The first and perhaps most important variable behind the culinary marvel we know and love as coffee is the plant’s genetics.
There are many species of coffee within the genus Coffea — including Liberica, Canephora and others — but one has been the singular focus of the specialty industry due to its glorious flavor potential: Coffea Arabica.
Within the Coffea Arabica species there is a range of individual types, each of which brings to bear a unique set of traits that contributes to the way a coffee tree responds to its environment and can serve as a predictor of taste attributes. Choices about which coffees to plant are made for different reasons, but are most often a function of tradition and localized breeding programs. In most coffee producing zones, there is relatively little diversity, and farmers continue to plant the coffee types that are most common or accessible. Flavor has often taken a backseat to other considerations such as productivity or disease resistance. But that is slowly changing, as more effort is being put into understanding the differences between coffee types and more farmers are making better informed choices about what they decide to plant.
Cultivar: Refers to a distinct variety of coffee tree, as characterized by specific botanic or genetic traits. Knowing the cultivar can help to predict some of the flavors and attributes likely to show up in the coffee. Very broadly, we can divide the range of cultivars you will find in our coffee lineup into four major categories: Traditional American, Ethiopian Landrace, Introgressed, Hybrids
Descendants of the early Typica and Bourbon populations that first seeded the New World, the Traditional American group includes cultivars such as Caturra, Pacas, Villa Sarchi, San Ramon, Pache and others.
Ethiopian Landrace refers to varieties that can be traced back to the lush forests of Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee domestication, and one of the only regions in the world where there is a natural diversity of indigenous coffee plants. Geisha and Sudan Rume are two notable examples of Ethiopian landrace coffees that have gained popularity outside of their homeland and are now being propagated throughout Latin America.
Loosely defined as “brought over,” the aptly named Introgressed varieties are formed when genes from one species are introduced into the gene pool of another. In an effort to combat leaf rust disease, experts select different types of the Timor Hybrid (a combination of the Arabica and Robusta species), and cross-pollinate them with with the highly productive dwarf species. The resulting groups of different Introgressed varieties play an important role in regions where threat from disease is prominent. Castillo, Batian, and Colombia are some examples of successful introgressed varieties. Catimor and Ruiru 11 are famous examples of introgressions that yielded coffees of notably poor cup quality.
Hybrid varieties are crosses between distinct coffee types, and can occur spontaneously or via selective breeding. Some common examples include Pacamara, Mundo Novo, and Catuai.
Within each major category, there is large spectrum of individuality. Identifying the specific cultivars responsible for the coffees we drink can help inform our expectations about taste. When picking a wine to drink we often make our choice based on the type of grape used in its production. Similarly, selecting by cultivar is a useful way to differentiate coffees, especially when comparing coffees from the same farm or same region.
Ripe Cherry Color
Coffee fruits can ripen to different colors as a function of their genetic makeup. The huge majority of Arabica coffees ripen to a fire-engine red color, but there are some that appear pink, yellow, or orange when ready for picking. The differences in taste between red cherries and yellow ones can manifest in subtle ways, and there is still much work to be done to gain more understanding of the relationship between cherry color and flavor. But we felt it would be useful to draw your attention to these interesting — and visually delightful — distinctions in the color of the ripe cherry.
Age of the Plant
Similar to grape vines used in the production of wine, the age of the coffee plant is yet another trait that can significantly impact a coffee's yield and overall quality. While older trees with established root systems will direct their energy toward fruit and seed development, newly planted trees will focus primarily on developing leaves and branches. It takes nearly a year for a cherry to mature from first flower, and three to four years for a newly planted coffee plant to produce its first fruit.