Not all Chardonnays taste the same. And the same is true for coffee varieties.
Take a Gesha from Panama and a Gesha from Ethiopia: they will taste different. In fact, take a lightly roasted Caturra from Tolima, Colombia and a lightly roasted Caturra from Nariño, Colombia, and chances are they’ll still taste different.
But why? And if this is true, why are coffee varieties so important? Let’s dive in and explore this question.
Lee este artículo en español Variedades de Café: No Todos Los Gesha Tienen El Mismo Sabor
Different varieties, different cherry colours: ripe coffee cherries from a farm in Honduras.
Terroir: The Big Thing Affecting Your Coffee
Terroir: a French word, meaning “earth” (and pronounced ter-wahr), that has come to represent the environmental and social factors affecting how your wine, coffee, olives, and more taste.
Terroir refers to climate, elevation, humidity, sunshine, soil composition, water, producer habits… and so much more.
Discover more! Read What Is Terroir & Why Does It Matter?
Every location has a unique terroir – and every terroir has an impact on the coffee. The cooler temperatures of those high Kenyan mountains? They’ll slow down the process of the coffee ripening, leading to sweeter, more complex flavours. The volcanic soil of a Guatemalan coffee farm? It’ll be rich in nitrogen, providing the nutrition the coffee needs to grow well.
The humidity of an Indonesian coffee farm? This will lead producers to processing methods unique to the region – ones that have a distinct effect on the coffee’s profile.
You might also like Geisha vs Bourbon: A Crash Course in Coffee Varieties
Coffee plants grow at a high elevation on this Honduran farm.
The wine industry knows the importance of terroir. This is why a champagne can only be produced in Champagne, France, for example. Wine lovers will look for a Controlled Designation of Origin or Appellation d’Origine Controlée, signifying that it was produced in a particular region (and often in a particular way) that makes it distinctive.
Some coffee regions have certificates of origin, such as Café de Marcala in Honduras or Cerrado Mineiro in Brazil. However, generally, the coffee industry is following several footsteps behind wine in introducing certifications.
That doesn’t mean producers and roasters are ignoring the impact of terroir. But expect to hear specialty coffee lovers discussing “microclimates” and “altitude” or “elevation” instead.
Join in with the debate: Coffee Quality & M.A.S.L.: How Important Is Altitude REALLY?
A washed processed coffee grown in Caripe, Venezuela between 1,200 and 1,600 m.a.s.l. The variety: Red Typica. Credit: Juan Manuel Silva
Varieties: Why Do They Matter?
Despite all this, varieties still have a huge impact on the coffee.
Coffee has different species, but the vast majority farmed around the world is either Arabica or Robusta. Arabica, which makes up around 60% of the world’s coffee, can then be divided into varieties: ones like Typica, Bourbon, Caturra, Gesha/Geisha, Catuaí, Pacamara, and more.
This is much like the varieties of the wine world: the Syrah, the Cabernet Franc, the Riesling…
And these varieties affect where and how the crop can grow, what it tastes like, and how – in the case of coffee – it should be roasted. Bourbon, for example, is known for its sweetness; Gesha for its tea-like body.
A ripe-red coffee cherry.
Take these descriptions of Gesha/Geisha coffees around the world:
“The distinctive Geisha variety is commonly associated with crops from Panama. Its floral, citrusy flavour and efforts by local farmers to maintain high quality has created a growing demand.”
– James Hoffman, The World Atlas of Coffee
A Colombian Gesha:
“Although Geisha produced in Panama first attracted attention of the coffee world, it has found a new home at Finca El Vergel where its world-famous floral qualities and vibrant citrus flavors have reached new heights.”
“Cupping Notes: Pear, Butterscotch, Dry Cherry”
An Ethiopian Gesha:
“Peach | Orange Blossom | Melon… Stone Fruit | Floral”
Each one is described as having citrus and floral notes – it’s the Gesha signature. But each one also has its own unique flavour. And this is the result of where and how it was farmed and processed.
Filter coffee, ready to be enjoyed. Credit: Julio Guevara
So, What Does a Coffee Taste Like?
The flavour of a single origin coffee is a blend of many factors. Often, these are hard to untwine.
In wine, for example, the Bordeaux family sometimes smells like bell peppers, thanks to the presence of pyrazine – but also because the way the crop is pruned. Variety meets farming methods to create this attribute.
And similarly, in coffee, natural processing – drying the beans in their fruit before removing it – can accentuate the sweetness of an already sweet variety, such as a Bourbon.
As a barista or even a sommelier, it’s hard to taste a coffee or wine and trace the exact impact of the soil mineral content, the shade the crop was grown under, the rainfall, and the elevation.
But we can taste the effect. We can taste it in the sweetness, the acidity, and the difference between peach and plum notes. If the variety is the base notes of a coffee, the origin and the producer’s choices determine how those notes come out in the cup.
Because every origin, every farm, every coffee has its own flavour.
Enjoyed this? Check out Geisha vs Bourbon: A Crash Course in Coffee Varieties
Written by Virginia Sánchez Grüber.
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