In the coffee industry we tend to use the terms ‘variety’, ‘varietal’ and ‘cultivar’ interchangeably when speaking about coffee subspecies, despite the fact that these terms do have specific, botanical meanings.
The definitions put forward by the Speciality Coffee Association of America, though helpful, are rather terse; and in many other places on the web, the words are bandied about as if they mean the same thing, which isn’t exactly the case. Clarifying the difference between coffee varietals, varieties, cultivars and hybrids is helpful in not only clearing up the noise but also in helping pave the way for some of the more complex conversations about climate change and disease resistance engaging the speciality coffee industry today.
Firstly, in order to understand what each term means, we also need to clarify what the terms ‘selective’ and ‘natural’ breeding mean:
Selective breeding (aka artificial selection) is the process through which we humans selectively breed plants (and animals) to develop certain characteristics and leverage different traits such as disease resistance and yield.
Natural breeding (aka natural selection) is the variation that occurs naturally in all populations and organisms. Mutations present in the genome are then passed on to the offspring, thus giving rise to a new variety.
Now, we can define the following terms:
Cultivar is any subspecies produced by horticultural or agricultural techniques; i.e. a cultivated variety developed through selective breeding.
Variety is a subspecies that naturally occurs; not cultivated/a result of natural breeding.
Hybrid is a cross between 2 different species or two different forms of the same species and is a product of natural or selective breeding.
Most of the varieties we know today in specialty coffee can be considered cultivars (i.e. human intervention has had a hand in developing them). Bourbon and Typica are two of the most well-known cultivars, developed through decades of selective breeding a long time ago. Although there are many naturally arising hybrids as well (such as Mundo Novo, Timor Hybrid, Pacas etc), human hands will always have had a role somewhere in helping to bring the fruits to market.
Perhaps this is why we at Mercanta tend to use the word ‘variety’ interchangeably with ‘cultivar’. Not only is it just easier that way; it also illustrates the symbiosis between nature and humans that characterises coffee agriculture.
Varietal vs Variety:
Now that we know the correct usage of variety (even if we decide not to use it), we can begin to untangle the whole ‘what is a varietal’ question.
The word ‘varietal’ as it is used in coffee has been introduced (portage-style) from the wine industry. So although ‘varietal’ can have slightly different meanings, we find it most useful to stick with its boozy heritage.
Simply put and almost magically summarised by Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine): a good way to remember the difference is to recall that one (variety) is a noun and the other (varietal) is an adjective.
Using her words: “The word variety refers to the grape variety, grown and used to make the wine such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and so forth. The word varietal is an adjective, and refers to the wine. It describes a wine….“ [and here is where some of the analogy peters off, but we recommend that you continue reading if you like wine!]
To be honest, the distinction is a slim one and tends to be contested here and there. We aren’t sticklers. We are cuppers, and we know what is TRULY important is flavour in the cup, not necessarily the words you use to talk about it. Nonetheless, when we use the word ‘varietal’ (say, on our info and traceability documents), it is usually because we are referring to the beverage itself.
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