Varieties of Coffee: What They are and Where They Come From

When it comes to coffee, we all know that Arabica is (mostly) better than Robusta. But dig a little bit deeper into Arabica, and you’ll find that there’s an entire world of different varieties out there. If you’ve ever seen the words “SL-28″, “Pacamara” or “Catuai” on a bag of coffee and had only a vague idea what they meant, this is for you.

Strictly speaking, varieties of coffee are separated into two distinct camps: varieties and cultivars. Varieties occur spontaneously through either freak mutation—for instance, growing much larger cherries than other plants of the same variety1—or through natural hybridisation with another variety (in rare cases a different species!). Cultivars are much the same, except that the changes are created or cultivated by humans.

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The Anatomy and Morphology of the Coffee Plant poster, available from here.

In fact, Arabica itself is a relatively recent hybridisation of Robusta (Coffea canephora) and another, lesser known species of coffee called Coffea eugenioides2. In the area in Eastern Ethiopia where this happened, there are thousands of natural varieties of arabica growing in the wild!

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One of the most knowledgeable coffee professionals in the world and a wonderful teacher, Peter Guiliano—director of the SCAA Coffee Symposium—recorded a video in 2012 that deals specifically with varieties. It is just under 30 minutes long, and represents a quick run-through of how Arabica made its way around the world, and how the different commercialised varieties and cultivars you would encounter today came about. It caps off with a very short description of the sorts of flavour profiles you can expect from some of them. It is well worth your time.

A legendary coffee variety that originated on the Boma Plateau, located in southeastern Sudan near to the Ethiopian border. This area belongs to a region considered to be the birthplace of the Arabica species. Sudan Rume has long been used by plant breeders as a source of “quality” genes, but is rarely planted because it doesn’t produce large yields.3

As prices of coffee go up, let’s hope more of these low-yield but delicious varieties are grown commercially. A while ago, Tim Wendelboe did a cultivar cupping at the Los Pirineos farm in El Salvador. Out of more than 50 cultivars, he rated Sudan Rume the highest.4

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If you’d like to go deeper, the SCAA offers a handy Botanist’s guide to Specialty Coffee;this Wikipedia page has a concise list and description of many commercial varieties; for an overview at a glance, check out this illustration by Emma Bladyka for the SCAA Symposium. If you didn’t watch Peter Guiliano’s video above, you really should.

Photo credits: Top image by flickr user Walter Rodriguez, farmer image by Neil Palmer, sprouting bean by flickr user Juan Camillo Trujillo.


1. A parallel is the Hass avocado, all of which stem from one tree in California.
2. If you are feeling particularly sciencey, Molecular and General Genetics has this research paper: Molecular characterisation and origin of the Coffea arabica L. genome.
3. Described in this PDF from Intelligentsia.
4. Link to Tim’s blog postlink to full cupping results.

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