What are Coffee Varietals?
What are coffee varietals?
- Differentiates coffee types
- Shapes the coffee’s profile
- Reflects the coffee’s growth
- The difference between variety and varietal
- Common coffee varietals
You’ve seen words like Typica, Caturra, or Bourbon on specialty coffee bags, and you’ve probably seen the term ‘varietal’ when roasters and baristas talk about their coffee too — but what are coffee varietals, and why do they matter? While this term is complex, we’ve come up with a simple breakdown of what they are, and why this term is important for coffee drinkers.
Differentiates Coffee Types"Varietal" is a botanical term that the coffee industry adopted from the wine industry. To a wine enthusiast, seeing a bottle labeled Merlot isn’t just a fancy name assigned at random, it means that a specific variety of grape was used to make that bottle of wine.
In coffee, the varietal tells you what type of coffee cherry the beans came from. If you see the word ‘catimor’ on the label, then you know it means that the coffee in that bag is of the catimor variety. Some other bags are a little more explicit by placing the varietal in the coffee’s description.
Shapes the Coffee’s Profile
Understanding varietals is useful to beginner and experienced coffee drinkers alike. You’ll notice that on our products, we have a section listing the varietals used. This is because each one has distinct attributes. In turn, this influences the coffee’s flavor profile.
Every varietal gives unique flavors to its coffee cherries, which are imparted to its seeds. These seeds are processed, bringing out the flavors into the roasted coffee beans we use to make our drinks.
Much like how the type and blend of grapes used in wine greatly impact its overall flavor and aroma, coffee beans do the same for coffee. Growing and processing conditions may play a significant role in coffee quality, but a varietal is what gives the foundation of each coffee's taste profile.
Reflects the Coffee’s GrowthVarietals also reflect the specific region where the coffee was grown, including soil, regional, and climate factors. It even tells you how they were cultivated and harvested by farmers, and what practices were used to draw out the coffee cherry’s intrinsic characteristics and profile.
For example, someone familiar with coffee varietals will expect that a single-origin coffee labeled “Benguet” is grown in the typical practices of that region. This tells them that the coffee was grown in the Cordillera mountains, in high altitudes, and cultivated in an area with ample shade and rainfall. They’d also know that the coffee was hand-picked, and processed naturally.
The Difference Between Variety and Varietal
In the coffee industry, people tend to use different terms when talking about coffee subspecies. While most of these terms have been defined by the Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCA), many still use them interchangeably, which is why a distinction should be made.
The word ‘varietal’ comes from the wine industry. Although ‘varietal’ can have different meanings depending on the setting, as a rule of thumb you can stick to its heritage. Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine) said that the difference is that a variety is a noun, while varietal is an adjective. So when we use the word ‘varietal’ (say, on our labels), it is usually because we are describing the coffee itself.
Common Coffee VarietalsA majority of the coffee today comes from the first species discovered in the 10th century — Arabica coffee. From this, the varietal discovered at the time is now called Typica, which produced several thousand other varieties. These were created both naturally and through crossbreeding programs to increase genetic diversity.
In addition, more Arabica varietals were also found over time, and to this day they compose a majority of the coffee grown in the industry. Here are a few common, traditional varietals that you can find on your coffee labels:
BourbonProduced from the Bourbon cultivar from the Coffea Arabica tree, it was named after the island where it was first grown. It has a higher yield than Typica trees, but still produces less than other varietals.
Bourbon cherries are small and can mature into red, orange, and yellow colors depending on the particular varietal. In general, Bourbon coffee beans are characterized by their complex acidity, balance, notes of chocolate, and caramel sweetness.
HeirloomThe name “Heirloom” was used in the early days of third-wave coffee for varietals from Ethiopia. It’s a misnomer, but the term is still commonplace. Broadly, you can classify these coffees into two types: JARC varietals — made by the Jimma Agricultural Research Centre (JARC), and regional cultivar — which grow in the wild.
While their history is long and complex, they are descendants of the Typica/Bourbon varietals of the Coffea Arabica species. There is a wide array of genetic variation and cultivation work put into the varietals under this category, and you can watch a more in-depth explanation of this here.
The Heirloom varietal is known for its intense, complex flavors, making it a favorite among coffee enthusiasts. Most drinkers describe it as fruity, floral, citrusy, and wine-like.
TypicaTypica has formed a majority of the varietals being used in the industry today. It has a low yield but produces high-grade beans that transform into an excellent cup of coffee. It has a clean, full body, with a unique sweetness that's also popular among coffee drinkers. Typica varietals are one of the most easily available, and are used in different blends.
Key TakeawayAt Plain Sight Coffee Roasters, we believe in making the coffee journey simpler for everyone. To do that, we want to help shed some light upon common coffee terminologies and practices. While this isn't an in-depth or exhaustive list of all things to know about the topic, we hope this answers the question: “what are coffee varietals?”
If you’re interested in exploring the world of coffee varietals, take a look at our specialty coffee here. We use a diverse selection of varietals, such as Red Bourbon, Typica, Garnica, Batian, Ruiru 11, and many more to make our products.