One of the things coffee people love to talk about but don’t really understand is varietals.
This diagram represents the relationships between the most common coffee species, varieties, and cultivars. Lines and arrows linking plant groups indicate parentage. Line lengths do not represent relative relatedness or genetic distances.
Arrows toward mutations represent that those cultivars that resulted from a spontaneous genetic change. Arrows toward selections indicate a selection made by humans that resulted in a differentiated variety or cultivar, or in the case of C. arabica, a natural hybrid cross which occurred in nature."
Does variety matter?
But is it THE ONLY factor?
Is it even THE BIGGEST factor?
Imagine this, you order a bag of coffee from your favorite supplier. You wait a week to receive a 250g bag of the coffee and you get excited. You start to tell your friends about the coffee. You mention the origin, altitude, processing method, and the varietal.
But what does this stuff even mean?
Well, in this article I hope to take 5 minutes to debunk a little information about varietals.
When I first moved to China, I often heard people talk about “that catimor aftertaste.” I never really heard many people talk about varietals that much before, but a lot of people seemed to agree that Catimor’s have a crappy, dry, woody, astringent aftertaste.
I took their word for it, and I started to pick out that flavor with several of the Yunnan’s we cupped. Then when I knew I was cupping Yunnans, I would start to look for that infamous “Catimor note.”
Is there any hope? Is there anything that can be done to help Yunnan Catimors score well in cupping?
Last year I was able to take some intensive processing classes from Dr. Manuel Diaz.
During the course, Dr. Manuel explained that Catimor’s naturally have a higher Chlorogenic acid content, which is where astringency comes from.
The good news is that fermentation breaks down Chlorogenic acid!I still didn’t think Catimors had much hope. I still too was prejudiced against this underdog varietal.
All that changed when I took the SCI Nursery Class.
At the end of April, Torch hosted an SCI Nursery class taught by Nilton Perez. Nilton is a fourth generation Guatemalan coffee farmer, and he brought us four of his varietals for the class.
He wanted to show us why it is important to have different varietals growing in your farm, so we did a blind cupping and guessed the varietals.
Nilton’s farm is located on the side of a mountain, and his altitude ranges from 1700m-2000m. He grows several varietals, but he brought four with him: Geisha, Caturra, Bourbon, and Catimor.
I was blown away, and began to ask a lot of questions and research.
Before I go on, I want to ask a question: do you know where characteristics of coffee beans come from?
In order to have good quality coffee you need to keep in mind the density, altitude, weather, fertilizer, the age of the tree, soil quality, picking quality, sorting quality, fermentation, depulping method… need I go on?
As you can see, coffee flavor development is actually very, very complex. There is so much more going on than, so we can’t narrow it all down to the question of coffee varietal.
So let’s get back to the cupping room…
At that time when we were cupping, there were six Q Graders gathered around the table who were all blown away by the big reveal. We were ranking the blind samples on aroma, acidity, sweetness, body, aftertaste and complexity of flavor. Then we were guessing which sample was which varietal.
In a cupping room full of Q Graders, everyone correctly assessed the characteristics, but were wrong about 3/4 varietals. What we all thought was Catimor, was Caturra. What everyone thought was Bourbon, was Catimor!
Everyone could tell which was the Geisha based on the tea-like feel, floral yet fruity flavors.
But the coffee everyone scored as the second highest was the Catimor! The sweetness was incredible, and the aftertaste was like syrup. Needless to say, everyone was surprised.
Nilton also explained that his Catimor’s flavor was different from that of most Catimors he has tried, yet the physical characteristics of the tree are typical Catimor (tree size, leaf shape, etc). Nilton went on to tell us that his family’s farm started planting Catimor 40 years ago so the plant has acclimated to his soil, and is actually very well-suited for the kind of soil in Acatenango.
When green bean buyers visit Nilton, they too are blown away by the sweetness of his Catimor. But then when they find out it is Catimor, they say “oh no, I could never buy that. My customers wouldn’t believe me when I tell them it is this good!”
So even though everyone agrees Nilton’s Catimor is better than his Caturra and Bourbon, Nilton’s Bourbon actually sells for more money just because it is Bourbon.
So lets stop judging varietals by their name. Let’s show the Catimor’s some love.
While we are waiting for the Yunnan Catimors to become more acclimated to the environment, let’s help the Catimors by maximizing the potential of all of the other variables as best we can.