Pacamara. Catuai. Bourbon. SL-28. Geisha. If you’re a fan of specialty coffee, chances are you’ve seen at least a few of those names on coffee labels or menus. Until recently, though, few people outside of farms and labs paid much attention to the botanical cultivars of coffee beans. This is changing as it becomes more and more evident that a coffee plant’s DNA has a major effect on the characteristics of the coffee it produces. Sure, a Catuai grown in Guatemala will have different characteristics than one grown in Rwanda because the climate and soil conditions have an effect on the chemical composition of the coffee bean; however, that same Guatemalan Catuai could hardly be mistaken for a Pacamara grown in Guatemala. Knowing the general profile of a coffee variety can help you predict the flavors and qualities you’ll find in your cup.
In the coffee industry, many people use the terms “variety” and “cultivar” and “varietal” interchangeably. The word varietal is a term derived from wine culture, where a varietal is a wine that is made principally with grapes from a single origin. If it were to be properly applied in coffee culture, it would refer to a coffee made with beans from a single origin, but it is often used instead as a synonym for variety. We prefer the botanically correct term “variety”, which refers to a plant that exhibits visually distinct, robust differences from other similar plants within the species that can be reliably propagated.
Below you’ll find some of the most common Arabica coffee varieties offered by specialty coffee roasters.
Bergendal and Sidakalang are Typica strains native to the higher regions of Indonesia, especially in Sumatra, Sulawesi and Flores. In the 1880s, Coffee Leaf Rust nearly wiped out most Typica plants in Indonesia, but these two varieties can sometimes still be found growing in remote areas.
Typical cup profile: Full body and low acidity with complex earthy, spicy and sweet flavors
Bourbon is one of the earliest offshoots of Typica. The variety was cultivated by French missionaries in the early 1700s on the island of Bourbon, which is now called Réunion, and spread from there throughout the French holdings in Africa and Central and South America at that time. Bourbon produces more coffee than Typica but it is susceptible to the major coffee diseases.
Typical cup profile: Balanced, complex acidity, bright fruit flavors, caramel sweetness
Developed primarily for its productivity and resistance to fungi such as Coffee Leaf Rust and Coffee Berry Disease, Castillo was obtained from a cross between Caturra and Timor Hybrid. Researchers affiliated with the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation´s Cenicafé have worked to create 7 regional varieties of Castillo that are adapted to the main growing regions in the country.
Typical cup profile: A matter of some debate. Generally speaking, similar to that of Caturra, though perhaps less complex.
The Catimor variety was derived from Caturra crossed with Timor, a controversial hybrid itself that was crossed with Robusta to increase resistance to Coffee Berry Disease and Coffee Leaf Rust. Catimor was introduced in the 1980s in multiple places and has diverged into a number of varieties, including Catistic from El Salvador, Cavuery from India and Catrenic from Nicaragua. While it’s hardy and resistant to many of the ailments that afflict coffee, many experts find that it’s also inherited woody and bitter flavors from its Robusta parent. Indonesian-grown Catimor, however, can shine when it is processed well.
Typical cup profile: Sour acidity, slightly salty aftertaste, astringent mouth feel. Indonesian strains may have pronounced herbal and fruit rind flavor notes.
This cross between Mundo Novo and Caturra is robust, fairly disease-resistant and widely planted in Brazil and Central America. It was developed in the 1950s and 1960s by the Instituto Agronomico do Campinas in Brazil. Its variations include Red Catuai and Ouru Verde. Red Catuai tends more toward sweetness and balance than Yellow Catuai, especially if it is grown at high elevations in soil fortified with organic fertilizers—yet more evidence suggesting the complex interrelationships that seem to exist between climate, soil conditions and variety.
Typical cup profile: Highly variable, but generally exhibits bright acidity and mild sweetness
Caturra is a natural mutation of Bourbon that was discovered in Brazil in 1937. While it didn’t do well in Brazil, Caturra flourished in Colombia and throughout Central America. When grown at high elevations, it produces fewer but higher-quality beans. Caturra is the base for a number of hybrid varieties, including Catuai, Catimor (crossed with a Robusta strain) and Maracatu.
Typical cup profile: Light body, brightly citric acidity
There are currently more than 1,000 Ethiopian heirloom varieties in production. They are similar in quality and character to the Typica varieties found in Yemen, and are believed to be the ancestors of the first coffee trees grown in the Americas. Ethiopian coffees are often seen as the standard by which all other coffees should be judged.
Typical cup profile: Light to medium body with fruity and floral, citrus or wine-like tones depending on processing
Geisha has rather rapidly established itself as a superstar coffee variety offering rich, bold flavors, silky mouth feel and superior sweetness in a clean, sophisticated cup. It originated near the Ethiopian town of Gesha, which is the proper spelling of the variety though Geisha has gained acceptance. It first came to prominence in 2007, when a Geisha from Panama’s Hacienda Esmeralda awed the judges in the Panamanian Cup of Excellence competition. Geishas have consistently scored high in competition since then, and they are increasingly available from other countries and farms.
Typical cup profile: Clean, sweet and fruity with complex layered flavors and silky mouth feel
Originating in Brazil, Icatu is a Catimor-based hybrid that has been re-crossed with Arabica cultivars for better coffee quality. It is widely planted in Brazil because it produces well, is highly resistant to disease and has better cup quality than many other Catimor hybrids, especially when it is dry-processed.
Typical cup profile: Medium body with mild acidity and sweetness characterized by plum, berry and chocolate flavors
Jackson is a Bourbon cultivar grown in Rwanda and Burundi.
Typical cup profile: Similar to Bourbon, but more delicately acidic
Jamaican Blue Mountain
Blue Mountain is best known as the name of coffee grown in Jamaica’s Blue Mountain region, but it is also the name of one of the oldest New World Typica varieties. Not all coffee sold as Jamaican Blue Mountain is grown from the Blue Mountain cultivar, and (even more confusingly) some of the best Hawaiian and Papua New Guinea coffees are of the Jamaican Blue Mountain variety.
Typical cup profile: Light, balanced and mild
An Indonesian variety of Typica, Jember was developed in India from a combination of Kent and S228 in the 1940s. It is also referred to as S795 and now grows widely throughout India and Indonesia.
Typical cup profile: Rich, heavy body with notes of maple, brown sugar and caramel
Kent was developed on the Kent estate in Mysore, India in the 1920s and was widely planted for its resistance to Coffee Leaf Rust. Most of the original Kent stock was destroyed by a subsequent wave of Coffee Leaf Rust fungus, but some heirloom trees remain here and there.
Typical cup profile: Light and sweet with low acid and hints of floral and spice flavor notes
Kona Typica has an interesting if somewhat confusing history. In the early 1800s, most coffee grown in Hawaii came from Brazilian Typica trees. In the 1890s, many of the island’s farmers switched to Guatemalan Typica trees, which are commonly known as Kona Typica. Most Kona coffee, on the other hand, contains a mix of Kona Typica, Red Caturra, Jamaican Blue Mountain, Catuai and many other coffee varieties that often grow side by side.
Typical cup profile: Clean, mild and balanced with delicate sweetness and a hint of chocolate and fruit flavor
A line of Indonesian varieties bred to resist Coffee Leaf Rust fungus. Linie S includes S795, also called Jember. They can be found in Bali, Lintong, Sulawesi, Aceh, Papua New Guinea, Flores and Java.
Maracatu, sometimes called Maracaturra, is a cross between the Maragogype and Caturra varieties. It has a larger bean than average and grows almost exclusively at higher elevations in Central America.
Typical cup profile: Moderate body with bright, complex acidity and ripe fruit flavors
This mutation of Typica was discovered in Brazil. Its enormous bean size earned it the nickname “Elephant Bean coffee”—not to be confused with the more recent fad for elephant dung coffee. Maragogype is the base for several other varieties, including the popular Pacamara.
Typical cup profile: Heavy, buttery body with floral and citrus flavor notes
Mokha, alternately spelled Mocca, Moka and Mocha, is a natural Typica/Bourbon mutation that is commonly associated with Yemen, though it originated near Harrar, Ethiopia. It is commonly grown on the big island of Hawaii and is distinguished by its very small bean size.
Typical cup profile: Heavy body with pronounced chocolate flavors and subtle dried fruit and spice notes
A natural hybrid between Typica and Bourbon varieties, Mundo Novo produces well and is highly resistant to most coffee diseases. It does well at medium to high elevations but requires a lot of fertilization and soil modification to overcome some intrinsic taste defects. Its hardiness has made it a popular base for other varieties.
Typical cup profile: Light-bodied, slightly bitter, not as sweet as Typica or Bourbon
This hybrid cross between the Pacas variety and the large-beaned Maragogype originated in El Salvador in 1958. While most Pacamara is still grown in El Salvador, it also grows in neighboring Central American countries. It grows best at higher elevations.
Typical cup profile: An exceptionally balanced cup with sweet, citric acidity and floral notes
Pacas is a natural Bourbon mutation that was discovered in 1949 in El Salvador. It was combined with Maragogype to create the Pacamara variety. The variety retains many of the qualities that are prized in Bourbon coffee but has higher yields and does well at high elevations.
Typical cup profile: Medium body exhibiting balanced acidity and sweetness, with strong floral and spice flavor notes
Pache is a Guatemalan Typica mutation discovered at Finca El Brito. It has two distinct forms: Pache Comum and Pache Colis. Both grow well and produce well at altitudes between 3,500 and 6,500 feet.
Typical cup profile: Pache Comum is characterized by a smooth, relatively flat flavor profile.
Riuru 11 is a coffee strain developed in Ruiru, Kenya to provide resistance to Coffee Berry Disease. The flavor is affected by the Robusta stock used to impart the resistance and doesn’t match the flavor and high cup quality of the SL-28 and SL-35 varieties for which Kenya is rightly famous.
Typical cup profile: Ruiru 11 has many of the qualities of a good Kenyan, but it is missing the typically complex fruit and wine flavors and often has a harsh, earthy finish.
SL-28 and SL-34 were developed by Scot Labs in Kenya and are largely responsible for Kenya’s reputation for high-quality coffee. SL-28 is a cultivar with Bourbon and Mokka inputs and has drought-resistant qualities. It is susceptible, however, to Coffee Berry Disease, which can wipe out 85% of a farmer’s crop in a single season.
Typical cup profile: Sweet and balanced with intense, complex citrus and wine flavors
SL-34 is derived from the French Mission Bourbon cultivar. Together with SL-28, it makes up nearly 90% of Kenya’s coffee output. It has higher yields than SL-28 and can grow at lower elevations.
Typical cup profile: Heavy body and mouth feel with high-toned, complex acidity and fruit/wine flavor notes, characterized by a long, sweet finish
Tekisic is a Bourbon dwarf mutation found in El Salvador. Its berries and seeds are relatively small, and its productivity is low, but the quality of the coffee is very high. It grows in Guatemala and Honduras as well as in El Salvador.
Typical cup profile: Strong body with complex acidity and intense sweetness characterized by caramel and brown sugar flavors
Typica is one of the oldest varieties of Arabica coffee— one from which many other Arabica varieties have been developed. It tends to produce little coffee, but the coffee brewed from it is generally excellent.
Typical cup profile: Clean, sweet, full body
This Costa Rican mutation of Typica offers excellent productivity at high elevations even in poor soil, making it a popular planting on Costa Rican hillsides.
Typical cup profile: Outstanding sweetness and fine acidity
Also from Costa Rica, Villa Sarchi is a hybrid of Bourbon varieties developed in the town of Sarchi. Like Villalobos, it produces well at high elevations and does particularly well on farms that use organic and sustainable methods.
Typical cup profile: Medium body with refined acidity, intense fruit flavor and excellent sweetness