These days specialty coffees often list loads of information on their labels, and Flatlander is no exception. On our packaging, for example, you can find things like origin, elevation, tasting notes, roast, and process method. Things like origin and roast are pretty self-explanatory, but others can be more cryptic. And anyways, you probably care much more about finding a great cup of coffee than a lot of these things, right? So how can all this help you pick the perfect cup of joe?
One of the tidbits on that back label that will help you the most is varietal. Since different varietals carry different flavor profiles into your very own cup of morning coffee, they can tell you a lot about what to expect before you buy if you only know how to decipher the code. To help you on your never-ending quest for the perfect pick-me-up, here's a Flatlander decoder ring of sorts for some of the more common varietals.
Arabica vs. Robusta: Since these are the two most widely cultivated species of coffee, we should clear up the confusion surrounding these two first. The most important thing to know is that arabica trees general produce a higher quality coffee bean. Comparatively, arabicas are produced at a higher altitude, which leads to a denser and more flavorful bean. They also have a lower caffeine content than their robusta cousins, are less disease- and pest-resistant, and produce a lower yield per tree. Considering how much more work it is for your average farmer to grow arabica coffee, it only makes sense that prices are higher for arabica than robusta.
You would think, then, that specialty coffee roasters wouldn't have any use for robustas, but the last ten years or so have seen people experimenting more and more with them, especially in their blends. It turns out that the difference between the two isn't as clear as those of us with a touch of the OCD would like for it to be. The lowest quality arabica isn't necessarily fit for specialty coffee, while some of the higher quality robustas can have nice qualities that coffee drinkers enjoy. Most of the following varietals are predominantly arabica, though many have strains of robusta bred in to boost disease resistance.
Bourbon: The bourbon varietal mutated from early types taken from Yemen and Ethiopia. It takes its name from the island of Bourbon (now Reunion Island) located off the coast of Madagascar. It's a very low-yielding tree with beans that can be red, yellow, or orange that is known for its complex acidity and balance.
Catimor: This varietal is a hybrid of Timor and Caturra. It was created in Brazil for its resistance to disease and high yield. Cup quality is often inferior to other varietals due to the Robusta influence in the Timor strain. Certain catimors, however, show real promise and are marked by their earthy and herbal natures.
Catuai: Both hearty and highly productive, catuai is a blend of Mondo Novo and Caturra most often planted in Central America. It's know for its cleanliness and big acidity.
Caturra: Caturra is a natural mutation of Bourbon discovered in Brazil in 1937. It has a good yield, but performed much better in Columbia than Brazil, which is where you'll find most of it planted today. Caturra has a bright acidity, is generally well-balanced, and possesses a straightforward aroma, medium body, and less clarity and sweetness than its Bourbon predecessor.
Heirloom: This is an umbrella category that covers the many varietals found in Ethiopia, the very birthplace of coffee. They're good- really good. Heirloom varietals produce some of the most sought-after flavor profiles out there and can vary from jasmine to wild berries to lemon.
Gesha: Originally from the area around Gesha, Costa Rica, this is often considered the most complex and flavorful of all varietals. It's extremely rare, though, and it's only from trees grown at very high altitudes that you'll find the cleanest, sweetest, most complex coffee man has yet discovered.
Jember: Originally from Ethiopia, Jember can now be found widely planted throughout Indonesia, where farmers named it after the varietal was distributed to them by the Jember Coffee Research Center. So far, not much research has been conducted to learn about Jember, but we do know it often contains classic Indonesian flavors like rustic brown sugar and maple syrup.
SL-28 & SL-34: These are two of four varieties produces by Scott Laboratories in the 1930s. As mutations of the Bourbon varietal, they are prone to disease, do best at middle to high altitudes, and have a relatively small yield. They are often intensely citric, sweet, balanced, and complex.
Typica: Typica is one of the main Arabica coffee cultivars, along with Bourbon. It was originally discovered in the Kaffa region of Ethiopia and is said to have made its way to the New World via a French naval officer in the 1700s. Typica coffees generally display excellent cup characteristics with an outstanding sweetness, cleanliness, and body.
And there you have it. Now, go forth and decode! After all, life is too short to drink terrible coffee.