In May’s Cupping Club — The Variety Show — we focused on varieties of arabica in specialty coffee. The objective was to limit the variables and compare unusual and alternative varieties to varieties used in larger production.
Our intention was not to make a point or statement, but to investigate the importance of variety and what impact it has on flavour — something the coffee industry has not always given as much consideration as other factors. The main purpose of the cupping was to question and challenge commonly used ‘coffee talk’, not necessarily the science behind it.
It's no secret that specialty coffee has been influenced and borrowed terminology and techniques from the wine industry. With wine, the variety of grape seems like the most recognised and defining element. In many ways, the grape sells the wine. People often know what to expect from a Pinot Noir or a Cabernet Sauvignon, for example. Is it the same with the definition of coffee varieties?
In the coffee industry do we display the varieties on our packaging to ‘fit in’ to some kind of specialty mould? Is it useful information for consumers? Does it give us more of an idea of the characteristics to expect from the coffee? This is what we wanted to investigate.
What are the correct terms to be using?
But before we continue, let's clear up some terminology, as research has shown wording is often misused. Here are some accurate definitions of commonly used descriptors:
Variety: in wine refers to either the grape itself (Chardonnay, Malbec, etc) or the type of wine (sparkling, red, white etc). As a technical term variety would only refer to a 'wild' species of plant, therefore anything that has been cultivated or lab developed would not be a 'variety' (i.e. nearly every type of coffee we drink).
Varietal: is used to describe the wine itself, if it is made from a single grape (so a wine made just from a Chardonnay variety grape would be a varietal wine). The coffee industry has been using this term extensively to describe the type of fruit used.
Cultivar: a cultivar is a plant that is the product of human activity, like hybrids, anything made in a lab (i.e. Scott Labs), or that's had human interaction. For coffee, this could go as far as to say that any wild coffee plant that is not growing in Ethiopia is a cultivar. In short, cultivar means cultivated variety.
At Climpson & Sons, we're going to be using the term ‘variety’ and ‘varieties’ from now on. Like many in the coffee world we were previously using ‘varietal’ which is not correct, and whilst variety isn't absolutely correct, it's a little more descriptive and digestible than cultivar.
Plus, maybe a little creative freedom is acceptable when specifically referring to coffee. After all, specialty coffee is in its infancy compared to wine and perhaps direct wine translations are now a little out of date.
So back to the main event; cupping ‘Varieties’. We thought the best way to do this was to taste coffees from the same origin and farms, processed in the same way (all but one), and sample roasted to the same profile. The idea was to isolate the variety as much as possible for tasting.
We cupped seven coffees from two farms in Colombia. Here's what was on the table:
Producer #1 (courtesy of DR Wakefield) - Café Granja La Esperanza
Region: Valle del Cauca
1. Colombia & Caturra (washed)
2. Pacamara (natural)
3. Geisha (washed)
Producer #2 (courtesy of Nordic Approach) - Juan Saldarriaga
Samples (all washed)
2. Castillo & Colombia
3. Tabi & Caturra
The first thing to acknowledge is that these are all specialty coffees, scoring 80 points or above. They’re therefore somewhat similar in quality. It would be an unfair exercise to compare commodity coffee to specialty.
The varieties we chose to cup
Geisha is often held up as the ‘Holy Grail’ of coffee varieties. Although first found in Ethiopia in the 1930s, It became famous by Hacienda La Esmeralda in Panama 2004, when their coffee won The Taste of Panama coffee competition, putting it in very large demand.
Geisha is the closest in genealogy to Ethiopian Heirloom varieties and its characteristics are closer to Yirgacheffe than a Central American coffee.
This is reflected in the price. In 2017 Geisha was sold at $601 US per pound, with a total of $368,711 US bid at the XXI The Best of Panama electronic auction. This was a world record and almost double the auctions previous record.
The Geisha we had on the cupping table was from Colombia. It was incredibly complex. Tasting notes of white tea, citrus, tangerine, and strawberry jam, with a floral finish.
Caturra is much more widely grown variety. It is a natural hybrid of Bourbon that was developed first in Brazil. It’s more disease resistant than other varieties and can grow at high altitude. It’s higher yielding than Bourbon and generally more uniformity in the size of the fruit, making it a seemingly good option for farmers.
The Caturra on the table had notes of blackcurrant, vanilla, almond with a cocoa finish.
Colombia was an obvious variety to compare when cupping Colombian coffees.
Colombia is a hybrid of Caturra and Timor and like Caturra, it’s high yielding. It was produced by CENICAFE (Colombia’s National Centre for Coffee Investigation) and developed between 1968 and 1982.
Castillo was also developed by CENICAFE and is the most farmed variety in Colombia.
It was designed to be more resilient to leaf rust and is often preferred to earlier Colombia variety efforts. It was released in 2015, so incredibly new to the coffee industry.
Pacamara is a hybrid of Pacas and Maragogype and was first produced in El Salvador in the late 1950s. The fruit and seeds are large like Maragogype, but it’s higher yielding, making it a desirable variety to grow in Colombia. Plus a draw for the consumer — big beans and big flavour.
The Pacamara on the table was incredible. Tasting notes of pineapple, banana ice cream and watermelon. This was the only natural on the table and must be taken into account for its characteristics.
Tabi is a cross between the Timor Hybrid, Bourbon and Typica, yet again developed by CENICAFE. It’s complex, high quality and resistant to disease. This makes it an increasingly popular choice for farmers. It’s a less known variety and has new intrigue surrounding it. It was originally released in 2002, but has only recently become popular.
The Tabi on the table had a fudge body and notes of honey, black pepper and cherry liqueur. We are currently featuring this coffee in the current edition of The Fields!
Fashion & Varieties
Although all of these are high scoring, specialty coffees, they fluctuate massively in price. The Geisha, for example, is seven or eight times more expensive than a Caturra, but does this mean that its seven or eight times better in quality?
The Geisha was wonderfully complex and a ‘stand out’ coffee on the table, no doubt about that.
But the Caturra and other varieties were also beautifully balanced and complex. Although the Geisha was one of the best coffees on the table, it was not seven or eight times better.
But there’s more to cost, other than the recent hype of Geisha. Geisha is notoriously difficult to grow, delicate and relatively low yielding, all this means that there’s less of it and that’s reflected in the price.
On the flip-side, it also proves that other varieties can stand up to the trendier, rarer varieties.
Many consumers and even competitors can’t afford coffees such as Geisha. It’s good to know that some of the more widely produced varieties can hold their own and have a place in high-end coffee.
Also, the more ‘available’ varieties are grown for a reason they are resilient to disease and higher yielding. For farmers, this adds an element of insurance, peace of mind and potentially higher earnings. Plus growing different varieties helps promote biodiversity on the farms. This can only be a good thing.
Perhaps fashionable varieties such as Geisha or Pacamara are becoming marketing buzzwords for specialty coffee, just like Blue Mountain or Kopi Luwak are for the more commercial market, or champagne is for the wine industry. It begs the question: Can variety be an indication of quality? Are these grandioso sounding titles used to attract the interest of consumers that want to buy into a lifestyle, rather than the product itself? It will be interesting to see if Geisha and other highly regarded varieties hit that level of notoriety as the industry progresses.
If that’s the case I think we’ll see an increase in farmers and farms aggressively protecting their varieties and their crop and farming techniques. No doubt, ownership laws and trademarks will become common practice. This has already occurred in the past, for example, La Lajas in Costa Rica tried to trademark their processing methodology because they are pioneers in Honey and Natural processing and wanted to own their techniques. Unfortunately for them, this wasn’t granted.
You’ll also notice that there were variety blends on the table:
Colombia & Caturra (tasting notes: milk chocolate, cashew, stone-fruit)
Castillo & Colombia (tasting notes: vanilla, red currant, lime)
Caturra & Tabi (tasting notes: black cherry, fig, apricot)
These were great tasting coffees. Sweet, complex and fruity. Everything you’d expect from high scoring coffees. But it poses a couple of questions: does mixing varieties at complexity e.g. gaining body from one variety and sweetness from another? Or does it create inconsistency e.g. the varieties may have different densities and perhaps, therefore, lead to inconsistent roasts? Unfortunately, we don’t have the answer for this. The coffees we cupped were sample roasts and we didn’t have the opportunity to experiment fully.
What other factors affect taste?
The cupping was insightful and in many ways very informative. However, I think it’s ultimately almost impossible to fully isolate and taste a variety alone, even if you limit the variables. There are so many contributing factors that affect the flavour and body of coffee.
This goes all the way back to terroir at farm level; soil quality, climate, altitude and the gradient at which it’s grown, and whether the coffee is shade grown or direct sunlight… These all have a massive impact on the eventual flavour. Even if coffee is grown on the same farm, the growing conditions between lots will inevitably vary. The processing of the coffees might vary too. Even if the same method is adopted, fluctuation in temperature and humidity may affect the fermentation and drying time. This, of course, will create some variation in taste.
Then, there’s influence on the coffee after leaving the farm. Transportation and shipping can have a major impact on coffee. If the green coffee is or isn’t transported in a temperature and humidity controlled environment, it will affect the flavour, and potentially lead to defects.
Then there’s the roast. The style of roast, the skill and consistency of the roaster has an enormous effect on the final cup profile.
Last of all, is the brewer. We cupped the coffees to have as much consistency and as little human influence over the cups as possible, but outside of a cupping the skill of the barista and the chosen brew method will again have a significant influence over flavour.
All in all, there are many factors that contribute to the eventual characteristics of a coffee. The closest you might get to tasting the variety alone is probably by eating the fruit straight from the tree, but this doesn’t doesn’t mean that variety isn’t important, it’s just part of the bigger picture.