The first known cultivation of coffee trees was in Ethiopia where the same Typica variety is grown today.
Since the first known cultivation of coffee, many other varieties exist which you may have heard of, such as Bourbon, Mundo Novo, and Caturra. Some result from natural mutation, but others have been cross-bred. It’s possible for coffee bean varieties to have native taste characteristics, but some also express the terroir where they’re grown. Cultivation and processing techniques can also affect how the coffee in your cup tastes.
Historically, coffee beans have only been traded based on origin, i.e. which region or country they come from, but more recently there has been a focus on the variety of coffee trees that produced the beans being imported and roasted. It’s important to note that although the bean variety can have an impact on taste, the way the beans are prepared into a cup of coffee can also impact the final aromas and flavours you taste so this guide only focuses on the more distinct differences between varieties.
Dutch merchants are the first known traders to distribute coffee widely around the world, meaning this variety would have been at the centre of this trade. As a fruit, it is usually ruby red and produces an excellent cup of coffee. Yields of Typica are small compared to other coffee bean varieties but it’s still grown around the globe and is known by many other names including Arabigo, Sumatra, and Criollo.
The island of Réunion lays claim as the birthplace of the Bourbon variety (Bourbon was the name of the island when discovered). Bourbon is a natural mutation of the Typica bean with yields greater than its parent. Many coffee connoisseurs agree that it has a natural sweetness giving it a greater demand by coffee manufacturers. The colour of the fruit can vary between red, yellow and sometimes orange too.
A hybrid of the Typica and Bourbon varieties, Mundo Novo is named after the place it was discovered in Brazil in the 1940s. It yields a high volume of fruit and is more resistant than its parent beans to both disease and difficult growing conditions. It also grows at higher altitudes more successfully, up to 1,200 metres, meaning a larger surface area is viable to cultivate the variety.
Another Brazilian variety, but this time, a natural mutation of Bourbon. Again, a high-yielding variety, but it can overbear, meaning the tree produces more fruit than it can sustain. This leads to dieback but hasn’t put producers off in Colombia and other Central American nations. Higher altitudes lead to better quality and lower yield which suits the variety well. As the trees grow lower to the ground it also makes it easier to pick the fruit.
A hybrid variety, created by crossing the Caturra and Mundo Novo varieties in the 1950s and 1960s. Selected because of the dwarf characteristics of the Caturra variety making it easy to pick, with the high yield and durability of the Mundo Novo fruit. In terms of colour, the fruit is mostly red and yellow.
An easily recognisable variety due to its large fruit size. Sometimes nicknamed the ‘Elephant’ due to the bean size, it was first discovered in Brazil, it’s a mutation of the Typica variety. The tree produces large leaves but has a lower yield compared to other varieties. The fruit is often red in colour.