What the heck are coffee varieties anyway?

What the heck are coffee varieties anyway?

Written by Joshua Wilking

What the heck are coffee varieties anyway?

I waltzed into my first wine tasting at the ripe ol’ age of 21 and quickly learned that I knew nothing. There’s red and there’s white, right? As the hour unfolded, more and more wine was poured with each glass having its own complex origin story. I left feeling a little awkward, overwhelmed, and buzzed.

Whether it’s wine, beer or coffee, each of these beverages have a spectrum of varieties that cater to different taste preferences. And a lot of us have no idea what these varieties mean. So what are the different types of coffee and why do they exist?

Coffee Variety Basics

Have you ever looked at a bag of coffee and saw a section for varieties? It lists some unfamiliar words like: Typica, Bourbon or even a letter number combination like SL-14 and you wonder what the heck does that even mean?

You remember the Levels of Classification from biology class, right? It looked a little something like this. While we typically use an animal like a dog as an example, the plant kingdom follows the same classification system. Think of a tomato and its different varieties: roma, cherry, heirloom or an apple and its varieties: Fuji, Gala, Granny Smith, and the superior Honeycrisp.

When we apply this to coffee in general, that is at the Genus level and there are several coffee species under that. The most popular is Arabica which makes up 60% of the world’s coffee. Then there’s Robusta (also called Canephora) and Liberica.

Each of those species has their own varieties (or subspecies) of coffees. For example, some of the primary subspecies of Arabica are Bourbon, Typica, and Geisha. And all of these varieties have sub-varieties, hybrids and mutations. So we end up with thousands of different types of varieties. And those varieties are the names you see on your coffee bags. 

We can get even more specific and talk about coffee varietals. The word varietal is used to denote a specific plant on a specific farm.

Why are there so many species of Coffee?

Over time coffee has naturally mutated in different climates around the world, but many cultivars are also man-made. A coffee cultivar, or “cultivated variety,” is not naturally grown, but cultivated for a specific purpose. New coffee cultivars can be grown to achieve a specific flavor or to resist disease, insects, and poor weather conditions. Currently, a lot of new coffees are being cultivated to thwart coffee rust–a widespread disease in which leaves will eventually fall off, killing the plant. Because coffee plants are grown so close together, they are especially susceptible to the spread of diseases like coffee rust. 

Each variety has its own flavor profile, aroma, and set of growing conditions. For an in depth look at some varieties, let’s explore the three varietals that are part of the limited-edition Grand Cru Series and Reserva Collection: Pacas, Pacamara, and Geisha.

Example: Pacas

Pacas, a natural mutation in the bourbon variety, has been widely cultivated due to its unique small size. Its short stature makes Pacas wind resistant and an ideal variety to grow in high altitudes like Guatemala. Dwarf plants can be grown closer together providing a higher yield

Taste Profile: Similar to the bourbon taste profile, Pacas has a balanced acidity with sweet notes and hints of cocoa

Example: Pacamara

Pacamara is a cross between the Pacas variety and the Maragogypa and was created by the Salvadoran Institute for Coffee Research (ISIC) in 1958. Pacamara inherits a dwarfism gene from Pacas and its larger bean size comes from the Maragogype, which gives it a higher quality taste.

Taste Profile: Known for its vibrant acidity, Pacamara has a complex taste profile with notes of chocolate, butterscotch and honey. Medium to full body.

Example: Geisha

Geisha is an Arabica variety identified in Ethiopia in the 1930’s. The Geisha variety has some of the most complex flavor profiles which also makes it one of the most exclusive and expensive. The catch? Geisha is a fragile and demanding plant, requiring much maintenance. Geisha plants have fewer leaves and thus are less effective at photosynthesis. The result means fewer coffee beans compared to other varieties. A low yield and high demand (due to the unique flavor) makes this the most expensive coffee in the world. Geisha grows better in higher altitudes (above 1,500 meters) and has a delicate root system. Most people correlate Geisha with Panama, but with 34 volcanoes, Guatemala has ample high altitude locations to grow Geisha.

You’ll sometimes see Geisha, spelled as Gesha. That’s because there is no exact translation from the dialects of Ethiopia to English.

Taste Profile:  Sweet with floral notes of jasmine, chocolate and honey. Peach-like aromas.

How to Explore New Varieties

Now that you have an understanding of what coffee varieties are and how much their flavor can differ, take some time to explore new varieties and note what you like and don’t like from each. This will help guide you as you look to try new varieties that cater to your palette. To figure out what kind of variety your coffee is: look on the bag, or online under the product description, or ask your cafe’s barista. And if you ever get the opportunity to drink a cup of Paca, Pacamara, or Geisha varieties, take it! These exotic flavors are sure to shake up your morning routine. After all, varietals are the spice of life.

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