By December 5, 2011 |Reviews Tasting Report

Single-Variety Coffees: Aficionado Fun

This month’s reviews give consumers an opportunity to sample fourteen retail-roasted coffees that express a range of the cup character associated with specific botanical varieties of Coffea Arabica. The Arabica species, of course, produces virtually all of the world’s finest coffees. But within that species hundreds of distinct commercial varieties have developed. Coffea arabica is largely self-pollinating, so these varieties have considerable stability over time. Some are widely planted across the coffee world, others are only grown locally, and still others exist mainly as curiosities or material in botanical collections. If you are hazy on the varieties concept, think wine grapes – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, etc. – although wine grape varieties are propagated by cuttings and may not be as stable reproductively as their coffee counterparts.

Some varieties of Arabica, like the famous Bourbon, date to the earliest days of coffee propagation. (Two all-Bourbon samples are reviewed this month.) These old varieties are selections; in other words a farmer found a tree growing in his field that was different (a mutation) and seemed to present some advantages over neighboring trees, so he selected and planted the seed from that tree, it was good, and a new variety was born. The very distinctive-tasting varieties originating in Ethiopia, like the now famous Geisha or Gesha (two Geisha samples are reviewed this month) or the localized heirloom varieties from the Yirgacheffe region (three samples reviewed this month) are also selections.

Other admired varieties have been created through deliberate hybridization, like Pacamara (two samples reviewed this month), a cross between the giant-beaned Maragogipe variety (a spontaneous mutant of the Typica variety; one example reviewed this month) and Pacas, a mutant selection of Bourbon (one example also reviewed this month). Still other varieties are inter-species crosses, deliberately developed in order to combine the hardiness and high yield of the Robusta species with the superior flavor characteristics of Arabica. Catimor, Colombia and Kenya’s Ruiru 11 are examples.

Cup Character as Afterthought

Most of these selections and hybridizations were aimed at agricultural goals: stronger trees, higher yield, better disease resistance. Or the beans were so different-looking that the variety became popular almost solely on the basis of novelty, like the mammoth-beaned Maragogipe. But a few – not all – varieties also have proven over the years to taste different or better than others. The distinct flavor tendencies of certain varieties typically have been recognized accidentally, whether that recognition happened gradually over decades, as in the case of Bourbon, or suddenly owing to spectacular success in a green coffee competition, like Geisha.

Most varieties of Arabica taste similar enough so that identifying them by taste alone is difficult. True, some varieties tend to produce more complex and complete sensory expressions than other varieties, but their differences are not striking and vary from crop year to crop year, from farm to farm, by the age of the trees, and so on. Only a few varieties of Arabica so far in the history of coffee have proven to produce a fairly recognizable cup regardless of where they have been planted. And even with these sensory individualists the intensity of their individuality varies from farm to farm, and especially, from crop year to crop year.

All of the fourteen coffees reviewed this month are entirely made up of what producer and roaster claim is coffee from a single variety of tree, although we had to fudge a little with the Ethiopias, as I will explain later. (An aside: early in the history of specialty coffee some roasters began to use the term “variety” to describe origin. They might call any coffee from Kenya a “variety,” for example, regardless of the botanical variety of tree that produced the coffee. We do not accept this terminology at Coffee Review, and we only use the term “variety” to describe botanical variety or cultivar.) Eight varieties of Arabica are represented in this month’s fourteen reviews.

Bourbon: Refined Acidity, Pungent Fruit

This classic variety and its smallish beans typically display a particularly sweetly refined acidity and often (but not always) a pungent, dry berry aroma/flavor note that is quite distinctive and recognizable. Bourbon was first selected on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion, then called Bourbon, and subsequently was planted throughout the world and subject to further selection. In recent decades, however, Bourbon has tended to be replaced by more compact-growing, easier-to-maintain varieties with better disease resistance. Nevertheless, over time Bourbon has established a reputation for both quality and sensory distinction. See our July 2009 article Botany and the Cup: The Bourbon Conundrum.

This month we review two pure Bourbons, both rated 93 and both from Central America: the Temple Coffee Guatemala Hanupu Bourbon and the Las Chicas del Café Nicaragua Bourbon City Roast. Both display the fine acidity and cocoa-toned, dry fruit character characteristic of Bourbon, though quite differently: the Temple Hanupu is delicate and crisply bright; the Las Chicas Nicaragua Bourbon is rounder and deeper.

Geisha/Gesha: The World’s Most Distinctive Variety?

Geisha (also spelled Gesha) is so distinctive in the cup that readers have emailed us complaining that we experts may like it but to them “it doesn’t taste like coffee.” First brought to the coffee world’s attention in 2004 growing on Price Peterson’s family farm in Panama but clearly Ethiopian in origin, this variety’s sudden eruption from obscure Panama hillside to coffee stardom in the years immediate following 2004 is too involved to repeat here, but farmers across Central America are now planting it, and so far it appears to maintain its sensory distinction as it naturalizes in new locations. As is typical, however, the intensity and quality of its distinction seems to vary from crop year to crop year. Usually the Geisha cup displays its characteristically flamboyant floral, cocoa and citrus aromatics with clarity, intensity and balance; on other occasions, however, Geishas from a different crop year or a different field may be simpler and more limited in their expression of the Geisha genius, or less balanced.

Fortunately, we were able to review two excellent Geishas this month, the Simon Hsieh’s Panama Geisha (95) and the PT’s Panama Finca La Valentina Geisha (91). The Simon Hsieh version has all of the intensity and aromatic fireworks characteristic of the variety supported by a balanced and powerful structure. Owing either to the bean or to a lighter roast, the PT’s Geisha is a bit less distinctive, lacking the deeper cocoaish dark chocolate notes that typically anchor the Geisha’s extravagant flowers and citrus.

Pacamara: Big Beans and Sweet/Savory Cup

Pacamara, a cross between the big-beaned Maragogipe and Pacas, a selection of Bourbon, was first developed a couple of decades ago by coffee scientists in El Salvador. Currently it is best established in El Salvador, but is appearing in other Central American countries as well. Pacamara exhibits the big, showy beans characteristic of Maragogipe, but with a complex, possibly Bourbon-influenced cup that often displays a deep, savory-sweet character, reminiscent perhaps of dried or even stewed fruits. Café de Impression, a small Taiwanese roaster, sent an outstanding Pacamara, the Guatemala Pandora Pacamara Medium-Light Roast, top-rated this month at 96. The large, low-density Pacamara bean is difficult to roast; Café de Impression version seemed brought to a classic medium roast with particular sensitivity.

As an aside, Pacamara appears to be less consistent in sensory character than many other varieties. Samples appearing in our lab typically share certain broad overlapping sensory characteristics but often vary widely in quality. Some are ordinary, bordering on tasteless and woody, whereas others are as deep, complex and spectacular as this month’s Café de Impression sample. This inconsistency could partly be owing to the difficulties in roasting these big, corky, low-density beans, or it could be owing to inconsistencies inherent in the variety itself. At least one technician familiar with the Pacamara has reported a tendency for the variety to unravel; in other words, for the hybrid to revert to the characteristics of one of its two parents. In my experience, that victorious parent would be the Maragogipe, since the samples we find that are unsatisfactory tend to retain the large bean size, but in flavor are thin and simple, more like an ordinary Maragogipe.

The Processing Wild Card

Regrettably perhaps for the coffee scholar in us who might like to make apple-to-apple comparisons, some of this month’s single-variety coffees were subject to character-changing fruit-removal and drying procedures. Four of the fourteen reviewed samples were dried inside the fruit (the natural or dry method) whereas the other ten were dried after removal of the fruit (the more common washed or wet method). As regular readers of Coffee Review know, drying in the fruit usually intensifies the fruit character of the coffee while introducing mild ferment notes that can range from sweet and brandy-like to musty, salty or even composty. With all four of this month’s dried-in-the-fruit samples the sensory impact of the in-fruit drying was positive and pleasing, but made reading the varietal character of the beans difficult. The less intrusive, more transparent impact of wet processing allows varietal character to display more clearly, as it does in this month’s other ten samples.

Returning to Pacamaras, the Topéca Coffee El Salvador Finca Ayatepeque Pacamara (93) was dried in the fruit and also light-roasted. It is a fine, very complex, honeyish-sweet coffee with a savory hint, though it is difficult to tell how much Pacamara contributed to a character dominated by the impact of the dried-in-the-fruit processing method.

Ethiopia Heirloom Varieties

Aside from the Geisha, the world’s most distinctive coffees come from southern Ethiopia, where production is dominated by varieties only grown locally and with ancient roots in Ethiopia, the botanical home of Arabica. We debated whether to accept coffees from the Yirgacheffe and closely adjoining growing districts as “single variety” coffees. Strictly speaking, they probably are not; they probably are blends of very closely related local varieties. But given the way these coffees separate themselves in terms of cup profile from other coffees of the world based almost entirely on varietal character, we decided to include them. The Bad Beard Microroastery Organic Ethiopia Yirgacheffe (91) was the most characteristic because its wet processing revealed the startlingly clear spicy rose and lemon-lime aromatics and the light, silky mouthfeel associated with coffee from this region and its ancient varieties. As with the Geisha, many coffee drinkers will contend this coffee doesn’t taste like coffee. In fact, it suggests a floral black tea, though a very fine floral black tea and one that, well, also tastes like a fine coffee.

The other two samples from traditional Yirgacheffe-region varieties, the Coffea Roasterie
Ethiopia Gedeo Natural Process (93) and the Lone Pine Ethiopia Gedeo Microlot (92) are both dried-in-the-fruit “natural” coffees, and the brandyish fruit character overlaying pungent aromatic wood and dark chocolate bestowed by the processing method dominates – pleasingly – in both. Perhaps the main difference is roast style; the Lone Pine is considerably lighter roasted than the dead-on medium-roasted Coffea Roasterie version.

And the Rest: Pacas, Yellow Catuai, Caturra, Maragogipe

Rather widely grown in parts of Central America but not often separated and offered as a pure variety, Pacas is a selection from Bourbon that has dwarf characteristics; in other words, the tree grows compactly, reducing pruning costs and promoting denser plantings. Gimme! Coffee sent a 100% Pacas from award-winning Las Peñitas farm in Honduras (91). It appears to offer some of the virtues of a fine Bourbon – sweetly bright acidity, pungent fruit notes – in this case with the acidity particularly foregrounded by a relatively light roast.

Both the yellow-fruited and red-fruited varieties of Catuai are respected though not celebrated varieties of Arabica. Catuai is a complex dwarf hybrid developed in the 1950s through 1960s in Brazil that involves both Bourbon heritage and heritage from Typica, an ancient, very widely planted, but not particularly distinctive-tasting variety. I think it’s fair to say that Catuai tends to produce a fine cup though not a distinctive one. Perhaps those who consider the Geisha and native Ethiopian varieties too exotic and un-coffee-like will enjoy the two Yellow Catuais reviewed here, the medium-roasted, ripely balanced OQ Coffee Honduras Finca El Gringacho Yellow Catuai (90) or the darker roasted, chocolate-toned Las Chicas del Café Nicaragua Yellow Catuai Viennese Roast (also 90).

Caturra is one of the workhorses of the coffee world. Like Pacas a dwarf selection of Bourbon, it also grows compactly, reducing pruning costs and permitting dense plantings. However, on the way mutating to Caturra from Bourbon it appears to have lost the peculiar pungent fruit note characteristic of many Bourbons and some Bourbon-derived varieties, typically offering a well-structured, balanced but not particularly complex or distinctive cup. It is the mainstay of the Costa Rican coffee industry and central to Costa Rica’s characteristically powerful, straightforward, balanced cup. The Hawaiian Red Caturra from Rusty’s Coffee in Ka’u, southwest of Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island, is not quite classic, however, because it was dried in the fruit, adding the usual brandy and fruit overlay to a balanced, bright cup.

The Big-Beaned Maragogipe

Like the Geisha/Gesha, the giant-beaned Maragogipe suffers from the confusion of alternative spellings: you will find it spelled Maragogype and also Maragojipe. It was first found growing near the city of the same name in northeastern Brazil in the early 20th century, and is rarely planted owing to a very low yield. The Maragogipe cup is delicate when it’s good and thin and simple when it’s not. This month’s rendition from Guatemala’s famous El Injerto farm via Bird Rock Coffee roasters (90) is definitely a good one: delicate but honeyish, softly bright and quietly complex.

Missing Variety Stars

This month’s tour through some of the more distinctive botanical varieties of Arabica is extensive but hardly complete. There are no representatives of another leading coffee world variety star, the Bourbon-derived hybrid SL 28 from Kenya, though we report in some depth on it in our September 2011 article Still Tops: Coffees of Kenya.

Nor were we able to find a retail source for the rare but interesting Ethiopia-derived Moka (also Mocha, Mocca, Mokka) variety with its tiny, split-pea-sized beans and often striking aromatics. There are other varieties of interest. But this quick survey of samples of eight distinguished varieties of Arabica demonstrates that producers and roasters alike are taking seriously the opportunities and challenges of exploring the sensory impact of variety.

2011 The Coffee Review. All rights reserved.

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About the Author:

Kenneth Davids is a coffee expert, author and co-founder of Coffee Review. He has been involved with coffee since the early 1970s and has published three books on coffee, including the influential Home Roasting: Romance and Revival, now in its second edition, and Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying, which has sold nearly 250,000 copies over five editions. His workshops and seminars on coffee sourcing, evaluation and communication have been featured at professional coffee meetings on six continents.

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