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A Brief History of Typica Varietal and Three Coffee Origins

Jan 29, 2014 • ProductionNo Comments

A cupping profile of coffee varies depending on numerous factors, cultivation environment, processing of coffee cherries, condition in shipping container, roast profile, and so on. Out of countless factors, the idea of varietal, a biological strain of coffee plants, seems important or “trendy”. Today, in commercial Coffee Arabica, Typica and Bourbon are considered to be two major varietals. Most of coffee plants are strains of either Typica or Boubon varietals. Because of the its history and botanical aspect, understanding Typica’s cupping characteristics seems important for cuppers: typically it demonstrates outstanding sweetness, cleanliness, and bright citrus acidity at a high altitude. The difficulty of Typica is its low yield and weakness to diseases. The coffee farms that cultivate only Typica is rare, and you don’t see a cup of coffee with only Typica varietal because of that.

green coffee bean from colombiaPhoto credit: McKay Savage

Coffea Arabica originated from south western Ethiopia, and it stayed within the Afro-Arab region as Muslim drink. The coffee gradually spread from Yemen to other part of the world. The coffee production is adopted by equatorial countries in South/South East Asia and Central/South America in 17 to 18th century. The coffee cultivation using Typica brought from Yemen prospered in Indonesia under Dutch operation from mid 17th century. French cultivated the same or similar Typica variety in Caribbean Martinique Island, and it spread to other parts of Americas.

Typica varietal in Indonesia

The coffee production of Typica in Java has been diminished by the outbreak of Coffee Leaf Rust(Roya) since the late 19th century. Most of Indonesian coffee farms cultivate more contemporary Arabicas as well as a strain of Arabica/Canephora hybrid such as Tim Tim and Ateng, but there is a small fragment of old Typica cultivation that survived through the Roya outbreak. The old Typica called Bergendal and Sidikalang in respective regions of Indonesia. Impressively, over a century old trees still produce classic Typica beans. It is hard to come by, but some roasters particularly aim at those old Typica.

The slide below by SCAA is an excellent visual source for the coffee production in Indonesia.

Typica varietal in Jamaica

In 1720, Coffea Arabica var Typica was first brought to the New World by a French naval officer, Gabriel de Clieu. The coffee seedling from Royal Botanical Gardens in Paris was transplanted in Martinique, a Caribbean island. The coffee cultivation spread to all over the Caribbean countries including Jamaica, Cuba, and Dominican Republic. Jamaica is particularly known for it’s signature Blue Mounotain. The very expensive coffee has mild and balanced cupping character, on the other hand; it is very underwhelming in contrast to its price. Some argues that the quality of the coffee has decreased over time as it has successfully consolidated the brand to collect the foreign currency so that the improvement in the production is no longer necessary. Some farms in East Timor and Papua New Guinea now harvest Blue Mountain and surpasses the quality of the original Blue Mountain. See Sweet Maria’s for more about Blue Mountain.

Typica varietal in Colombia

colombia coffee pickingColombia, he second largest Arabica coffee producer after Brazil, had traditionally cultivated Typica until 1970s when Caturra the higher yielding Bourbon mutation and Leaf Rust resistant hybrids Castillo/Colombia came in. Today about 25% of all the coffee trees in Colombia are Typica, that means considering the low yield of the varietal, the share of the Typica production out of the total coffee production must be much smaller. Typica directly displays the cultivated environment, and the Colombia’s coffee growing regions with rich volcanic soil at a high altitude are ideal. El Roble is a good example. (Photo credit: CIAT)

The dilemma is that the farms in Colombia recognizes the difference in a cup quality of varietals, but to obtain a certain economical benefit, farmers shift from traditional Typica to other Bourbon type and hybrid varietals. On going Leaf Rust disaster promotes this tendency, and shift may progress faster in coming years. In addition, the compensation the farmers can get for hard-to-take-care-of Typica isn’t much greater than other higher yielding Arabicas. From the green coffee producers’ perspective, the shift to higher yield and tolerant to disease is understandable. (By the way this post, “The Castillo-Caturra cage match“, is a great comparison of two varietals, Caturra and Castillo, from several practical angles.)

The history of coffee, particularly in the early stage, has progressed with the Typica. For many coffee lovers, it has been the standard cup quality of coffee. For the past couple centuries, people have argued what coffee is good or bad based on the Typica flavor. Perhaps the standard cupping principles have Typica as the core of flavor standard. The consumer market(but heavily corporate driven) is shaping the cultivation of varietals in producing countries and Typica doesn’t seem to be the most wanted kind.

To me, understanding and finding good cup of Typica is important.

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