What is a Coffee Varietal? The History of Coffee, Part 1
You may have noticed the term “varietal” on our coffee labels. Under this category you will see names such as bourbon, caturra, typica, gesha, heirloom, SL28 etc.
So what do we mean by varietal?
On much of the packaging of mass produced coffee (the kind you see lining the grocery store shelves), you will see: 100% Arabica. This vague and all-encompassing term is the equivalent, of labelling a bottle of Zinfandel “Red Wine,” or an IPA, a “Beer.”
When you buy a bottle of wine you’re often looking to see what varietal of grape it is made from. This gives you a good idea of what the wine will taste like. The same goes for coffee.
The coffee varietals we will discuss here all come from the species called Coffea Arabica.
In order to understand Arabica varietals (well over 100 now and they keep finding more every year), we have to go back to look at where coffee originated.
Historical records indicate that coffee was taken from Ethiopia and planted in Yemen where it was cultivated and commercialized starting around 1500 CE. In this early period, Yemen produced almost all of the coffee that was consumed in the world.
As the popularity of coffee in Yemen increased, plantations began to also pop up in India in the late 1600’s. Not long after this it is believed Dutch traders took some of the coffee plants and brought them to the island of Java, Indonesia.
From Java a single plant was taken to a botanical garden in Amsterdam in 1706. This one Typica plant is connected to the propagation of much of the coffee around the world. The French and Dutch settlers/traders spread seeds from this plant to their colonies in the ‘new world’ where distribution easily extended to neighbouring countries. The Dutch brought it to Dutch Guyana, then it went on to Brazil, and eventually to Peru and Paraguay. The French spread it to Martinique, and from there, to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Central America, and then down to Colombia.
Around the same time Typica was being introduced to Central and South America, the French sought to introduce it on Bourbon Island (now called La Reunion) in the Indian Ocean. They made several failed attempts but eventually the coffee took hold and flourished sometime after their third try in 1718. These plants produced 20-30% higher yields than the Typica did in Central and South America. This is where the Bourbon varietal was born.
In the mid 19th century, French missionaries travelled to east Africa taking coffee with them. They worked in Tanzania and Kenya where we still see an abundance of farms growing Bourbon. In fact you might still see the name “French Mission Bourbon” listed as a varietal.
These two varietals - Bourbon & Typica, are responsible for nearly all the varietals that we see today.
Bourbon & Typica still exist in their original form and although they are high-quality varietals (ie. good tasting) they are also very susceptible to major plant diseases. They also produce lower yields per plant compared to many other varietals.
In Part 2 I will discuss the first genetic mutation of the Typica varietal called Caturra as well as several other varietals.