Varietals Matter

I’m back to talking about coffee today, specifically one important element in the coffees I choose to offer for your coffee enjoyment. Today, let’s consider varietals as an important  tip-off to what to expect in the cup.

Want to know why an heirloom Ethiopian tastes different from an estate-grown Brazil? There are three major pieces to cup profile:

  1. how I select, roast, and blend it,
  2. how the producer prepared the coffee cherries harvested,
  3. the raw DNA of the plant producing the coffee cherry.

Role of Terroir, Whatever That Is... These all interact within a context called terroir–those environmental characteristics in which the plant grows, including altitude, soil composition, temperature and humidity at key points in cherry development, how stressed the plant was from disease and insect attacks, amount and kind of fertilizer used, and so on almost forever. These are the same things your local wine snob goes on about when raving about a cabernet sauvignon from his/her favorite vineyard. I mention terroir because it’s a wild card that keeps anyone from making a definitive pronouncement about what a particular coffee will taste like in the specifics. Nevertheless, we can still get clues as to how the coffee plant has adjusted to the place where it grows, just like grapes do.

What do I need to know about varietals? Just as you might be able to distinguish a Granny Smith apple from a Honeycrisp just by taste and might develop a preference for the sweeter Honeycrisp over the tart Granny Smith, so a Bourbon coffee bean grown anywhere will tend to produce a clean, clear taste profile that’s a bit floral and sweet while a Djember will tend herbal and rustic even if it’s not grown in Sumatra and wet-hulled. So think of varietal as the canvas upon which the artist paints–is it a canvas, side of an old block building or a slab of wood? All these can provide a decent foundation for a painting, but the differences are key to the artist’s intent and users’ enjoyment. Getting to know your varietals can give you a good idea of what the basic foundation of your cup tastes like. I’ll follow up in another post to discuss some of my favorite varietals and what they tell us.

Why does the varietal matter?  Finally today, before we dive into the specifics, let’s mention the reason varietal matters. The shorter answer is twofold: 1) varietals are what’s in the coffee’s DNA; 2) mutations happen, diseases happen, market needs change and bigger climate change makes some coffee varieties obsolete. Varietals can be developed or selected to guide the way those changes happen, so that we still like drinking coffee and farmers will still grow it.

Role of farmers. Farmers have been tinkering with coffee plants since the beginning to favor those that produce bigger crops, resist disease and/or are more conducive to local processing methods, eg, availability of water primarily. Over time, these natural and man-made hybrids are selected, sometimes in spite of degradation in quality of flavor if the market demands it. Growers can reasonably assume that if most of the world wants cheap, dark-roast instant (sorry but true) , then the extra work the older, disease-prone, smaller-yield high-end just isn’t worth the work. Fortunately, there is a growing population of people who think really good coffee is worth the premium. For those, the labor of love that these traditional varietals represent is worth it.

Next time: “So what varietals do I look for?”