Species & Cultivars
‘Coffee’, is a common enough term. ‘Arabica’, you have probably heard of that too. What about Canephora, Eugenioides, and Liberica? These are all species of the plant genus Coffea. And whilst almost 90 percent of the coffee we drink is Arabica, some of these other species are starting to become big names in the industry. The history of Arabica is long and very interesting; and whilst we know it originated in Ethiopia, and then made its way to Yemen (hence ‘Arabica’), the genetic lineage becomes increasing disputed thereafter. As for the other Species, their genetic chronicle is often even more complex due to the significant lack of research conducted upon them.
Firstly, Canephora. It is commonly referred to as ‘Robusta’, and is named so due to its ‘robust’ nature, such as being more resilient to disease, pests, and generally giving higher yields to farmers — but this all comes at a price. Robusta is generally considered to have a lower cup quality than its sisters, however that does not stop it being a popular choice — or even a bad one — since many up-and-coming cultivars like Castillo are actually genetically part-Robusta, and can still taste phenomenal.
The remaining two species on this list are very rare, and also very expensive.
Eugenioides is increasingly common over the last few years, but the chances of being able to buy some from a local specialty roaster are slim to none; it was however, the coffee used by some Barista Championship and Brewer’s Cup Championship competitors who have either won the title or received very high scores. The Eugenioides species is known for having significantly lower caffeine content, very small bean size, and this together produces higher than usual sweetness and body, but with very little comparative acidity. It also has very low yields, with a tree producing on average only 150g of unmilled coffee, whereas the typical Arabica plant will yield just under a kilogram of green coffee even after having been milled.
Liberica is another species, with equitable caffeine levels to Arabica, but with a sugar content of up to 20 times higher. It is known to have the potential for great cup quality, full of very fruit focused notes, but only if under the right conditions, as it is very temperamental regarding its cultivation; it has to be processed up to 30 minutes after being picked perfectly ripe, and if this not done right, it can have very unpleasant notes which are often described as being very ‘leathery’ and ‘unclean’. This is the main reason why it is seldom cultivated, even when considering that it is much easier to plant and grow, for it can survive in a much wider range of climates, soil types, and altitudes (it can even grow at sea-level, whereas most other coffee species must be at least 700m above sea level). It is, unfortunately, also very rare, with Malaysia being its largest producer.
These are not the only ones, there are many more species, such as Stenophylla and Excelsa, but the chances of ever encountering these is very unlikely — even more so than the others featured on this list.
Varietal, Variety, Cultivar?
Let’s begin by clearing up these terms, as we are sure you have encountered all of them before. They are often used interchangeably in the industry, but there is a big difference. Firstly, ‘Varietal’ is an adjective, and ‘Variety’ is a noun; so coffee can be described as ‘varietal’ (in that it possesses variation), but the variation itself includes a range of ‘varieties’. But the word variety, in this context, would refer to naturally growing coffee, yet almost everything we drink is cultivated, and developed with selective breeding (in some cases genetic modification); it is ,therefore, arguably more accurate to refer to all the following as ‘Cultivars’, as opposed to ‘Varieties’.
The genetic history and diversity of coffee is fascinating and broad, and whilst it would be futile to cover it all here, we will introduce you to some of the most common or interesting ones. You can always find out more information about specific cultivars online, and we find that the World Coffee Research’s ‘Variety Catalogue’ is an amazing tool to do this.
There are four primary distinct categories for coffee cultivars, and we will briefly discuss the more significant cultivars in each category, all within the Arabica species, as this species is far more common and much better catalogued.
Heirloom, or landrace, is the collective term for the many cultivars extant across Ethiopia and its surroundings, some of which are harvested elsewhere, but many are entirely unique to these areas; it is estimated that there are over 10,000 distinct cultivars across Ethiopia today, and for a long time none of these were recorded officially, except for a few which were named after the areas they grew in, such as Gesha, Wushwush, and the Sudan Rume (RS-510), found just across the border in the Boma National Park. However. In 1974, the Jimma Agricultural Research Centre (JARC), began categorising the distinct varieties into a catalogue which is expanding to this day, and includes cultivars such as 74110, and 74112.
2) TYPICA/BOURBON FAMILY
The largest and most common category is all those which have developed from the Typica and Bourbon cultivars which were first brought to Yemen from Ethiopia around the 15th century. Some are naturally mutated, whereas others are either selectively bred or even cross-bred.
Whilst there is likely no ‘original’ coffee, Typica is the cultivar with the longest genetic history we know of, and a lot, if not most of Arabica coffee comes from here. It is known for its bright clean complexity, but has very low yields, tall trees which make it harder to harvest, and it is susceptible to many common coffee diseases and pests.
Bourbon is the other cultivar from which most coffees have developed and mutated. It is similar to Typica, but has green leaves instead of bronze, slightly larger beans, and is generally considered to have a sweeter, more balanced cup profile. It can ripen red, yellow, orange and pink, so you may see terms like ‘Pink Bourbon’ around.
Caturra is a natural mutation of the Bourbon cultivar which was discovered in Minas Gerais, Brazil. And despite its still relatively small yields, and susceptibility to disease, it has much smaller tree sizes, making it easier to harvest in a shorter amount of time. The Caturra would also go on to be a parent plant of the Catimor families mentioned later on this list.
Mundo Novo is another common natural mutation of Bourbon, also discovered in Brazil, but was remarked for having much higher yields than other cultivars, making it more economical to grow despite it taking longer to mature.
Catuai is a cross-breed of the Mondo Novo and Caturra cultivars, and was first introduced in Honduras, being very popular due to its plant structure allowing the trees to be planted in much closer proximity than before, thus increasing economic output over a fixed land mass; this structure also made it easier to protect from pests. It has two strains, the red and yellow types, both of which can survive very well at higher altitudes, and thus produces much brighter coffees with more dominant acidity.
Another natural Bourbon mutation, discovered by the Pacas family on their farm in El Salvador, hence its name. It is noted for its dwarf plants, higher yields, and similarity in cup profile to Bourbon, making it a great choice for farmers seeking to economise.
The similarly named Pache is another dwarf plant but from Guatemala, and naturally mutated from Typica instead, possessing very similar qualities to Pacas, but noted for its larger bean sizes.
Discovered in the Brazilian city from where it got its name, Maragogipe is a very unusual cultivar naturally mutated from Typica, the plant has very tall trees and is distinguished by its exceptionally large bean size, which in the cup produces enhanced sweetness.
Pacamara is one of our favourites. It is a El Salvadorian cross-breed between the Pacas and Maragogipe cultivars, and in addition to retaining the large bean size of its parent, it is renowned for its exceptional cup quality, full of sweetness, clean sparkling acidity, and bright floral notes.
Selected by Scott Laboratories in 1935, this Kenyan cultivar is world famous for its distinct blackberry notes, and is very sought after. It continues to be grown in Kenya, but is now cultivated across the globe, primarily in Costa Rica. It was selectively bred to make delicious coffee more economical in Kenya, and as an improvement over the SL-14 that came before it. It has high yield, is drought resistant, and great cup quality, making it an excellent choice. It is also noted for its rusticity, which is the ability to be left untended for decades at a time and still grow healthily and effectively; some of the SL-28 plants in Kenya are over 60 years old, which is much longer than the usual coffee trees life. A newer version, SL-34 has been created, but is considered less desirable than the SL-28.
Created in Ecuador by combining Red Bourbon and Typica, Sidra is a perfect balance of its parents, with the sweetness and body of Bourbon, and the bight crisp acidity of Typica. Unlike most other cultivars, this one was designed only to achieve the best cup quality, as opposed to engendering benefits regarding its agricultural performance. It is because of this, that Sidra is harder to grow, but with very desirable cup quality, making it very popular, rare, and often quite expensive.
Villa Sarchi is a Costa Rican cultivar, with average yields, taste, and susceptibility, but was remarked for being able to withstand higher altitudes (and the strong winds that come alongside it), helping to generate more brightness in the cup. It is not widely cultivated as it is, but has become more prominent as a parent plant for the Sachrimor group of introgressed coffees, which is discussed later on in the list.
Kent is highly productive cultivar with disputed origins; some believe it naturally mutated from Typica in India, whereas others posit the hypothesis that it was selectively bred in Kenya. Either way, it is a very common cultivar in both of these countries, and is known for average tolerance to leaf rust, but has generally mediocre cup quality.
An important cultivar from the earliest coffee cultivation in Yemen, where coffee was first brought outside of its native lands in Ethiopia. Just like Ethiopia, however, Yemen displays a very unique genetic diversity, considered by organisations like Qima to be a distinct ‘mother population’ of coffee variety, which does not fall under the Typica/Bourbon population. Along with Udaini, and Raymi, Mocha is one such heirloom found in Yemen, named after the port-city it was cultivated around, and renowned for its distinct rich chocolatey flavour profiles, which is how we have ended up with the term ‘Mocha’ (as well as the Moka Pot).
Originating in the district of Gesha, in Ethiopia’s Keffa Zone, this coffee was brought to Panama and cultivated there; it has gone on to become one of the most cherished cultivars in the world, frequently scoring very highly, and fetching record breaking prices. It has average yields, and is mildly tolerant to leaf rust, but has outstanding cup quality, bringing distinct floral notes and intense stone-fruit character like peach.
Another exceptional coffee originating in the fertile highlands of Ethiopia, it was brought from its local area of Wushwush, to South America (most notably Colombia) where it continues to grow to this day, producing arguably some of the highest quality coffees in the world, compensating for its low yields and its rarity. If you see this around, be sure to try it.
Introgression is a genetic term for the cross-over of species, and the coffee cultivars featured here are all cross-breeds between Arabica and Canephora (Robusta) plants, in an attempt to rescue desirable traits from both species, like the resistance of Canephora, and the taste quality of Arabica.
Discovered on the island of Timor, this cultivar is a naturally occurring cross-breed between Arabica cultivars, and the Canephora cultivars which were more abundant on the island. Because of this cross-breeding, Timor Hybrids display traits of both parents, but can differ from plant to plant, often with the increased yields and disease resistance of Canephora, but with the generally more pleasant taste of Arabica. It is known for having a slightly herbaceous taste to it, but can still taste pretty good, and has gone on to be a parent plant for most introgressed cultivars that have improved quality.
Catimor is actually a group of coffee cultivars, which can vary in taste and agricultural attributes, but were all created by cross-breeding the Arabica cultivar Caturra, and the Canephora cultivar Timor Hybrid. There is great variation in this group, such as the Catimor 129, which has good cup quality, very high yields and great disease resistance, making it a very popular choice, in contrast to IHCAFE 90, another Catimor, but generally considered to have poor cup quality and high susceptibility to disease.
Another group of coffees, but created by crossing the Timor Hybrid with Villa Sarchi instead, and also displaying wide differentiation of the cultivars contained in this group, such as the average but robust IAPAR 59, and the much more desirable Parainema cultivar.
Created by crossing Red and Yellow Caturras with an unknown Canephora cultivar, then back-crossing with Mundo Novo, this Brazilian cultivar has high yields, good resistance, and moderate taste. Like its Caturra parents, it posseses both Red and Yellow variations, and similar albeit less desired taste qualities.
Not to be confused with the similarly named Catuai, Catucai is a cross-breed of Caturra and Icatu, and is considered an improvement over its predecessors agriculturally. Created by the Brazilian Coffee Institute in 1988, it has high yields and strong resistance to leaf rust, with average cup qualities.
Named after Jaime Castillo who discovered it in 2005, this cultivar is one of many in a chain of experiments by the Colombian coffee group CENICAFE, to produce better tasting, more resistant coffees by mixing Caturra and Timor Hybrids, but with better results than its Catimor counterparts. Castillo has gone on to produce coffee, often enhanced by experimental processing methods like Thermal Shock, and extended anaerobic fermentation.
Another, earlier, result of CENICAFE’s experiments with Caturra and Timor Hybrids, but this time utilising Bourbon as a cross breed parent as well. Created in 2002, the Tabi varietal is very popular, and considered widely to be the best cultivar produced by CENICAFE, it is renowned for its distinct taste profile of dried tropical fruits, and it became so popular with Colombian farmers, that it was named ‘Tabi’, which means ‘Good’ in Guambiano, the dialect of a local Colombian tribe.
Arguably the most successful introgressed coffee, created by the Coffee Research Institute of Kenya, and released in 2010. It was created by meticulous tree selection from late generation crop of Riuru 11, and is genetically very mixed, containing elements of many cultivars like SL28, SL34, Sudan Rume (SR-510), N39, K7, SL4 and of course the Timor Hybrid. This complex mixture worked however, as it has very high yields, moderate resistance to disease, and very good cup quality.
4) F1 HYBRIDS
F1 hybrids are coffee bred under very strict controlled circumstances in labs, designed to be the best tasting, the highest yielding, and the most resistant to disease. The project was born from necessity, as the genetic variation of Coffea, especially Arabica, is actually really narrow, and all these cultivars mentioned so far share a large majority of their genetics. Because of this lack of genetic diversity, diseases or issues that one cultivar faces, will likely affect another, and therefore renders these Arabica cultivars as vulnerable. The F1 in the titles, stands for First Generation, because these crops are created by cross-breeding distant Arabica cultivars, and are selected for traits that will not be carried on down the genetic lineage, meaning that the F2 crops from the same selection will not posses the same traits initially selected, therefore they can only be reproduced by a method called ‘Clonal Propagation’. It is because of this the F1 hybrids are very hard to grow, and require lots more labour, time, and knowledge, and this is the primary reason they are very rare, despite being introduced into certain farms across South and Central America. It is a very complex but fascinating topic, and there is plenty of information regarding it to be found online.
The most common F1 Hybrid at the moment, Ruiru 11, is another important East African cultivar, developed in Kenya by the cross breeding of many existing cultivars like SL-28, Sudan Rume (SR-510), N39 and more, designed to be increasingly drought resistant, high yielding, and with good cup quality.
By combining Caturra and a cultivar called Ethiopian Wild Ascension ET41, a distinct Ethiopian Landrace at the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE), this F1 hybrid is noted for world-class exceptional cup quality that can surpass many Gesha coffees, and it still has moderately high yields.
This cultivar won the Nicaraguan Cup of Excellence award in 2017, fetching a score of over 90, and is a testament to the things F1 hybrids are capable of. It was created by combing the T5296 Sachrimor with the much-loved Sudanese Landrace, Sudan Rume (SR-510).
Created from the T5296 Sarchimor, and an Ethiopian Landrace, this cultivar has high yields, great resistance to leaf rust and pests, and is noted for having very good cup quality.
One of the few F1 Hybrids to be consistently grown across South and Central America, H3, a non-introgressed cross-breed of Caturra and Ethiopian Ascension Landrace E531, this high yielding, large bean, and high quality cultivar was very popular and despite not being chosen by CIRAD, the coffee research group who created it in 2000, is was favoured by farmers and is still cultivated today.