherwise the bottles would just be marked ‘wine’ (although, yes, some are, but those are generally to be avoided).
Coffee is similar. Different varieties yield different flavours and aromas. The sweet, caramel-y Bourbons from Guatemala, for instance, might really turn your crank, or perhaps you’re more into Ethiopian Heirloom, with its tea-like, floral notes. Biodiversity plays a large part as well. The more varieties of a plant exist, the better the plant will fare against pests and disease. Arabica coffee in particular is susceptible to such problems. In fact, thousands of coffee varieties have been wiped out over the last centuries, leaving only a handful. And without human intervention coffee in its entirety risks complete eradication, mere decades down the road.
Luckily, one characteristic that plant varieties possess is their ability to hybridize. The creation of new cultivars that are resistant to the coffee plant’s natural enemies is one way to ensure the survival of the world’s most beloved beverage. Here’s a rundown of some of the more common specialty coffee varieties, or cultivars, you might find yourself enjoying.
Bourbon: The darling of coffee varietals, it’s hard to go wrong with a Bourbon. Named for the island of Bourbon (now called Reunion), where it was introduced by the French in the early 18th century, it was soon brought to Africa and Latin America, where it has since thrived. The plant is rather stout, with broad leaves, and produces rounded fruit in either red or yellow. With its delicate sweetness and wine-like bright acidity, it’s a classic go-to for all coffee-lovers.
Caturra: Discovered in Brazil and now found throughout Latin America, Caturra is a favourite among producers for its resistance to disease and high production (due in part to its short stature, making picking easier). It also produces good quality coffee, with a bright acidity with notes of lemon or lime, and a subtler sweetness.
Gesha (also known as Geisha): Named after the Ethiopian town from which it originated, Gesha was introduced to Costa Rica in the 1950s and eventually made its way to Panama, where it was made famous by Hacienda La Esmeralda. It is to this day considered a rare gem, although it is poised to explode on the scene in a big way. This gangly plant is low-yielding and especially vulnerable to strong winds and pests. It is also quite sensitive to altitude, only really dazzling at heights of 1500m or more. In the cup, it has clean floral notes with an exotic sweetness and a refreshing acidity. Perhaps it is because of Gesha’s fussy nature, rather than in spite of it, that really makes it shine. Like any good Diva, she’ll only perform when she wants to, but when she does, she’ll blow you away.
Heirloom: Thousands of coffee varieties grow in Eastern Africa, and because they often grow in the wild and naturally cross-pollinate like it’s 1999, it is almost impossible to distinguish one variety from another. Consequently, the generic ‘heirloom’ moniker was applied as a sort of catch-all. The specific region in which the coffee grows is a more informative marker for delineating in-cup characteristics. For instance, in Ethiopia, you’ll find that Yirgacheffe and Sidama coffees (respectively from regions of the same names) have their own unique flavour profiles.
Maragogype (ma-rah-go-hee-pay): Also called Elephant Bean, it was first discovered in Brazil in 1870 and is still found there, as well as in Guatemala and Mexico. Related to the Typica cultivar, it is quite low yielding in spite of its impressive height. You know when you’ve come across a maragogype plant because of its almost comically oversized cherries and beans, which, along with its relative rarity, fetch quite a bit of interest on the coffee market. When roasted right it can produce a delightfully smooth cup, mild and subtly sweet.
Mundo Novo: A natural hybrid of the Bourbon and Typica varieties, Mundo Novo was discovered in Brazil in the 1940s and now occupies 35-40% of all coffee growing areas in Brazil, due to the fact that it is well-suited to the Brazilian climate and altitudes, is moderately resistant to disease and pests, and can be densely planted. Some say this density has a diminishing effect on cup quality, but a good Mundo Novo can produce an excellent cup, heavy and sweet with lower acidity.
SL28: An offshoot of Bourbon, it was developed in the 1930s by Scott Labs (hence the name) for the Kenyan government, who wanted a coffee plant that was drought-resistant, highly productive, with good cup quality. They succeeded on two counts. While its yield is relatively low-to-moderate, the plant is resistant to drought (although remains susceptible to pests and disease), and in the cup it’s a real knock-out, with its complex, balanced flavour, brilliant acidity and almost tropical sweetness.
Typica: Coffee originated in Ethiopia, and the Typica varietal was brought to Yemen, the hub from which it spread throughout the coffee world. It thrived in Indonesia, under Dutch rule, but ultimately the classic Typica, due to its weakness in the face of disease and pest, is quite difficult to come across. Over centuries it has either mutated or hybridized, however, continuing to survive through its progeny. Interestingly, the Dutch gifted a Typica coffee plant to the king of France (this plant became known as the Noble Tree). It was nurtured and reproduced in a greenhouse, and eventually brought to the island of Bourbon, where it underwent a slight mutation, and, well, the rest is delicious history.