Many coffee drinkers are unaware of the existence of varietals: different strains of the coffee plant that grow cherries (and beans) with different characteristics. While growers have known about these coffee varieties for a long time, most of the attention has been paid to how resistant they are to pest or disease, or how much coffee they yield. Until very recently, neither coffee growers nor consumers have not paid any attention to how varietals affect the coffee they’re drinking.
The closest you'll get to a coffee rainbow (photo by Mad Cap Coffee)
For the foodies among us, it’s somewhat of a shame. Some drink (or don’t drink) wines based solely on the grape (no merlots please). Even when it comes to apples in the supermarket you know that you have options and know that certain are better for baking, some are better for applesauce, and some are best plucked right off the tree as a snack. Yet no one looks at a bag of coffee and thinks, “oh pacamara, that’ll be a nice citrusy cup just the way I like.”
"Pacamara is truly the honey crisp of coffee" said no one ever
Coffee varietals form like just about every other type of variation in plants and animals: random genetic mutations. Many varietals have been specifically bred for certain characteristics, like catimor, a variety with a little bit of robusta in it’s family tree that mixes hardiness and productivity, while some varietals have formed as coffee plants have been moved to different environments and slowly changed over time. We have a pretty good knowledge of varietals in many countries because when farmers started growing coffee, they based their farms off a few seed or trees they were able to sneak out of Ethiopia. This means many countries have only a few varietals growing in them, and we know them pretty well. Ethiopia is a special case—because it is the birthplace of coffee there are so many varietals that no one has ever been able to categorize all of them. The variety within Ethiopian coffee and the uniqueness of those varietals—often not found anywhere else in the world—is one of the reasons that Ethiopian coffee is so unique.
Coffee blossoms of the Gesha varietal, as noted by Serious Eats
With a new focus on varietals, there has been a change in how varietals are chosen. One of the few categorized Ethiopian varietals, Gesha, has been getting notice in the coffee world for how delicious it is. This has resulted in farms starting to grow more Gesha because they know they can ask for a higher price. Though it represents a greater level of awareness regarding This isn’t entirely new to the coffee growing world—back n the 1930s the Kenyan government had a laboratory do a survey of varietals in Kenya to find the best bets for a successful coffee future. The results were that the country should grow the varieties that became named SL34 and the now prized SL28.
SL28 — when coffee and rapper names collide (photo by Counter Culture)
Despite that research nearly a century ago, a surge in knowledge about and awareness of varietals has been a pretty recent phenomenon. Luckily, consumers have more tools at their disposal than ever. Any good roaster will list the varietals on the coffee bag, you can find coffee family trees and descriptions of varietals, and some varietals (such as Gesha and SL28, as mentioned above) are being noted for their extreme tastiness. In 2013 Mad Cap Coffee even released a varietal series that featured coffees sorted by varietal from one farm (and coffee nerds everywhere drooled). So the next time you pick up a bag of coffee, take a look at the varietals on the bag, even if just to appreciate the diversity in the coffee world! Stay tuned for the next piece in the series where we'll take a look at how climate, weather, soil and more can affect the flavor of your coffee!