Coffee Varieties: The Arabica Family Tree

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

Our review process | Our team

What the heck are all those words on specialty coffee bags? Today I’ll discuss the ins-and-outs of coffee varieties. What they are, where they come from and most importantly what they taste like.

What the heck are all those words on specialty coffee bags? Today I’ll discuss the ins-and-outs of coffee varieties. What they are, where they come from and most importantly what they taste like.

So, without further ado, let’s take a deep dive into history and coffee genetics!

What Is a Coffee Variety?

First things first: in this article I’m only going to discuss Coffea arabica varieties.

Coffea arabica is just one of over one hundred species in the Coffea genus. All of them are native to east Africa, in particular Ethiopia. Other notable species of coffee include Coffea liberica, Coffea eugenioides and Coffea canephora, otherwise known as Robusta.

Robusta is the second most cultivated coffee species. However, my focus here is Arabica coffee, since it’s estimated that Arabica trees make up roughly 70 percent of the world’s coffee plants.

That said, within the Arabica species there are over 10,000 different varieties. The majority of these are Ethiopian landrace varieties, but several dozen varieties are cultivated around the world.

Robusta Coffeebeans

I suppose I should get to the point now: what is a coffee variety?

Think about the different types of apples. You can find Honeycrisp, Gala, Fuji, McIntosh, Pink Lady and several other varieties at your local market or grocery store. These are all the same species, Malus pumila. Still, they have different appearances, flavors and characteristics that make them distinct varieties.

The same goes for coffee. Bourbon, Typica and Caturra are three of the most popular varieties of coffee. They look, behave and taste differently from each other, which classifies them as unique and distinct varieties. Plus, they can produce offspring – whether naturally or by human-assisted propagation – that maintain the same characteristics.

Still, despite their differences all Arabica varieties are genetically the same species: Coffea arabica.

Variety vs Varietal vs Cultivar: What’s the Difference?

If you’re not in the know, it may seem like coffee pros use the terms variety, varietal and cultivar almost interchangeably. And while it’s true that they are all used to describe different types of Arabica coffee, there are some subtle differences between these words. 

First let’s look at variety and varietal.

A coffee variety, as I mentioned, is a branch of the Arabica family tree, with unique characteristics, flavors and physical attributes that make it distinct from other varieties.

Meanwhile, “varietal” is an adjective used to describe something related to a coffee variety. Now, informally varietal is often used interchangeably with variety, as many roasters accidentally use the word varietal as a noun. However, technically it is an adjective, as in: “This cup of the variety Pink Bourbon has the varietal characteristics of a light, spritzy body and vibrant acidity.”

I’ll admit, most people wouldn’t say that word-for-word. Functionally, “varietal” is most often used as a noun. Still, knowing the key difference between variety and varietal can be helpful. 

On the other hand, the difference between a coffee variety and a cultivar is more distinct. A coffee variety is naturally occurring; it’s a natural mutation from a different variety or the result of spontaneous crossbreeding.

Though coffee varieties are naturally occurring, let’s not forget that farmers still play a key role in this process. After all, they recognize a mutation or new variety and select it for future reproduction and cultivation.

Meanwhile, a cultivar was cultivated, or intentionally bred to have desirable qualities. Most often, cultivars are bred for disease or drought resistance, or to have higher cup scores and yields.

What’s more, cultivars generally require human assistance to reproduce and maintain these characteristics across generations. This can require farmers to utilize propagation or grafting techniques to reproduce the plant.

How Many Coffee Varieties Are There?

There are over ten thousand known and distinct coffee varieties worldwide. Don’t expect to try them all in your lifetime!

Like I said, the majority of these are Ethiopian landraces and aren’t often cultivated in other parts of the world. Still, several dozen varieties and cultivars are commonly cultivated around the world. Or at the very least are relevant to the global Arabica family tree.

Okay, now I’ll take us through some explanations of the most popular coffee varieties. You’ll see many of these printed on coffee bags or on your favorite roasters’ social media accounts.

Bourbon

Brasilien Kaffeefarm 2022 Kaffeekirschen an Pflanze 2

Bourbon is one of the oldest coffee varieties. It is native to Ethiopia, and was brought to the island of Bourbon (now called La Réunion) in the early 1700s by way of Yemen

In the 1800s, Bourbon made its way to Brazil and was consequently spread across Central and South America.

Being a very old variety, Bourbon is quite important to the coffee family tree. It is the parent or grandparent of several other common varieties, including Caturra, Catuai and Mundo Novo. Plus, there are different types of Bourbon itself: Red, Yellow and Pink Bourbon are named as such for the color of their cherries.

Bourbon is a popular variety because it has the potential for very good cup quality, especially when grown at high altitude. That said, it is quite susceptible to common coffee plant diseases, and has a medium to low yield. For these reasons, some producers prefer to cultivate Bourbon offspring varieties.

As far as this variety’s cup profile, Bourbon is known to be sweet and complex, with a round body and bright acidity. That said, as with any coffee, the particular character of this variety depends on the growing region, altitude and the producer’s growing and processing methods.

Allow me to give a little shout-out to Pink Bourbon, of which I am a big fan. It’s a darling in the specialty coffee scene, and is most commonly grown in Colombia. At its best, Pink Bourbon is punchy and sweet like lemonade.

Typica

Typica is another of the oldest coffee varieties. In fact, Typica dominated coffee production in Central and South America during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.

Though Typica is historically important, coffee producers don’t cultivate it much today. This is due to Typica’s high susceptibility to coffee diseases and its low yield. It’s often preferable to cultivate the offspring of Typica instead. These include the popular varieties Mundo Novo and Pacamara, of which Typica is a parent and grandparent, respectively.

That said, Typica is the coffee variety behind Jamaica Blue Mountain, one of the world’s most expensive coffees. When grown in prime conditions, Typica is complex, floral, fruity and sweet. On the other side of the flavor wheel, Typica is also known to have chocolate and nutty notes, with a mild acidity.

Again, these cup characteristics largely depend on the origin and growing conditions of a particular lot, plus a producer’s chosen processing method.

Caturra

History of Tanzania Coffee

Discovered in Brazil, Caturra is a natural dwarf mutation of Bourbon. In the botanical world, a dwarf tree is small and compact. After its discovery, Caturra was further selected and developed by the Instituto Agronômico of Sao Paulo State in Brazil.

This coffee variety is widely grown across the Americas. In fact, Caturra is popular among producers and consumers alike. You’ll often find Caturra in bags of single origin coffee from Colombia.

Caturra’s compact size enables producers to plant trees relatively close together, giving them a higher yield per acre. Individual trees themselves also produce a pretty good yield, and the potential cup quality is quite high.

When grown at high elevation, Caturra coffee beans can have pretty remarkable quality. A really good cup of Caturra will be bright, round and sweet, tasting of cherry and honey.

The downside of the Caturra coffee genes is that these plants are very susceptible to common coffee plant diseases. Consequently, some producers prefer to cultivate Castillo, a cross between Caturra and the Timor Hybrid. Castillo is very resistant to leaf rust thanks to Robusta genetics in its Timor Hybrid parentage.

Geisha

Oh Geisha, the coffee world’s sweetheart!

Called Geisha or Gesha, this coffee variety is the dream of specialty coffee consumers. Geisha is an Ethiopian landrace that was brought to the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE) in Costa Rica in the 1950s.

There, research showed that Geisha has a moderate resistance to leaf rust, so CATIE consequently distributed the variety across Central America. However, it wasn’t until the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Peterson family started cultivating Geisha at Hacienda La Esmeralda in Panama, that Geisha really began its life as an agricultural celebrity.

The Peterson family planted their leaf rust-resistant Geisha trees at high elevation and soon realized how spectacular this variety was. In fact, in 2004 their Geisha lot won the Best of Panama competition and sold at auction for $20 per pound, breaking the previous record.

So why all the fuss? For one thing, Geisha lots regularly score 90 points or higher on the Specialty Coffee Association’s quality scoring rubric. This potential for exceptional quality, and correlated high prices, makes Geisha very appealing for producers.

What’s more, Geisha is known to have a light, tea-like body with notes of jasmine or stone fruit. The best cups of Geisha coffee are complex yet delicate, with compelling floral and fruity notes. I guess “elegant” is a great way to describe Geisha.

In other words, Geisha coffee has flavor notes that we expect to taste in Ethiopian coffees – but it is grown in Panama. This revelation completely blew the coffee world away; it was almost more shocking than Geisha’s exceptional cup profile itself.

Catuai

Catuai is a dwarf coffee plant that draws its parentage from Caturra and Mundo Novo. This makes Catuai a granddaughter of the Bourbon and Typica varieties.

Bred by the Instituto Agronômico of Sao Paulo State in Brazil, Catuai is popular for its compact size and high yield. Incidentally, this cultivar gets its compact size from Caturra and its high yield from the productive Mundo Novo variety. Unfortunately, Catuai also inherited Caturra’s high susceptibility to leaf rust and other coffee diseases.

Catuai is widely grown across Brazil and parts of South America, though it isn’t as popular among producers in Central America.

At its best, Catuai tastes like brown sugar, fruit and nuts. However, you won’t often find a Catuai-only lot. Catuai’s cup quality is good but not impressive, so it’s often mixed with other varieties in community or regional coffee blends.

SL 28

Drying Coffee in the Sun on a Kenya Coffee Plantation

SL 28 gets its name from the renowned Kenyan coffee research lab Scott Laboratories, now called the National Agricultural Laboratories. Scott Laboratories was created by Great Britain in the early 20th century, when the country was still a colonial power in Kenya. The lab did a lot of important work on coffee research and farmer education, which continues to this day.

SL 28 is genetically related to Bourbon. Incidentally, it shares Bourbon’s characteristic bright and complex cup profile. What’s more, SL 28 is also known to have a syrupy or heavy body, with savory or funky notes and compelling acidity and sweetness reminiscent of citrus fruits.

SL 28 is popular among producers for its high yield, drought tolerance and exceptional cup quality. However, these coffee trees are susceptible to common coffee diseases.

Though traditionally grown in Kenya, SL 28 is now also grown on high-elevation coffee farms in the Americas.

Other Notable Coffee Varieties

The above list in no means covers all of the popular coffee varieties in the world. Let’s explore a few more.

One of my favorite coffee varieties is Pacamara, the daughter of Pacas (a natural Bourbon mutation) and Maragogipe (a natural Typica mutation). Pacamara coffee beans are huge, and holding them in my hand reminds me of the diversity and wonder of the Coffea arabica species. The cup profile is often sweet and round, with notes of chocolate and fruity flavors.

Mundo Novo, a natural cross between Typica and Bourbon and a parent of Catuai, is another popular variety. It produces a good cup quality with a high yield, so it’s favored among producers in South America, particularly Brazil.

Castillo is an important variety in the endeavor to protect coffee harvests from leaf rust. Leaf rust is caused by a fungus that prevents coffee trees from photosynthesizing, which can completely decimate a farmer’s harvest. It’s only becoming more prevalent with the prevalence of climate change-related complications.

Brasilien Kaffeefarm 2022 kaffeekirschen am Trocknen

Castillo is a leaf rust-resistant cultivar with Caturra and Timor Hybrid parentage. Plus, Castillo gets pretty high cup scores thanks to its Caturra genes.

While I’m on the subject, the Timor Hybrid variety was a natural hybrid of Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora (Robusta) that occurred in the 1920s on the Pacific island of Timor.

Since Robusta is resistant to leaf rust, this spontaneous crossbreeding introduced leaf rust resistance to the Arabica family tree. Thank goodness! Producers and agricultural researchers have since created many cultivars with Timor Hybrid parentage, including Castillo and the Catimor branch of the Arabica family tree.

Finally, I can’t forget to mention Ethiopian landrace varieties, which naturally populate coffee forests across Ethiopia. Often when you’re drinking Ethiopian coffee, you’re drinking a mix of landrace varieties. They’re smooth, complex, fruity, floral and often reminiscent of stone fruit.

Final Thoughts

Honestly, I could write about coffee varieties all day. Researching coffee genetics and the Arabica family tree makes me feel like a coffee genealogist. What’s more, I love being able to drink a cup of coffee and know the history behind it.

On a related note, that’s why I only buy coffee that is direct trade or has a transparent sourcing origin. After all, I want to know that I’m putting my money towards coffee that was produced and traded ethically.

What are your favorite coffee varieties? Have you ever had variety that really surprised you? Let me know in the comments section!

Coffee Varieties FAQ

Bourbon, Typica and Ethiopian landraces are the main varieties and parents in the Arabica family tree.

The answer to this question is very subjective, and we can’t forget the impacts of altitude, growing conditions and processing methods on a coffee’s cup quality. That said, Geisha is a widely popular and expensive coffee variety.

Again, this totally depends on who you’re asking (a producer vs a consumer) and where they live. Still, Bourbon is quite popular and easy-to-please.

Your coffee expert
Team Image
Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

0 Kommentare
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Table of Contents