· By Karine Lesage
On the bag - More than a shrub, a species, a single variety
3 of 4 - Among the other traits that define the taste of a coffee, the variety of cherries is a considerable one. From the botanical genus Coffea derive several species of coffee trees, but only two are grown substantially for commercial purposes: Coffea canephora (Robusta) and Coffea arabica. If the Robusta turns out to be tougher and more resistant, it must be said that the organoleptic properties make the Arabica definitely more interesting for coffee lovers.
The coffee tree at the base is part of the Rubiaceae family, so baptized by Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu in the 18th century because of their red roots and their tinctorial properties (used to dye textile fibers or for dyes). Coffea arabica has been discovered on both sides of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa. It is there, in Ethiopia, the land of origin of Arabica and some of its natural mutations. Coffea canephora (Robusta), for its part, was discovered later in the tropical forests in the west of the African continent. It was in the 20th century that the number of coffee-producing territories really expanded as a result of the colonial occupation: India, Bourbon Island (now Reunion Island), Martinique, Peru and Brazil as examples. By implanting Arabica in other lands than Ethiopia, certain hybridizations and natural mutations then appeared. Environmental variations have thus led coffee tree species to adapt. In addition to these natural mutations, other varieties of coffee trees are being developed by researchers in order to obtain Arabica species that are more resistant and able to grow in environments that are usually inhospitable to them. These laboratory mutations also aim to make coffee plantations more profitable, resilient and productive.1
Recognize certain varieties of Coffea arabica
Little information is available regarding the specific flavor traits of different varieties of coffee. Jonathan Gagné who is at the origin of Coffee Ad Astra tried to remedy this lack by using the data collected on the applicationFirst Bloom about 1500 bags of coffee. InThis article, he sought to associate descriptive notes with the most cultivated varieties of Arabica. For example, we notice that Bourbon coffee more often than not offers a fruity cup (stone fruit, dried fruit, berries, lemon), but also nutty notes typically associated with roasting. Or that the Gesha (Geisha) gives, more than any other variety, a floral aspect to the coffee. We strongly advise you to browse the article on Coffee Ad Astra to learn more. Now, without giving an exhaustive overview, we want to highlight some of the Arabica varieties for their history and their characteristics.
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the typical is the first variety that was marketed after leaving the Arabian Peninsula. Cultivated in Yemen in the 15th century, this variety was brought to India, then to Indonesia. Around 1616, the Dutch merchant, Pieter van der Broeke, acquired (or stolen, depending on the version of the story) a Typica coffee tree and brought it to the Botanical Garden in Amsterdam. A second coffee tree was also donated to the French Royal Court. These shrubs were the origin of coffee crops in the American colonies Martinique, Suriname and Haiti among others and Typica remained the only variety on the continent until the middle of the 19th century..
the BlueMountain is considered a separate Typica variety. However, his genetics are identical to him. It is found in the Blue Mountains region of Jamaica, as its name suggests, but also in Haiti, Hawaii and Kenya. For many, Blue Mountain is synonymous with finesse: supple acidity, a creamy body and floral and chocolate aromas.
the Kent was discovered on the Doddengooda Estate in Mysore, India. Unlike other coffee trees on the plantation, a shrub had the ability to resist coffee rust-causing fungi. This was a natural mutation. Kent has become popular in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Unfortunately, this variety is no longer as well adapted to today's more virulent forms of rust.
the Kona is a mutation of Typica. Introduced in Hawaii in 1825, coffee trees have adapted to the microclimate of the islands, to a lower altitude and to the very rich volcanic soil for coffee growing. Since it grows in a variety of environments, its profile varies from one environment to another. It can taste delicate and floral or more tangy, sweet and syrupy.2
the Maragogype is a mutation of Typica discovered in Brazil. Its grains are particularly long, which explains its nickname of elephant grains. Maragogype grows in Central America, Mexico, Peru and Brazil. It is said to have a lower yield and the ripening of its cherries is slower.e.
the Pacamara is a hybrid of Pacas and Maragogype developed by the Instituto Salvadoreño de Investigación del Café in El Salvador. Although it represents only 1% of the country's coffee trees, its organoleptic qualities have made it famous, especially during Cup of Excellence competitions.3
the Bourbon is one of the most cultivated varieties to date, just like Typica. This variety comes from a mutation of a tree planted on Bourbon Island (now Reunion Island) by France. It was in 1715 that coffee trees from Yemen were delivered to Reunion. Of 60 shrubs, only 20 survived the trip, then three years later, only one managed to acclimatize. Despite the bad beginnings, the preciously harvested seeds have ensured the long-term cultivation of coffee trees on the island. It took until the middle of the 19th century for Bourbon to be cultivated in other regions such as Brazil. At present, there are several variants of red Bourbon, namely yellow Bourbon, orange and pointed.
the World Novo is a natural hybrid of the Typica, Sumatra and Bourbon sub-varieties. It was discovered in Brazil in 1943 and has been widely distributed by the government since the 1950s.4 It is easily grown at altitudes of 1000 meters to 1200 meters, which are common in this country. It is considered to have a good yield and is more resistant to many diseases.
the caturra is a natural mutation of red Bourbon discovered in plantations in the Minas Gerais region, then selected by the Agronomic Institute of Campinas in Brazil in 1937. Smaller in size, Caturra makes it possible to place coffee plants in a more compact way in order to obtain a higher production for the same space in addition to facilitating harvesting by hand.
the catuai is a hybrid of Caturra and Mundo Novo created at the Agronomic Institute of Campinas in Brazil in the mid-20th century. The idea was to combine the resistance of Mundo Nova with the smallness of Caturra plants.
the SL-28 was created by Scott Laboratories in Kenya in the 1930s. This variety offers very fruity notes in the cup, which makes it popular.5
the Gesha (Geisha) is from the Gori Gesha forest in Ethiopia. In the 20th century, this variety was established in particular in Costa Rica and Panama. More often than not, the Gesha delivers a cup of unparalleled quality. As an indication, its grains are regularly rated above 90 points on a scale of 100 by the experts at Q Grader. This variety was notably put forward in 2005 during the Best of Panama competition. It is its delicate, very fragrant aromas with an unusual lingering aftertaste that make it special.6
Heirloom is the generic term used to refer to varieties endemic to Ethiopia. Since there are thousands of varieties of coffee trees in Ethiopia alone, this term is used to group together under the same hat a set of hybrid or non-hybrid varieties found in the wild or cultivated. Some criticize the term, since it hides under a single name a wide range of cultivars and does a disservice to the important works of documentation seeking to list and distinguish them. For those who are interested in this question and want to know more, we recommend reading the book A Reference Guide to Ethiopian Coffee Varieties by Getu Bekele and Timothy Hill.7
Robusta, this somewhat despised species
We know that Robusta has a bad reputation with coffee lovers compared to Arabica, due to its generally more woody and bitter flavor profile. Which explains it: its green beans are richer in caffeine and with caffeine also comes a greater bitterness. In addition, these contain less oil (60% less oil than Arabica to be exact). The oils serve to retain volatile compounds that are only released during the infusion. Robusta therefore retains less and offers a simpler cup. In the coffee industry, this species of Coffea is mainly used for the manufacture of inexpensive instant coffee or in certain blends intended for espresso. However, it is debatable whether the unfavorable taste of Robusta is due solely to its chemical composition or to other factors such as production and roasting choices as well as selective mutations over time. This is what the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) has noticed:
« Robusta is often overlooked due to its traditionally poor quality which is in fact directly related to the way it is processed. Often, Robusta beans are marketed with hundreds of defects and cup quality is not a priority. But what if the grains are handled correctly could have a huge impact not just on the farmers who produce it, but on all parts of the supply chain. Robusta represents 40% of world coffee production. »8
To improve the quality of Robusta batches, a few solutions have been put forward. This implies transformations from the beginning to the end of the process, either in the methods for growing and harvesting the coffee cherries, in the expectations of the industry and consumers, in the roasting and in the evaluation of the beans:
- Improper methods of picking coffee cherries, such as storing at high levels of humidity, can result in sour, earthy, and cardboard tastes in the cup. Already using the same harvesting and processing techniques as for Arabica, this could improve the fate of Robusta.
- A change of mentality regarding this species of Coffea is also necessary in order to open the market to good quality Robusta. Robusta can be quickly rejected even if some growers use the best methods to grow it. If Robusta is denied access to specialty markets out of hand, producers will not be encouraged to invest further in improved grain processing.
- Knowing the peculiarities of Robusta during roasting also allows you to achieve a superior result. For example, crack is said to be barely audible when the Robusta bean wall breaks. Additionally, rather than roasting the Robusta very dark, a lighter roast could result in a more balanced, clean, and sometimes even sweet cup.e.
- Robusta has a completely different profile from Arabica, since they are two separate species. Comparing them during a cupping session will certainly devalue the Robusta beans. However, it has properties appreciated by some coffee consumers: its body and its lack of acidity. As Robusta grows faster and is more resistant to temperature variations and diseases, some say that with climate change and the growing demand for coffee, part of the future of coffee lies in improving the quality of batches of Robusta.
All told, some varieties of coffee trees offer a distinctive flavor profile at their base. Others let themselves be shaped by their environment, by the way the cherries are grown, by the post-harvest treatments chosen by the coffee growers and by the roasting process. There is even a wild species of Coffea, Coffea Charrieriana, spotted in Cameroon in 2008, which has the particularity of producing beans that are naturally caffeine-free. We can say that the varieties of coffee trees form a universe to be discovered in oneself and bring us back more precisely to the very source of coffee, namely the cultivation of fruit trees.
1. Gloria Montenegro and Christina Chirouze, Coffeeology, p. 30-32
2. Gloria Montenegro and Christina Chirouze, Coffeeology, p. 36.
3. For the entire Typica section: The Coffee Roaster's Complete Guide to Coffee Varieties and Cultivars, Daily Coffee News.s.
4. Mundo Novo, World Coffee Research.h.
5. James Hoffman, The World Atlas of Coffee, p. 23-25.
6. The Rise of Gesha: Getting to Know the Famed Coffee Variety, Barista Magazine.e.
7. For the entire Bourbon section: The Coffee Roaster's Complete Guide to Coffee Varieties and Cultivars, Daily Coffee News.s.
Research and writing: Chloé Pouliot