The variety play – marketing coffee by the botanical variety of the tree that produced the coffee – is one of the latest trends in the high-end specialty world. True, some roasters who submitted samples for this month’s article still confused tree variety (botany) with origin (geography), and sent us coffees from a single growing region (Sumatra, say) rather than coffees that reasonably can be claimed to have been produced from one variety of tree on the same farm during the same season. But of the fifty or so coffees we gathered for this article, thirty fit the definition we were working with: All of the beans in the bag made reasonable claim to be produced from trees of the same botanical variety of Arabica, on the same farm, often from the same field.
Among these thirty samples, twelve different varieties were represented, though only six were represented by more than one sample: the rock-star Gesha (aka Geisha) variety with nine samples, averaging almost 93; the bold-beaned, distinctive-tasting hybrid Pacamara (five samples, averaging 92); the similarly bold-beaned and distinctive Maracaturra hybrid (two samples, averaging 91), the ancient, heirloom Bourbon (four samples, averaging close to 92); the respected though not particularly distinctive Catuai (three samples, averaging a bit less than 88), and the similarly respected though not distinctive Villa Sarchi (three samples, averaging 87).
The Rare and the Regular
We also received one sample of the extremely rare Sudan Rume variety, rated 90 but not reviewed. Surprisingly, we received only one sample of pure SL 28, the great Bourbon-derived variety that, along with SL 34, produces the great coffees of Central Kenya. The engaging Papa Lin’s SL 28 Kenya Kirimahiga is reviewed here at 92.
We also tested a sprinkling of entries representing the traditional varieties that until recently stocked most of the fields of Central and South America: Typica (one sample, a very nice Ecuador Typica from Spyhouse Coffee reviewed here at 91), Pacas (one sample, 90, not reviewed) and Caturra (one sample, 89, not reviewed).
Varieties in the Big Picture
If we back off and look at the big picture, it would appear from this month’s small sampling that the more or less traditional Latin American varieties (Typica, Caturra, Pacas, Villa Sarchi, Catuai) tend to produce a solid but conventional-tasting cup that may impress but does not stand out. It is doubtless for this reason that most farmers and millers do not make a special effort to segregate these varieties and market them separately. It also appears that some producers do not make the same effort to rigorously process and grade these everyday varieties as they make with the more valuable varieties like Gesha and Pacamara. This month we had no tainted samples whatsoever among the famous, high-end varieties, but we did have three mildly tainted samples among the Catuai and Villa Sarchi submissions.
Furthermore, we tested no samples whatsoever that were produced purely from newer, disease-resistant tree varieties that introduce (through conventional plant-breeding) Robusta genes into Arabica plant material. These Robusta/Arabica crosses include the Castillo variety that currently is being pushed by the Colombian coffee authorities as a rust and disease-resistant alternative to the Caturra and Typica varieties traditionally grown in Colombia. If the Geshas and Pacamaras and Bourbons and SL28’s constitute the top tier of varietal complexity and distinction and the more traditional varieties like Typica, Caturra, Pacas, etc. make up the middle tier, perhaps the Robusta crosses might form a third and lowest tier. But that is pure assumption at this point. In my limited experience it is very difficult to consistently distinguish Caturra from the suspect Castillo in a rigorous blind cupping, whereas it is easy to distinguish Gesha and Pacamara from either Castillo or Caturra, for example.
Distinctive Looking Beans, Distinctive Cup
Inevitably, perhaps, the most popular nominations among producers and roasters for this cupping were varieties with unusual-looking beans that also promised a distinctive-tasting cup. This matching of distinctive bean appearance with distinctive cup character is useful, of course, as it gives everyone along the line, from exporter to roaster to coffee reviewer to consumer, simple visual confirmation that they are getting what they are paying for.
Gesha, the Look and the Cup
First, there is the large, elongated bean that is an unmistakable visual signature of the Gesha variety. At Coffee Review we only allow ourselves to look at samples after we have tested and rated them in the cup, so it is significant to note that generally the Gesha samples that displayed the most Gesha-like character in the cup displayed uniformly large, Gesha-looking beans, whereas samples in which the big Gesha-looking beans were mixed with significant quantities of smaller, ordinary-looking beans displayed less Gesha character. The mature, full-sized Gesha beans easily can be separated from other, less fully-formed beans by running the beans through sizing screens, but many producers or mills apparently chose not to do this.
The meticulously operated Colombia Cerro Azul farm, which over the last three years has produced a succession of brilliant Geshas, found that some trees in their Gesha fields were smaller and bushier than typical Gesha trees and were producing smaller, more conventional-looking beans. Consequently, Cerro Azul now separates the pickings from these non-Gesha-looking trees and offers them separately, calling them the “Enano” or “dwarf” variety. The one sample of this Gesha-spinoff variety we received this month (from Equator Coffee & Tea, reviewed here at 93) elicited roughly the same response as an Enano sample we cupped earlier this year: It displayed the sensory profile of a Gesha, but a quieter Gesha with rounder acidity and a bit less aromatic fireworks than, for example, the full-on, big-beaned Geshas from the Cerro Azul fields, one of which we reviewed last month at 95.
This Month’s Stand-Out Geshas
As for this month’s Geshas, the first, perhaps surprising observation is that the majority of them were processed by the “natural” method, in which the beans are dried inside the fruit, rather than by the more conventional wet or washed method, in which the fruit residue is removed from the beans before they are dried. The dried-in-the-fruit natural processing applied to all of these Geshas was meticulous, with no hint of the giddy but suspect fermented fruit notes that once consistently surfaced in dried-in-the-fruit coffees from Central America. The highest rated among these natural Geshas, sharing the lead in the ratings at 95, was the Geisha Coffee Roasters’ Mama Cata (Panama) Geisha Natural, a big, intense cup, seething with nuance and a complexity that perhaps was intensified by an unusual roast profile that promoted a dramatic difference in roast color between the outside and the inside of the beans.
The light-roasted, 94-rated Temple Panama Duncan Natural Geisha was an exceptional though perhaps polarizing coffee with its rather austere, drying structure underlying its lush, complexly layered Gesha aromatics. The very light-roasted, 94-rated Revel Coffee Guatemala Acatenango Gesha also combined a brisk yet syrupy structure with a fine complement of aromatics that tended to particularly emphasize citrus and floral notes. The medium-roasted, 93-rated Dragonfly Esmeralda Geisha Leon Natural offered still another variation on the Gesha theme, this one also rather brisk, but with more emphasis on chocolate and a bit less on flowers.
The Big Bean Varieties
The Maragogipe variety, a mutant of Typica first found growing near the town of Maragogipe in Brazil, is the granddaddy of all big-beaned Arabica varieties. Maragogipe produces disconcertingly gigantic beans, sometimes (misleadingly) called elephant beans. Maragogipe is not popular among growers, however, because it is a low-bearing tree with inconsistent cup quality.
Maragogipe’s main impact on the high-end coffee industry is in its progeny: when crossed with the Bourbon-related dwarf variety Pacas it created the second star of this month’s cupping, the Pacamara, and crossed with Caturra it appears in another successful (though less widely grown) Central America variety, the Maracaturra. Both Pacamara and Maracaturra display large, oval-shaped beans, though typically not as mammoth as Maragogipe. Both, however, are more productive trees than the Maragogipe and produce a more consistently attractive cup. The strength of the Pacamara is a deep, layered, often savory-sweet complexity supported by complete and balanced structure, a tendency well-represented in the medium-roasted, 94-rated Old Soul Nicaragua Los Congos Natural Pacamara, which displayed notes ranging from pungent (black currant) to lushly sweet (banana, jasmine) to chocolaty. The savory side of Pacamara came through more distinctly in the lighter-roasted, 93-rated PT’s El Socorro Guatemala, a wet-processed coffee with an unusual and engaging juxtaposition of complex nut, peachy fruit, bitterish citrus and spicy floral notes.
The Ancient Stand-By Bourbons
Although the heirloom Bourbon variety as it has naturalized in Latin America tends to produce roundish rather than oval beans, it is difficult to consistently confirm a coffee as a Bourbon purely by looking at bean size and shape. And Bourbon does not seem to produce a consistently distinctive cup either, perhaps because at origin Bourbon beans are too easily mixed with beans from other less distinctive varieties growing side-by-side in the same fields. We only had one big, explosively original Bourbon, perfectly structured, alive with pungent fruit and deep floral notes, a new offering from the innovating Kona, Hawaii producer Hula Daddy. We review the Hula Daddy Red Bourbon here at 95.
Other Bourbons in this month’s cupping, all from Latin America, were good to very good coffees, but did not quite pop with distinctive Bourbon character. In past single-variety cuppings we received more Bourbons and arguably better Bourbons from Latin America than we did this year; perhaps the enormous stress of this year’s leaf rust epidemic particularly sapped production of the Bourbon variety.
Nevertheless, Bourbon is a good variety play for consumers who “just like good coffee,” and who are not pursuing something particularly unusual or distinctive-tasting. The best Bourbons, like this month’s Hula Daddy, often come across as particularly intense and elegant conventional-style coffees, whereas both Geshas and Pacamaras present unusual profiles, the Geshas sweetly bright, big-bodied and dramatic with fruit, floral and cacao-like notes, the Pacamaras lower-toned and more given to resonance and richness than fruit and flowers.