Just as different types of grapes will radically influence the flavor of a wine, the type (or types) of coffee beans that go into your coffee can drastically change its flavor, aroma, body and chemical composition. Learn about each of the major coffee varieties and cultivars, including where it's grown, how it's used, what it's like in the coffee cup and more with this guide.
Arabica coffee plants (Coffea arabica) are the preferred coffee species for most coffee growers. They make up about 70 percent of coffee production worldwide, despite the fact that they are less robust and harder to grow than the aptly named Robusta coffee plant. So why are they so popular? It's a matter of quality.
In the cup, Arabica coffee has a much more delicate, rounded flavor than Robusta and many other varieties of coffee. Although there are many types of Arabica coffee available from many different parts of the world (each exhibiting its own terroir), Arabica coffee beans can generally be described as sweet and soft, with notes of berries, other fruits and sugar. Many have a "winey" note (akin to a bold red wine, with plenty of acid and tannins). Some are sharp and tangy, some have a distinctive blueberry note after roasting, and some are floral, light and highly fragrant.
This range of flavors is highly influenced by terroir, and is a large part of the appeal to coffee drinkers. And this is part of the REAL reason why coffee growers prefer Arabica--money. Growers have a lower yield when they plant Arabica coffee, but can get more money for their coffee when they grow Arabica. The extra work and risk pays off for most growers because the extra cost is worth it for most coffee drinkers.
Arabica coffee varietals require a cool, tropical climate, and moist, rich soil to thrive.
Their trees usually prefer an altitude of 600 to 2000 meters. They are vulnerable to cold weather. Arabica plants are native to the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia, the Boma Plateau in southeastern Sudan and possibly Mount Marsabit in northern Kenya, but are now grown in many other regions around the world.
Arabica varieties, hybrids and cultivars and their growing regions include:
- Arabigo (a variety of coffee that evolved out of Typica in the Americas)
- Arusha coffee (a Typica or Bourbon cultivar grown in Tanzania and Papua New Guinea)
- Bergendal coffee (a Typica variety grown in Indonesia)
- Blue Mountain (a mutation of the Typica variety originating in Blue Mountain, Jamaica, but now also grown in Cameroon, Hawaii, Kenya and Papua New Guinea)
- Bourbon (a unique variety which originated on the French island of Reunion near Madagascar and later spread to Rwanda and much of Latin America, especially El Salvador; sometimes known as "French Mission" coffee when grown in Africa; this major subcategory of Arabica coffee has produced many commercially grown mutations and hybrids over the years; known for its balance and complex acidity)
- Catui (an Arabica hybrid grown in Latin America)
- Caturra (a high-yield mutation of Bourbon coffee plants grown in Latin America and Central America; known for its bright acidity)
- Chickumalgu (a variety of coffee that evolved out of Typica in India)
- Criollo (a variety of coffee that evolved out of Typica in South America)
- Ethiopian Heirloom (varieties of coffee that evolved out of Typica in Ethiopia)
- Gesha / Geisha (currently the world's most expensive coffee variety; originally from Gesha, Ethiopia, and now grown in Panama, Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru, Tanzania and Ethiopia; known for its clean, sweet, fruity flavor)
- Kents (a variety of coffee that evolved out of Typica in India)
- Kona (a variety of coffee that evolved out of Typica in Hawaii)
- Maragogype (a natural mutation of Typica coffee, originating in Brazil and grown in Latin America)
- Mayagüez (a cultivar of Bourbon currently grown in Rwanda)
- Mundo Novo (a Bourbon / Typica hybrid)
- Pacamara (a hybrid of Maragogype and Pacas bred for larger coffee beans and grown in Latin America; known for its balanced, citrusy, floral flavors when grown at high altitude)
- Pacas (a mutation of Bourbon from El Salvador; grown in Latin America)
- Pache Colis (a hybrid of Pache Comum and Caturra known for its large coffee cherries)
- Pache Comum (a mutation of Typica)
- Pluma Hidalgo (a variety of coffee that evolved out of Typica in Mexico)
- Ruiri 11 (a hybrid produced in Kenya; known to be lower quality than most Arabica beans)
- S795 (a hybrid planted extensively throughout Southeast Asia and known for its balanced cup with subtle mocha notes; Sulawesi coffee is S795 planted at high elevation in Indonesia; S795 is also known as Jember)
- San Bernado and San Ramon (varieties of coffee that evolved out of Typica in Brazil)
- Sidikalang (a Typica variety grown in Indonesia)
- SL28 (a drought-resistant hybrid from Kenya known for its black currant notes and overall citrusy flavor)
- SL34 (another Kenyan hybrid; citrusy, with a heavy mouthfeel and clean finish)
- Tekisic (a Bourbon cultivar developed in El Salvador; known for its low yields and intense, sweet flavors)
- Typica (one of the oldest coffee varieties; discovered in Ethiopia and since grown around the world; known for its clean, sweet, full-bodied taste)
- Villalobos (a particularly sweet mutation of the Bourbon variety; originated in Costa Rica)
Of these types of Arabica coffee plants, Blue Mountain, Bourbon, Colombian, Java, Kona and Typica are the most famous.
Interesting fact about Arabica coffee: it only has about two-thirds the caffeine of Robusta coffee. That works out pretty well for people who love guzzling good coffee, especially since it's much more enjoyable to drink than Robusta!
So if people are willing to pay so much more for Arabica than for Robusta, Robusta coffee must be pretty bad, huh? In a word... yes.
The Robusta coffee varietal (Coffea canephora) is almost exclusively used in instant coffees and in cheap coffee blends as a filler for the more expensive Arabica beans. Although Robusta was named for its robust growth and resistance to disease and pests (most notably to to the coffee leaf rust, or Hemileia vastatrix), its beans have a flavor which is just as "robust" as the plants. Most coffee connoisseurs describe the flavor of Robusta coffee as bitter, acidic and harsh. But to be fair, they sometimes add that it's also grainy in flavor with a peanut-like aftertaste. So, you know... there's that, too.
Vietnam is crazy for Robusta, both as a producer and a consumer. A whopping 97 percent of their production is from the Robusta plant.
Robusta coffee is not known for its hybrids, cultivars and varieties. However, there are several interspecific hybrids bred from Arabica and Robusta. These include:
- Arabusta (grown in Africa)
- Hybrido de Timor (as it's known in the Americas, a.k.a. Tim Tim or Bor Bor in Indonesia, where it's grown)
- Sarchimor (bred from the Timor hybrid mentioned above and a Costa Rican Arabica mutation)
- Catimor (a hybrid of Timor and Cattura)
- Java (although it usually refers to mutation of Arabica, the term "Java" may also refer to Robusta coffee and interspecific hybrids grown on the same island)
Interesting fact about Robusta: Although it's not that noteworthy as a coffee plant by people, it IS preferred by the civet-like animal that "produces" Kopi Luwak (a.k.a. "Cat Poop Coffee").
Other Coffee Varieties
Arabica and Robusta coffees make up the vast majority of coffee production in the world, but there are over 100 varieties of coffee in the world, some of which are actually noteworthy. These include:
- Coffea charrieriana (a caffeine-free coffee plant from Cameroon)
- Coffea liberica (a large coffee tree that is commercially grown in Liberia)