Most coffee addicts know their arabica from their robusta. However, not everyone realises that there are actually many different arabica varietals — each with their own flavour profiles.
The type of arabica bean a plantation chooses to plant usually depends on a range of issues, including weather resistance, yield and flavour. The most popular varietals deliver smooth and complex flavours that are popular with Western consumers.
If you drink real coffee regularly, there’s a chance one of these arabica varietals is in your kitchen right now.
Bourbon arabica plants deliver relatively high yields, and they produce fruit that is small and dense compared with other varietals. These beans are produced at altitudes of between 3,500 and 6,500 feet, but because they mature relatively quickly, they are at an increased risk of being blown off branches by wind and rain. A cup of joe made with bourbon beans is just about the best money can buy.
Typica beans also deliver coffee of the highest quality. Typica trees are relatively high, which can make harvesting a little harder. In addition, yields are inferior to those delivered by bourbon trees.
Catuai coffee plants deliver very high yields. They also hold onto their fruit well, which makes them suitable for growing in areas that experience frequent poor weather conditions.
Catimor is actually a cross-pollinated species that was developed in Portugal during the 1950s. It is a cross between timor and caturra coffee, and delivers some of the highest yields of all the popular arabica bean varietals. The species does experience difficulties in both high and low altitudes, however, and it can be susceptible to inclement weather conditions. The highest quality catimor coffee is grown at altitudes greater than 4,000 feet.
Caturra is a mutated version of bourbon, and is indigenous to Brazil. This is a robust varietal that adapts well to most environments. However, the best quality is achieved at relatively high altitudes that enjoy lots of rain. Unfortunately, yield reduces significantly with altitude, which is why this varietal is not always financially viable.
The kent varietal is known for its very high yields and its unusual level of resistance to coffee rust. Although the cup quality it delivers isn’t fantastic, kent is growing in popularity because of its economic viability.
Pache colis is indigenous to Guatemala, and produces large fruit with a high level of resistance to phoma. This coffee thrives in relatively low temperatures and high altitudes — delivering modest yields and reasonable cup quality.
Mundo novo is a typica/bourbon hybrid that delivers exceptionally high yields and a high level of resistance to disease. This varietal takes a little longer to mature than others, which often makes for a more intense and complex flavour profile.
This is one of the tallest species of coffee tree, which produces very large cherries. While yields are relatively low, maragogype delivers a unique flavour profile that attracts a premium in Western markets.
Blue Mountain is perhaps the most famous arabica varietal of them all. It is known to have a very high level of resistance to the coffee berry disease. However, it typically grows at very high altitudes, which makes growing and processing very expensive. Blue Mountain is versatile and robust, but it delivers a stunning blend of acidity and earthiness — making it the king of coffee beans.
The next time you buy some coffee beans, try to find out which varietal — or varietals — you’re getting. You never know… you might just have a favourite!