Tasting Cultivars

Last week, we explored some analogies for coffee cultivars through comparisons to wine, apples, and tomatoes. Received a very apt follow-up: “are there general ways that a variety tastes in coffee, like there are in wine or apples?

Given my basic wine knowledge, I am little our of my depth but I do have very strong opinions when it comes to apples. Side note: my co-roaster Bruce actually defended the Red Delicious?!? To the question: Yes! There are certain tendencies in flavour when it comes to coffee cultivars, just as a grape, apple, or tomato varietals will cue taste expectations. For illustration sake, a Chardonnay could be buttery with apple, pineapple, and vanilla notes, while a Sauvignon Blanc might be fresh and herbaceous with a burst of grapefruit. In terms of apples, a Gala can be pear-like with a mellow bite, a Pink Lady may have a more floral and tropical sweetness, while a Red Delicious will always tastes like the on-set of a common cold. So, what are the flavour characteristics when it comes to coffee?

To borrow again from Ryan Brown’s Dear Coffee Buyer: “Bourbon and Typica are the parents of most modern coffee varieties, and those two cultivars are responsible for most of the flavors you associate with coffee”. For Brown, “Bourbon is likely responsible for why you think of a coffee as being chocolatey, caramelly, and rich, while Typica is likely the reason you think coffee is delicately fruited, floral, and has a long satisfying finish”. While it is true that you can see these general tendencies, they are rules made to be broken. In Bloom’s Layo Taraga, for example, is 100% Bourbon but is also 100% floral with lingering fruit flavours.

As you go down the cultivar tree, there are numerous off-shoots. Each branch sprouts varying taste expectations. Geisha is likely the most well-known for its fruit-forward intensity. The Catuai hybrid (descends from Mundo Novo and Caturra) has conflicting associations as either dry with a vegetal finish or as a perfectly sweet, clean cup. Similarly, Caturra (a natural Bourbon mutation) is often hailed for its crisp acidity or condemned for lacking clarity. In other words, spend enough time at the cupping table and you will hear contrary claims for each and every cultivar.

To re-assert my argument from last week, we should understand coffee as an assemblage. Rather than trying to totalize a cup by virtue of one trait – be it varietal, processing, roast degree, or extraction – we consider the engagement between all of these component parts. For instance, many hybrid cultivars are extraordinarily dense, meaning inner bean development is a challenge. So those ‘vegetal’ flavours might be less innate cultivar characteristics and more due to roasting approach.

The problem is isolating parts rather than holistically connecting all the moving pieces. Cultivars, like Obatã benefit from more experimental processing. A Castillo hardens on the shelf post-processing, so long gentle roasts will improve solubility and finer grinds will pop the cup. Certain fertilizers will dovetail with particular methods for wet and dry processing. Essentially, when we think about how flavour forms out of the relationships between elements in an assemblage, we push against myopic philosophies for coffee. We unlock the possibilities for the cup, break expectations, and never end up drinking the ‘Red Delicious of coffees’.

 

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