Received a great question this week: “I’ve always had a hard time understanding and explaining what exactly a varietal is, or what it means?“. We have tip-toed around the topic with discussion of specific varietals (from the archive: Caturra vs Castillo, Obatã, or Varieties vs Varietals) but never asked directly: what are they? And more importantly, how to explain them to guests at cafe or shop level?
Let’s re-hash some of those past posts:
1. Variety operates as a noun describing all the genetically distinct types or subspecies of the coffee plant. For example, Typica or Geisha.
2. Varietal works as an adjective for a specific instance on a farm. For example, we featured two different varietals from Arnaud Causse.
3. Cultivar is used interchangeably with variety, as it is a short for ‘cultivated variety’. It describes those subspecies produced by horticultural practices (rather than propagating from natural populations).
To widen scope, we have the genus of ‘coffea’. Going down a level, there are three key species: Arabica, Robusta, and Liberica. If we drop one more step, we arrive at cultivars or varieties; aka plants which maintain the characteristics of the species but contain some variation making them unique. These subspecies are mostly created in labs but occasionally will originate naturally in the wild. As you can see on James Hoffmann’s intricate timeline:
All of this is a bit of a mouthful and the great aspect of this week’s question is: how do you explain this at the shop level? Regular readers will know that I love using analogies to communicate ideas. I think the best aligned comparison points for coffee varietals are: wine, apples, and tomatoes. In wine, there are endless grape and vine variations with some very recognizable names like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, or Riesling. While each grape type is far from universal, they do operate like genres for flavour and taste, shaping the expectations and possibilities in the glass.
Equally, there are a multitude of apple cultivars resulting from grafting rootstocks. With a rough count of over 7,500 identified variations, certain apples taste sweet or tart; others are grown specifically for texture or use in cider or cooking. Some are terrible, like the ironically named ‘red delicious’, while some are perfect, like the glorious ‘honey crisp’. One last analogy: tomatoes. They too have a reported 7,500 known cultivars with major categories such as beefsteak, plum, cherry, or campari. Akin to apples, variations in size or shape serve particular purposes, be it sliced on a sandwich, plopped in a can, or built to resist drought.
The correspondence to coffee is thus twofold: first, cultivars will influence experience. Akin to how a wine, tomato, or apple varietal will present hallmark tastes, textures, aromas, and flavours, the coffee varietal will play a role in the overall sensory impression of a cup. Second, just as particular resistant qualities are bred into a tomato or an apple, the design of coffee cultivars dovetail with specific growing conditions. The vast majority of modern coffee starts with Bourbon and Typica. These two cultivars – and their various offshoots – make up 99% of Arabica coffee outside of Ethiopia. Particular hybrids combat rust leaf, like Castillo in Colombia, or work for arid climates, like SL-28 or SL-34 in Kenya.
The impact of cultivars within the overall picture of terroir explains why you see them listed on labels and packaging. Yet, one word of caution, just as they can guide a wine selection or apple purchase, they are rules made to be broken. As Ryan Brown states in Dear Coffee Buyer, “despite the romanticization of coffee varieties, more flavor-profile variation comes from soil, plant-nutrition, cherry-ripeness, and processing differences”. I like to think of origin as an assemblage of factors forming a whole, rather than isolated cause-and-effect traits. Through this lens, no coffee is divisible to a single component part.
Also for the record, a mealy Macintosh is very close to that Red Delicious in terms of barrel bottom.
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