Colombia is a land of diversity. Colossal in size, it’s also where the Andes split into three mountain ranges, creating micro-climate after micro-climate within the country. As one of the world’s largest coffee producers, Colombia has built a strong support infrastructure over the years and has a huge economic incentive to keep supporting the coffee sector. Organisations like the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros (FNC – National Federation of Coffee Growers) and the FNC-funded Cenicafe speak to this.
Cenicafe is the research arm of the coffee industry and offers technical support to Colombian coffee producers.
Various new varieties of coffee have been birthed out of Cenicafe and, perhaps more importantly, it has helped craft a culture which is both aware of and receptive to the inherent possibilities within each variety. This article tackles a few misnomers in specialty coffee, before we dive into exploring the exciting new varieties which are surfacing in Colombia.
Varietal, Cultivar and Variety.
What is a varietal?
This term is more widely used in the wine industry, as it doesn’t carry quite the same connotations in the coffee industry. A wine might be labelled a varietal (e.g. merlot or chardonnay), but it receives that label only when that varietal makes up a certain percentage or higher of the finished product. Certain bulk coffee blends might consist of a large portion of one variety, but very rarely is a specific percentage of a particular variety deliberately added to the coffee to achieve the best or most desirable ‘varietal’ blend.
Note: Some ‘single origin’ coffees could accurately be described as ‘varietals’, but others would quickly run into trouble.
What is a cultivar?
Cultivar is a broadly used term for a plant whose origin or selection is primarily due to intentional human activity. There are often legal implications for both propagating a cultivar and referencing the organisation which introduced the cultivar to commerce. However, it is important to note that cultivars are still varieties, so this is not an ‘either/or’ situation.
What about variety?
At this point, variety is the most appropriate term to use when talking about a given coffee. Coffee varieties are the taxonomic classification below the species Arabica. Based on the guidelines set by the international Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), a variety is defined as -:
A plant grouping within a single botanical taxon of the lowest known rank, which grouping, irrespective of whether the conditions for the grant of a breeder’s right are fully met, can be
- defined by the expression of the characteristics resulting from a given genotype or combination of genotypes, (All the plants look the same)
- distinguished from any other plant grouping by the expression of at least one of the said characteristics and (The plants are different to other varieties)
- considered as a unit with regard to its suitability for being propagated unchanged; (The variety is stable, meaning it can be reproduced)
As is clearly demonstrated in the table above, Arabica and Canephora (aka Robusta) are two different species of the same Coffea genus. Varieties dive even deeper into a species e.g. Typica coffee would be Coffea Arabica var. Typica. There are many varieties within each species – but it’s only when they team up with a different species that we get a ‘hybrid.’
In the strictest sense of the word, the term ‘hybrid’ is only used for crossing species i.e. Arabica and Canephora (with the most popular being the Timor Hybrid). However, this term is often used in the coffee industry to describe the interbreeding of any closely related, but still distinct, varieties. This can be naturally occurring (such as the Timor Hybrid) or intentionally planned.
Having established our terminology, let’s look at some of the more unusual varieties Colombian farmers have begun experimenting with.
Geisha is one of (if not the) most famous coffee variety! Geisha is a wild Ethiopian coffee which is now widely cultivated in Central America. It is thought to have originated in the western Ethiopian town of Gesha, which adds fuel to the debate about whether it should be called Gesha or Geisha. It was brought from Ethiopia via Tanzania to the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE) in Costa Rica.
CATIE distributed the Geisha variety widely throughout Costa Rica and Panama, where it made its way to Boquete. It was made famous in 2005 by the Peterson family of Hacienda La Esmeralda. The worldwide craze and hype associated with this variety has helped to spread it right around the globe.
This coffee is thought to be a naturally occurring Brazilian hybrid. It is a cross between Maragogype (a natural mutation of Typica) and Caturra (a natural mutation of Bourbon). This variety is often found in Central America, particularly in Nicaragua and Guatemala. I’ve found it to be dynamic; the last few times I’ve cupped it at origin, it has clearly stood out.
Tabi which means ‘good’ in the Guambiano (a native Colombian tribe) dialect, is a variety which can be aptly described as a cultivar. The Tabi variety is the result of many years of research done by Cenicafe, starting in the 1960’s. They have most recently arrived at a variety which is resistant to Coffee Leaf Rust, but which still results in quality in the cup. Cenicafe arrived at Tabi by crossing Typica, Bourbon and the Timor Hybrid. This variety was actually released back in 2002, but only seems to be gaining in popularity now.
Java is a Typica selection which is widely suspected to be the progeny of coffee introduced via Yemen to the Indonesian island of Java. From Java, this plant was first brought to neighbouring islands (Timor) and later to East Africa (Cameroon), where it was observed to be partially resistant to Coffee Berry disease, something which was a large-scale problem for African farmers. After nearly twenty years of selection, it was released in Cameroon in the 1980’s.
It has since been introduced to Central America by the Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD) and has now made its way to Colombia. It is known to be vigorous, requires low input, produces a moderate yield and shows good resistance to Coffee Berry disease in Cameroon. Cupping extremely well, Java makes an interesting alternative to Geisha.
Welcome to the newest fashion in coffee: Pink Bourbon. Pink Bourbon is a mutation of Red and Yellow Bourbon, but carries a recessive gene and is easily thwarted by the dominant yellow and red genes. For this reason, Pink (and Orange) Bourbons are very difficult to produce. Picking the ripe pink cherries is also a challenging task as it’s hard to determine ripeness. However, if farmers carefully isolate and contain a given lot, Pink Bourbon does quite well and such care preserves the unique colour and character of this variety. I have no research to back this up, but producers continually tell me that it is quite resistant to Coffee Rust, which is a huge bonus.
This article is just a brief overview of some of the varieties we’re seeing coming out of Colombia. To delve deeper into coffee varieties, explore the following resources:
World Coffee Research: Coffee Varieties of Mesoamerica and the Caribbean