For those who are interested in coffee education, I want to talk about what a coffee varietal is. There are three things that happened (all within a short time of each other) that inspired me to put this article together 1) in my own closed Facebook group, there was a great conversation from a customer asking why certain coffees come around just once a year or so – it lead to some discussion of varietals 2) on one occasion, I watched a barista at a Reserve store tell a customer that a coffee was labeled a “bourbon” because it tastes like rum . When I confronted the barista to try to tell her what “bourbon” was, she admitted to me (and recognizing me) that she had no idea why it was called Brazil Bourbon, so she made a wild guess. (It has nothing to do with alcohol, bourbon, or rum.) and 3) I saw another closed Facebook group where there was a discussion by partners that they wanted more coffee education.
Of course, the huge caveat to this is that I’m not a Starbucks certified coffee master. I sometimes feel like if I worked for Starbucks, I might be, but I’m not.
So what is a varietal?
One thing to kind of keep in the back of your mind is that coffee is a farm product. Just as you might expect Fuji apples to taste different than Golden Delicious, coffee varietals are unique – of course, much of the flavor profile comes from variation in coffee processing too.
When you think of a blend, you might think that if you sold a crate of apples with some Fuji, some Honey Crisp apples, some Golden Delicious – even if they all came from the same country – it’s not one varietal in the bag. They all come from many farms, and might each have slightly different processing or growing micro-climates. A blend like Kenya or Guatemala Antigua is a blend of many farms’ coffee from one country.I suppose it’s possible that Starbucks will produce bags of Guatemala Antigua that are all the same varietal – if they sourced it from many farms who were all growing the same coffee trees, such as Typica or Bourbon.
A multi-country blend, such as Christmas Blend, might have some beans from Indonesia, as well as beans from Latin American farms. By the way, when we use the word “Estate Coffee” that almost always means that the coffee beans were all sourced from one single farm. Sometimes Reserve coffees from a single farm are labeled by the name of the farm – the Spanish word for farm is “Finca.” So I would assume that a “Finca Neuvo” coffee from Mexico came from just one farm.
This also partly explains why some coffees come and go. I would assume that if you’re farming the Maui Mokka coffee, Starbucks comes in and tries to buy your entire harvest. When your harvest is gone, it’s gone … until the next harvest. Multi-farm blends can often be offered year-round because Starbucks doesn’t depend on just one farm to supply those beans. Although this is only a small piece of the story. If there are many farms all sourcing the same varietal, it may be that Starbucks can keep sourcing (and offering) a coffee like a “Yirgacheffe” by working with many different farmers.
If you’re working on becoming a coffee master, go to page 31 of your coffee master workbook. There you’ll find that a varietal is described as “a type of tree.” Just as a Fuji apple tree can’t produce Golden Delicious apples, the Typica coffee tree isn’t going to produce Geisha coffee beans. The Starbucks coffee master book says that the four most common varietals are as follows:
I have to admit that was a surprise to me. I had thought that I had learned in loose conversation that the “Typica” bean is the most common varietal. Still, if I don’t know what the varietal of bean is, I will assume that it’s a Bourbon or Typica.
I definitely think this Wikipedia page which has a list of many varietals is helpful!
You might be wondering, “What do people mean when they talk about heirloom varietals?” – An “heirloom varietal” is a pure varietal that is not a hybrid of other beans. Just as a Honey Crisp apple was developed by hybridization, some coffee varietals are created the same way. I know that a “Geisha” coffee is considered an “heirloom varietal.”
I would agree that sometimes when you look at the front of the coffee cards and try to parse out the meaning of each and every word, sometimes it’s confusing. You might find the name of the farm; you’ll always find the name of the growing country; and you may find the varietal listed.
I know that many partners reading this know all of this – but I’ve definitely met some partners who don’t know much about the types of coffee beans, and what that means. I hope you found this helpful!
Hope you enjoyed this coffee education article!
(As an aside, please don’t forget that if you buy Tales of the Siren during the month of July as a paperback from Amazon, I’ll donate a dollar to the CUP Fund for each book sold.)