Most people are familiar with the terms Robusta and Arabica and understand that one (Robusta) is typically associated with commodity coffee farms and the other (Arabica) is the only coffee used in specialty coffee. But that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Arabica, the species, evolved in the wild and was hybridized in the lab, and now contains numerous varieties.
Note: Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, is the starting point for all varieties that are growing today, all over the world. The coffees that are presently exported from Ethiopia will often not be described with a specific varietal because they’re a mix of everything growing there. You’ll often see the term “various Ethiopian heirloom varietals” because there are thousands of varieties and few are scientifically described.
When choosing coffee to drink, the easiest bit of information to find should be its origin, unless you’re buying a blend. Blends (often seen in the grocery as “breakfast blend” or “French roast”) can contain any number of origins so it may not be obvious what they’re made of. With single origin coffees, the roaster should list where it came from and in most cases, will likely know what variety of coffee it is.
Note: “French roast” is actually a roast level (i.e. Light, Cinnamon, Medium, Full City, French, Italian, etc) and does not describe what bean is in the container. Any bean can be brought to a French roast so merely describing something by its roast level is not informative. When sold in the commodity setting, “French Roast” likely contains a blend.
Note #2: We have nothing against blends but are wary of them. Blends can be created to hide bad beans (beans with poor origin flavors, robusta beans, beans roasted poorly or beans that may contain mycotoxins/mold) or reduce overhead by cutting the batch with poorer quality or cheaper beans. This doesn’t happen as much with specialty coffee.
The cool thing about understanding origins and varietals is you can learn to identify what it is about a particular coffee you really enjoy (or do not enjoy); then you can seek out those coffees. Similar to identifying a wine (grape) you like.
In your pursuit of varietal and origin knowledge, know that roast level will affect how you perceive the varietal flavors. If you are testing out two coffees, note how they were roasted. Try to branch out if you only try coffees roasted a certain way (“Give me your darkest coffee!”). You may find you prefer a darker roasted Ethiopian (varietal – various heirloom) but a medium roasted Kenyan (varietal – typically Typica, SL-28, SL-34).
If you have a little time and enjoy learning about coffee, check out this video on coffee varieties by Counter Culture Coffee. It does an excellent job explaining the evolution of different coffee varieties and how the different varieties affect what flavors end up in your cup. It’s a topic that lends itself well to a photo presentation – enjoy!