Choosing Your Coffee - The Different Coffee Varieties October 23 2016

The different coffee varieties explained

Most coffee aficionados are familiar with the two main types of coffee beans on the market - arabica and robusta. If you aren't, do check out our primer on the differences between the two types of beans. There's actually a lot more nuance within the coffee varieties and we'll be exploring that in this post. Heard of Blue Mountain coffee, Catimor coffee or Liberica but didn't know what they were? In this post we'll go into the key characteristics of some of the most popular coffee varieties and cultivars.  

Introduction

The numerous coffee varieties we have today are the result of selective breeding or natural selection of coffee plants. Although coffee plants vary tremendously, some varieties and cultivars are more commercially important due to certain desirable traits such as taste, disease resistance and fruit yield.

Arabica

Arabica is the original plant discovered and cultivated for today’s coffee beverage. As the stories go, it is likely to have originated in present-day Ethiopia. While Arabica has the subtlest and most desirable flavors that coffee drinkers appreciate, it should be noted that it has the least caffeine. 

Most Arabica coffee picking is done by hand. This is partly due to the fact that arabaica is grown on mountainous land and it is hard to get machines up there but the main reason is that coffee pickers, using ladders, choose the ripest beans for picking. To ensure that the beans are picked only when ripe, the best farms will typically pick three times per season.

There are two varieties of Arabica: Bourbon and Typica. From these two varieties other subvarieties, known as cultivars, are derived.

Bourbon

Coffee produced by the Bourbon variety of Arabica is considered to be top quality. This comes at a price though. Not only do they require higher altitudes, larger space and more care in general, they are also more prone to disease and take longer to bear fruit.

Typica

Typica is the other major variety of Arabica trees and while they tend to grow better than Bourbon trees, their yield is lower.

Other Major Arabica Cultivars

Blue Mountain

The Blue Mountain cultivar is a unique cultivar that is almost exclusive to Jamaica. It grows at high altitudes - above 5,000 feet and is known for it's lack of bitterness and mild flavor. It is also one of the most expensive and sought after coffees in the world.

Fun fact: Over 80% of Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee is exported to Japan.   

Timor

Named after Timor island in Southeast Asia It is believed that Timor was discovered in the 1860s. A cross between Arabica and Robusta, opinion over it is very divided. Some consider it a godsend, combining the best of both worlds - the flavor of Arabica with the disease resistance of Robusta. Others however says that it is actually a combination of the worst of both the robusta and arabica.

Catimor

Catimor is an offshoot of the Timor cultivar above and was first developed in Portugal in the 1950s. It is an attractive crop for farmers because of it's disease resistance and high yield. However, like the Timor, being a hybrid of Arabica and Robusta, it is unlikely to be the most flavorful.

Robusta

Robusta has been touted by coffee farmers as the replacement for Arabica plants. With twice the caffeine content, fruit that is easier to pick and less space needed between trees, it's easy to see Robusta's popularity with caffeine addicts and farmers.  

That said, Robustas are not anywhere near as flavorful as Arabicas. The highest grade Robustas are used in espresso blends while the lower grades are used as commodity caffeine (e.g. in Aspirin).

Liberica

Arabica and Robusta get all the headlines, and rightly so. They are after all the two most common varieties of coffee grown. Coming in at a distant number 3 is Liberica. Don't worry if you haven't heard of it, you're definitely not alone. Liberica can be found mainly in Southeast Asia but has no real presence in either Europe or the USA.

Liberica is more flavorful than Robusta but it can't match the flavor of Arabica. It also doesn't offer the high per plant yield of Robusta. Hence, it never really took off.