April 07, 2020

Merit 101: Cultivar

By Jamie Isetts
Seedlings of a selected Ethiopian cultivar(known as 74110) are separated in a nursery in Ethiopia.

The goal of the Merit 101 series is to help educate all levels of coffee enthusiasts who want to learn more about who we are at Merit, as well as the many aspects of coffee.

In a nutshell, a cultivar is a type of coffee plant. Specific cultivars can have different flavors in the final drink. Think yellow and red tomatoes, or Granny Smith vs Red Delicious.

Seedlings of a selected Ethiopian cultivar (known as 74110) are separated in a nursery in Ethiopia.

Flavor contrast between cultivars is much more nuanced than in process-- so don’t kick yourself if you can’t tell a Bourbon from a Typica. The final outcome depends a lot on the skill of the farmer and the place where it was grown.  With time and tasting, you can learn to recognize the major flavor markers of various cultivars.

Genetics for Coffee Addicts

All life is divided into species.  The species of Merit’s offerings (and most in the specialty coffee world) is called Coffea arabica, or just Arabica. Individuals within a species can show different traits depending on their genetics. For example, Great Dane and Chihuahua are breeds within the Canis familiaris species.

You might remember from your high school biology class that modern genetics stems from Gregor Mendel’s breeding within one species: pea plants. Over time, humans can choose to propagate specific plants that are easier to grow or who produce tastier fruit. When these genetic types stabilize over several generations they create plant breeds, or cultivars (cultivated varieties). Farmers have been selecting plants this way for thousands of years.

Some coffee plants are hybrids between Arabica and another popular species, Robusta. Hybrids are created when two species interbreed. A mule is an example of a hybrid, between a donkey and a horse. It's uncommon for this to occur naturally with Arabica, but by cross-breeding the occasional hybrid into a mostly Arabica stock, horticulturists have been able to create cultivars of Arabica that benefit from varying degrees of Robusta genetics.

Note: this is different from GMOs, which are created using enzymes to physically edit the DNA in a way that would be impossible in nature. There is currently no GMO coffee on the market.

What Makes a Cultivar Unique?

A Bourbon Rosado (Pink Bourbon) plant in Huila, Colombia. The cherries of most cultivars mature to a deep red, with some exceptions like this.

Arabica cultivars differ in these aspects.

Most cultivars have a general profile, from wild, tropical flavors to nutty tones.
Cultivars vary in plant height, size, and color of the ripe coffee fruit (red, yellow, orange, pink), the structure of their branches, and the shape and color of their leaves. The structure of the plant can affect yield--the amount of coffee harvested in a given area (like a square meter or hectare).
Growing Conditions   
Just as an Irish Wolfhound might not thrive in a studio apartment, coffee cultivars do well in different environments.  Drought and pest resistance are two big focuses for breeders.
Differences in the shape and size of the seed influence de-pulping, fermentation, drying, and roasting. 

Cultivars You’ll See In Our Coffees

This isn't every single one we buy--more like the greatest hits. 


The lithe, tall structure of Ethiopian cultivars on a small farm in Southern Ethiopia. Mature coffee plants look different depending on their cultivar. The appearance of the trees also depends on the farmer's maintenance.


Ethiopian Landraces (Heirlooms)
A landrace is a domesticated variety of a naturally occurring local species. Ethiopia is the original habitat of Coffea arabica and contains a treasure trove of genetic diversity. We usually see these cultivars lumped together as “Ethiopian Heirlooms” because of this immense range. They actually do have distinct characteristics and names; some are named after the town they come from (i.e. Wush Wush) or the research they originate from (JARC 74112). As a general group, they are prized for their floral characteristics like jasmine.
This was the first cultivar to be disseminated throughout the world. Typica spread from Ethiopia by way of Yemen in the 17th century, when colonial powers brought it to India, Indonesia, and later Latin America. Typica is known for its delicate body, florality (think violet), and berry-like acidity.
Also selected from a Yemeni landrace, Bourbon (pronounced bor-BONE) was named after the island off the coast of Madagascar where France began commercially cultivating it in 1715. In the 1800s it spread across Latin America and East Africa. Bourbon is renowned for its elegance and balance, with red fruit acidity and lush body. Our Horizon No. 2 is a perfect example. 
Although it originates from the Ethiopian town of Gesha, this cultivar has become more associated with Panamanian farmers like the Peterson family who have made it a worldwide sensation. Its intense bergamot-jasmine notes and sweet lime acidity are thoroughly unique.
SL 28 & SL 34  
In the late 1930s, the British government of Kenya selected cultivars through their research institution, Scott Agricultural Labs. Two of these “SL” cultivars were particularly successful and became ubiquitous in Kenya. The profile we associate with Kenya today is the influence of these two cultivars: intensely acidic but heavy-bodied, with lots of complexity.
This “dwarf” cultivar has a short stature due to a single gene mutation of Bourbon. Originally selected from Brazil in the early 20th century, its compact structure gives it a higher yield for the space it requires. Caturra is found throughout Latin America, especially in Colombia. It has the richness of Bourbon with a bright citric-savory acidity and chocolate notes.
Similar to Caturra, Pacas is a dwarf mutation of Bourbon discovered in El Salvador. We mostly buy Pacas from the farmers of the Beneficio San Vicente group in Santa Barbara, Honduras.  In that terroir, it gives us piquant acidity like lime zest and a ginger-like spice--like our roast of Miguel Guzman's Pacas.
Colombia & Castillo
The Colombian government developed these cultivars in the late 20th century, aiming for Caturra-like quality with resistance to major diseases.  There’s some controversy as to whether they really taste as good as Caturra. We’ve found that with the right cultivation, they can be quite nice.


Here’s a few great resources for exploring cultivars further.

Jamison Savage of Finca Deborah / Morgan Estate with Gesha seedlings at his nursery.


SCA Coffee Plant Terminology The Specialty Coffee Association is the world’s most prominent professional organization for…you guessed it…specialty coffee. This site defines core concepts and gives pretty concise overview of the major specialty cultivars.  
Café Imports Coffee Family Tree This specialty importer’s well-researched family tree does a great job of showing the relationship between different cultivars. If you’re just getting started, this will give you the scaffolding to build out your cultivar palate.
World Coffee Research Variety Catalog WCR combines research on coffee breeding with sensory analysis (also check out the Sensory Lexicon). This catalog is an excellent resource to understand the history and cultivation advantages of different cultivars.
Also check out this excellent article from Chris Kornman for Daily Coffee News.
Want to test your knowledge? Take the quiz below!