Coffea Arabica var. Bourbon (or just Bourbon coffee beans) are a sub-species of the Arabica varietal, which is a fancy way of saying they’re a type of high quality Arabica coffee. Bourbon is one of 3 primary siblings that also include Arabica Heirloom and Arabica Typica coffees. The Bourbon sub-species of Arabica can actually be broken down into sub-sub-species, major strains of which are:
- SL 28
- SL 34
- Moka / Mocha / Mokka
- Tekisik (or Tekisic)
- Villa Sarchi (Costa Rica)
- Pacas (El Salvador)
- Pointu Bourbon / Laurina
In addition to these, a number of cultivars (strains or hybrids developed by farmers) include a mixture of these and other sub-species. They’re chosen by farmers based on specific characteristics that make them ideal for growing in certain climates, sometimes specific to certain countries.
Ultimately, choosing your coffee based on the varietal is a mistake – your choice in coffee should reflect your taste preferences and not some classification based on genetics.
While a varietal will share certain common characteristics, the flavor is ultimately affected by altitude, soil conditions, nutrients and fertilizers and other growing practices. As a consumer, these are interesting to note but ultimately aren’t important in deciding what coffee you should be buying – there are good Bourbon coffee crops and bad Bourbon coffee crops.
History of Bourbon Coffee
Bourbon is one of the most culturally and genetically important C. Arabica coffees in the world. Historical records indicate that Bourbon was taken from the coffee forests of Southwestern Ethiopia to Yemen, where it were cultivated as a crop; recent genetic studies have confirmed this. Records show that a small number of Bourbon plants were taken from Yemen to the Bourbon Island (now Réunion) in 1715 and 1718. The small number of plants of Bourbon and one other variety (Typica) taken out of Yemen contributed a genetic bottleneck for C. Arabica. Today, coffee production in Latin America is still based to a large extent on cultivars developed from Typica and Bourbon varieties. It Brazil, which accounts for 40% of world production, 97.55% of coffee cultivars are derived from Typica and Bourbon. Nevertheless, in Latin America breeders such as those at ISIC have exploited the narrow genetic base of Bourbon to create new cultivars that have improved performance in various traits—yield, quality, etc.
The Bourbon Coffee Plant Varietal
The Bourbon coffee varietal is a gourmet Arabica coffee plant, and are descendants of those brought to the island of Reunion (formerly Bourbon), which is located in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Africa. It is not one of the four main coffee species (Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, Excelsa).
The Bourbon varietal originated after the French first planted the parent stock in 1708 in Bourbon, and the plants underwent a slight mutation creating the Bourbon varietal.
Bourbon coffee plants were subsequently planted throughout Brazil in the late 1800s, and then eventually planted throughout Latin America. Also see Brazil Cerrado Coffee; Brazil Coffee.
Bourbon Coffee Growing Countries
Bourbon coffee can be found across the world, but is most common in South American countries, which most closely mirrors the Reunion Island (formerly “Bourbon”) climate.
- Costa Rica
- Dominican Republic
- El Salvador
- Puerto Rico
- Papua New guinea
It grows best on mountains above 1,100 meters – meaning most Bourbon coffees qualify as either High Grown or Strictly High Grown (SHG) – and up to 2,000 meters above sea level. The trees don’t produce a huge quantity of cherries and beans, but are adequate for commercial growing, and typically good to highly rated.