One may think the only varieties of coffee around the world are just Arabica and Robusta, but certainly not! However, Coffea Arabica, known as Arabica coffee and Coffea canephora, known as Robusta coffee are the two main species of coffee that are cultivated today. Arabica accounts for 75-80 percent while Robusta accounts for about 20 percent and differs from Arabica coffees in terms of taste. Robusta is more productive and less susceptible to plant diseases such as leaf rust but they taste in one-dimension and bitter. On top of Arabica and Robusta, there is a third main variety Liberica, but its share of the coffee production is less than 1 percent and it tastes bitter. Arabica and Robusta coffees are further divided into multiple varieties and each is unique in its taste, performance, and adaptation to local conditions.
The difference between a coffee variety, cultivar, and hybrid
In the coffee industry, we tend to use these terms interchangeably although they have specific botanical meanings.
Variety: Varieties occur spontaneously through either mutation (for instance, growing much larger cherries than other plants of the same variety), or through natural hybridization with another variety (and in rare cases a different species!). A variety retains most of the characteristics of the species but differs in some way.
Cultivar: This refers to any variety produced by horticultural or agricultural techniques and not normally found in natural populations; simply put, a cultivated variety. Most of the varieties we know in specialty coffee are really cultivars. Bourbon and Typica are some of the most widely known cultivars.
Hybrid: Hybrids are created by crosses between two different species or two different forms of the same species. Hybrids may occur through natural or selective breeding, for example, mundo novo is a hybrid of typica and bourbon. Hybrids are indicated in botanical terminology by a multiplication sign (x) between two parents.
As a matter of fact, Arabica itself is a relatively recent hybridization of Robusta (Coffea canephora) and another, lesser-known species of coffee known as Coffea eugenioides. Thousands of natural varieties of Arabica continue growing in the wild in the area in Eastern Ethiopia where this hybridization happened!
The choice of coffee variety is a major decision for a coffee farmer. Normally the varieties with the best flavor have a smaller yield. However, new, more productive coffee varieties with better taste are constantly being developed all over the world. Important to note is that the more traditional varieties have still maintained their positions in the taste tests and all of the most known coffee varieties are Arabica.
The most famous Arabica coffee varieties
Bourbon was created on the Island of Bourbon, in the Indian Ocean off the East Coast of Africa, in the 18th century. It is the other of the two main varieties of Arabica along with Typica. The variety arrived in Brazil late 19th century and quickly spread around South and Middle America. Bourbon isn’t an extremely productive variety but produces an excellent cup of coffee. Multiple variations have been developed from Bourbon.
Catimor was created in Portugal in 1959 and is a mix between Caturra and Timor. Due to Timor being a variety of Robusta, Caltimors acidity is low and the flavor is a bit bitter. However, Catimor is a great match for the environment in Indonesia and it produces pleasantly herbal flavors.
Catuai is a hybrid of Caturra and Mundo Novo. It was created in Brazil in the 1940s and it was created to be more productive, but equally high quality as Caturra.
Caturra was created in Brazil in the 1930s. The variety is based on a natural mutation of Bourbon. It is a bit lower than Bourbon and has more branches, which makes Caturra a bit more productive. Quality-wise it is a very close match to Bourbon.
Heirloom is an Ethiopian wild variety that is an inheritor of the original coffee bushes growing in the Ethiopian forests. Nowadays Heirloom has multiple recognizable variants and is always slightly different depending on the village. Heirloom sub-varieties include Kurume and Welicho and its flavor is pleasantly acidity and juicy.
Geisha (also Gesha) is a high-quality variety that is especially found in Panama. It is originally from the Ethiopian village of Gesha. Nowadays the Geisha from Panama is considered one of the best coffees in the world and has an extremely high price.
Mundo Novo is a mix between Bourbon and Typica. The variety was created in the 1940s and is especially suited for the Brazilian growth conditions. Because of its high yield, it is one of the most famous coffee varieties grown in Brazil.
SL28 & SL34
SL28 & SL34 grow in Kenya and most of the high-quality coffees from Kenya include both of these varieties. SL comes from Scott Laboratories, a company that the Kenyan government hired in the 1930s to create a productive and resistant coffee variety. They failed in their given mission but managed to create the SL28 and SL34 varieties, that have intensely citrusy, sweet, and multidimensional flavor profiles. Among raw coffees, SL28 and SL34 are some of the most expensive ones.
Timor (also Tim Tim) is a natural mix of Arabica and Robusta that was found on the island of Timor in the 1940s. Because of the Robusta, the coffee is great at surviving with leaf rust. Timor is very rarely the lone variety in coffees.
Typica (also Tipica) is the forefather of coffees. It has spread around the world and it has adapted to local climates, creating many different variations like Kona (Hawaii) and Blue Mountain (Jamaica). Typically, Typicas yield is small, but the quality is extremely high. The flavor is often magnificently sweet and clean.
Variedad Colombia (sometimes just Colombia) is a hybrid of Caturra, created in Colombia. The strain is very productive and great at surviving leaf diseases. These have made Variedad Colombia a popular coffee variety. The flavor includes notes like classic caramel and chocolate.
Yellow Bourbon, Red Bourbon, and Pink Bourbon are all-natural mutations of Bourbon. Their productivity is quite low, but the flavor makes up for the size of the yield.
How many coffee varieties currently exist?
The number of different varieties that exist in the world is unknown. To put this into perspective, Ethiopia alone has more than 10,000 accessions collected and growing. With more productive varieties being developed while previously unknown varieties are being discovered, this number is expected to increase.
More resources about coffee varieties can be found on the links below: