Coffee Varieties: Bourbon


A ripe Bourbon cherry. [Photograph: tonx on Flickr]

Did you know that there are different varieties of coffee plants? In the past few weeks, we've been chatting about why coffee diversity matters, and taking a closer look at some of the different types of coffee plants that might be making their way to your cup. (Curious about Yirgacheffe coffees? Here's a little info on those heirloom Ethiopian coffees. Wonder if fancy Gesha beans are worth the cash? Jump back to find out.)

One of the more popular (and most prodigious, in terms of variations) coffee varieties is Bourbon—thankfully, it's the kind that cures hangovers, not gives them.

A clipping from the Noble Tree (more on that here) was planted on the Indian Ocean island of Bourbon (now called Réunion) by the French in the early 18th century; a spontaneous mutation in its new soil caused the resulting plants to blossom and fruit more productively than their ancestors, which made the variety a valuable transplant throughout Brazil and other parts of Central and South America, as well as on the African continent, specifically in Rwanda.

A more productive variety than its parent Typica, the Bourbon variety is part of the reason Brazil became one of the world's coffee superproducers in the 1860s, when it was introduced to make up for the supply loss caused by a leaf-rust outbreak in Java. Slightly sweeter with a sort of caramel quality, Bourbon coffees also have a nice, crisp acidity, but can present different flavors depending on where they're planted. El Salvador Bourbons are all butter, toffee, and fresh pastry; Rwandan types tend to have a punchier fruit quality.

Bourbon itself has gone through multiple mutations and variations since its spread: Subvarieties include plants whose cherry ripens to red, yellow, or orange; a dwarf mutation called Caturra; and an El Salvadorian type called Pacas—among many others.


[Photograph: tonx on Flickr]

Bourbon remains a popular variety with both coffee growers and coffee lovers for its figgy sweetness and gentle brightness. Balanced with a smooth texture and a sweet, just-right finish, Bourbons are sort of the peanut-butter-and-jelly of the coffee world: Who doesn't love a PB&J, amirite? Somehow it always hits the spot.

Want to give Bourbon coffee a try? At Counter Culture Coffee (where I work), we feature this variety from various growing regions in a special line called Variety: Bourbon. While the country of origin might change (and, therefore, perhaps some of the flavor—there's that terroir question again!), the variety remains the same. Currently, the featured coffee is from Finca Santa Elena in El Salvador. $15.50 for 12 ounces.

Another option is the splurgey-but-worth-it Varietal Series from Madcap Coffee, which features a straight Bourbon as well as several of its kin, like Yellow and Orange varieties (guess what colors the coffee cherries ripen to?), Pacas, and Caturra, among others. $50 for eight 45-gram tins.