Why Coffee Varieties Are Important

A typica variety coffee plant. Counter Culture Coffee on Flickr

You and I both know that there's no such thing as "just an apple." Neither of us would ever go into a supermarket, walk up to a barrel labeled "apples" in the produce section and randomly pick out any old orb, right? No: You and I both have our preferences, we know exactly what a Granny Smith or a Fuji or a McIntosh tastes like, and we know what we like and don't like. There are hundreds of varieties of apple, each one distinct and delicious, and even with their different flavors they share some quality of recognizable apple-ness.

Coffee is the same way: There are thousands of varieties of coffee, many of them as distinct from one another as a Red Delicious is from a crabapple. Yet when we walk into a coffee shop, there's that proverbial barrel of apples: "Coffee," just one word on the menu, as though all coffees were created equal.

Today, we'll explore the importance of coffee variety, and over the next few columns, we'll explore particular types of coffee to get a better sense of the Braeburns and the Galas and the Golden Deliciouses of the caffeinated landscape.

"Any time a single type of plant dominates a particular plot of land, it's vulnerable to attack from pests and diseases"

Biodiversity is important among any and all plant species, and coffee is no exception: Any time a single type of plant dominates a particular plot of land, it's vulnerable to attack from pests and diseases that can crack its genetic and natural code, so to speak. Currently, the devastating disease Coffee-Leaf Rust is ravishing plants throughout Central America; the close proximity of rows and rows of vulnerable plants makes them a natural target for the spread of the disease.

An SL-28 variety coffee plant. Counter Culture Coffee on Flickr

Throughout coffee's history, the number of coffee varieties has narrowed from the thousands that grow in its native East Africa to a handful transplanted in the Arabic Peninsula and on the island of Java, to a single plant gifted to the King of France, from which most of the New World's plants originated. Called "the Noble Tree," that French coffee shrub gave its clippings to Latin America along with the African island of Bourbon (now called Reunion); descendants of the Noble Tree are called "typica" variety. Mutating over time and in different climates worldwide, typica has become the parent strain of innumerable subvarieties.

Of course, there are also man-made varieties, hybrids designed to combat natural enemies like bad weather, bugs, pests, drought, and disease, as well as types that are more productive, or have particular flavor characteristics. While "man-made" strikes fear in the hearts of those who see visions of Monsanto monsters dancing on the grave of heirloom varieties of corn and beans, not all are evil: In fact, many experts argue that without scientific intervention, coffee runs a much greater risk of going extinct within the next generation or two.

A Geisha variety coffee plant. Counter Culture Coffee on Flickr

From a purely selfish flavor perspective, having a vast number of coffee varieties is a great thing. Just like we would all quickly tire of apples if they were all Golden Delicious, we might tire of coffee if it all just tasted, you know, like "coffee." Instead, we get to mix it up sometimes with the juicy, tropical fruity Kenyan SL varieties, or delicate and tea-like heirloom Ethiopians. There are the chocolate-cherry-like Mexican typica coffees and the supersweet, butterschotchy Bourbons from El Salvador.

In the next few columns, we'll look at individual varieties, tracing their lineage a little and examining some of their flavor and botanical characteristics. After all, as they say: Variety is the spice of coffee!