By Emma Sage, SCAA
This work began about three years ago, leading up to the SCAA Symposium in Boston, where we had a scientific session focusing on coffee genetics. Little did I know at the time that this project would turn into a multi-year, multi-disciplinary treasure hunt. For a presentation on this topic at Symposium, I did a lot of research into the historical genetic background of Coffea arabica. What I found was a surprising story. After researching all possible documentation and expertise in the area of coffee genetics and history, the evidence pointed to coffee being a very messy crop, genetically. The complex history of the distribution of Arabica, filled with genetic restrictions, bottlenecks, and inadvertent hybridization events, paired with hundreds of years of mostly undocumented transport of seeds and plantlets, leaves the industry with a lot of knowledge gaps. By tracing history and genetics, and putting together modern scientific information, this is the best picture I can give you as to which coffees were bred intentionally, which were natural crosses, which are related to one another, which cultivars are relatively stable, and which are not.
As coffee professionals, you can use this information to increase the information transparency around your product, and the historical and geographical context can help you understand your favorite coffees. To be able to tell the story of a coffee is a gift and a worthwhile undertaking. I hope that the botanist in me can assist you with that goal. If you are searching for information on a coffee, I hope you can find it on this list.
To be clear, this list will not tell you what these coffees taste like, it won’t describe the cup quality of these coffees, nor will it suggest where to find or buy these coffees. This list will not show you how to differentiate between these coffees, because many–if not most of them–are indistinguishable in the field. It will not tell you the exact genetic linkage between all coffees, because this is not well documented or supported by published research studies.
Where relationships between coffees are not indicated, it is because there was no evidence to support that they were related. Where no explanation is given about a coffee, it is because no verifiable source of information could be located on it, other than its general affiliation with a cultivar. Many of the coffees bred purposefully at agricultural institutions have a long and complex pedigree that is not publically available. It is my hope that over time, this website will grow and change as more information becomes available, either in the form of new research or new relationships. I am certain that it is not the whole story, and look forward to the rest of the treasure hunt.
An Excerpt from “Coffee Plants of the World”
Typica versus Bourbon: The Story
Coffea arabica, which is indigenous to Ethiopia and some neighboring lands, was first transported out of its homeland into neighboring Yemen. From Yemen, coffee was spread around the world. The coffees that we call “typicas” today originated from plants that left Yemen and were taken to Java and outlying islands, possibly by the Dutch, possibly with the mythical monk Baba Budan. The coffees we call Bourbon today stem from plants transported to Ile Bourbon with the French. Both of these epic journeys may have involved a very small number of coffee plants or seeds.
Typica: This is a tall cultivar of Coffea arabica, originating from the coffee brought to Java from Yemen (possibly via India). This plant, the most similar to what we today call Java, was spread from the island of Java in the early 1700s. It has bronze-tipped young leaves, and the fruit and seeds are large. Typica plants are known to have relatively low productivity and are susceptible to all main pests and diseases.
Bourbon: A common cultivar of C. arabica that developed naturally on Île Bourbon (an island in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar, now known as Réunion) from coffee brought to the island from Yemen by the French. Depending on the specific sub-group, this coffee can be red (Vermelho) or yellow (Amarelo). These plants generally have broader leaves and rounder fruit and seeds than Typica varieties. Stems are stronger and stand more upright than Typica. They are susceptible to all major diseases and pests.
Read more at scaa.org/resources
Emma Sage is SCAA’s coffee science manager. Before moving into the coffee industry, she completed degrees in ecology and botany, and dabbled in the wine industry. She enjoys learning all there is to know about the science of coffee (and more importantly, sharing it with you).