Coffee Species, Varietals, Cultivars… Making Sense Out of Coffee

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Genus coffea typically have undivided leaves and comprises 100 species worldwide… Nope! This is not going to be that kind of article (although I personally like those kinds of articles!). Coffee can get kind of confusing, especially if you read those cool and informative labels and descriptions roasters put on their coffee packaging and websites. It’s hard enough to get a sense of the differences between Colombian, Brazilian, Indonesian, Kenyan etc etc coffees, but what about words like “pacarmara” and “typica” and what’s the deal with varietals and are those the same thing as varieties and what’s a cultivar and and… and then your head explodes! So, here’s a very easy beginner’s guide to the basics of coffee botany.

First, there are basically two main species of coffees we need to worry about as coffee drinkers. You’ve probably heard of both of these, our friend arabica and another, somewhat maligned species, robusta. I’ll talk mostly about arabica in this article, so let’s get robusta out of the way first.

Robusta isn’t a bad species, and you’ve probably drunk some before. Robusta is cheaper, easier to grow and has way more caffeine in it. The downside is that it doesn’t taste that great, so that’s why specialty roasters tend to shy away from it.

Robusta has a rubbery, burnt tire sort of taste, so if you’ve come across it, it was probably part of a blend and it may not have even been noticeable to you. It’s not super uncommon in espresso blends, specifically, because it creates a heck of a lot of that crema everyone loves so much! The only place I’ve ever seen pure robusta, roasted and ready for action, was at Castroni, a famous specialty food shop in Rome, Italy.I should’ve bought some to at least try, but I decided against it.

Anyway, robusta species carry about twice the amount of caffeine as arabica species coffee beans, so you’ll see it used in “death wish” high caffeine coffees, too. The problem with that is caffeine itself is very bitter, so that’s part of robusta’s flavor problems. If people are drinking coffee because they want a buzz and not because they actually like it, then they probably don’t mind completely incinerated beans, either. As such, a common tactic to deal with robusta’s flavor problems is simply to annihilate them in the roaster, then you get carbon and other flavors masking the inherent robusta flavor! Yum?

Arabica has more sugar and fat than robusta, and who the heck doesn’t like both of those?! Arabica species contain about 60% more lipids (fats and oils) than robusta and twice the sugar. They’re basically the donuts of the coffee world, so no wonder we like arabica better! To round things out, robusta grows at a way lower altitude, is way more disease-resistant, costs about 1/2 as much as arabica and the trees are shorter and easier to pick. It makes up about 25% of the coffee being planted in the world. If it tasted better (and I’m sure there are scientists working on hybrids to help this out), we’d love it more!

Arabica, then, is the species we know and love in the specialty coffee world. Within the arabica species are thousands of varieties, sometimes called varietals or cultivars or even hybrids. Think of these things like apples. If you go to the store to buy “apples” you are usually presented with at least a handful of types of apples… Honeycrisp, Jonagold, Golden Delicious, Fuji, etc. They all look different and certainly have different flavors and textures, but they are all still apples.

In that way, varieties of arabica are still arabica, but they look and taste different. A lot of the popular and common ones have names like Typica, Caturra, Bourbon, Gesha, SL-28, Pacamara, and the list goes on.

Keep in mind that some 4,000 varieties of arabica grow in Ethiopia alone, which is why when coffee roasters list the variety of coffee in a bag of Ethiopian coffee, they always write, “Heirloom.” I mean, who really knows what’s in that bag, especially when most of those varieties don’t have names?!

Stumptown has some great resources on their page, and here’s a great visual (you can click through for way more info, too) showing some common arabica varieties. Even though I compared varieties to apples, keep in mind that what ends up in your cup relies tons and tons and tons on processing, roasting and, of course, how you choose to extract/brew it.