Photo of bourbon coffee plant, close up of the coffee cherries

Variety Highlight: Bourbon

The Bourbon Variety: An Exploration of Lineage, Flavor, and History

Bourbon, one of the most culturally and genetically significant Coffea arabica varieties, stands out in the world of specialty coffee for its exceptional quality and rich history. The variety is known for its unique flavor profile that includes vanilla, fruitiness, chocolate, and a hint of spice; the bourbon variety also boasts a medium-high citric acidity and a medium dense body. This combination makes it a favorite among coffee enthusiasts and a staple for high-altitude coffee production.

At Upshot, we love Bourbons and chances are, if you liked our Rwanda Isimbi Co-Op or our latest blend Heatwaves, you probably do to!

This article will be covering “red bourbon” specifically, which is a little different from yellow bourbon and the famous pink bourbon varieties, but we will save those for another day.

Distinctive Characteristics

Bourbon is celebrated for producing well-balanced cups of coffee, especially when grown at high altitudes. Here are some key attributes that define Bourbon:

Flavor Profile: Vanilla, initial fruit, chocolate, spicy notes, medium-high citric acidity, medium dense body.

Bean Size: Average.

Yield Potential: Medium.

Quality Potential at High Altitude: Exceptional, making it a preferred choice for high-altitude farms.

Disease Susceptibility: High

Despite being susceptibility to various diseases such as coffee leaf rust and nematodes, the unique flavors and high-quality potential of Bourbon make it a prized variety.

Genetic Lineage and Descendants

The genetic lineage of Bourbon is rich. Over the years, Bourbon descendants have played significant roles in the coffee industry, particularly in regions where Bourbon's susceptibility to diseases posed challenges. The graphic below from world coffee research gives a good perspective on just how many Bourbon descendants are commonly used in commercial coffee production.

Pictured first is a graphic showing the genetic lineage of commercially significant arabica coffee varieties. The varieties that appear in orange indicate a variety that is either a selection of Bourbon or a variety derived from crosses that involve Bourbon as a parent.

Bourbon descendants make up a large portion of these varieties, showing just how impactful it has been! The most notable from the graphic include Caturra, Pacas, SL28, and French Mission.

A Historical Overview

The history of Bourbon is as rich as its flavor. Originally introduced by French missionaries from Yemen to Bourbon Island (now La Réunion) in the early 1700s, the variety did not leave the island until the mid-19th century. As missionaries traveled, Bourbon spread to Africa and the Americas, notably arriving in Brazil around 1860. From Brazil, Bourbon rapidly disseminated to other parts of South and Central America, where it mixed with other varieties and local landraces.

Today, while many Bourbon-like varieties can be found in East Africa, the distinct Bourbon variety is most commonly cultivated in Latin American countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru. Although it has largely been replaced by its descendants (including Caturra, Catuai, and Mundo Novo) in many areas, as they are more resistant to disease. Nonetheless, Bourbon still holds its place as a key variety in coffee cultivation.

Unique Plant Characteristics

Bourbon plants have several distinctive characteristics that set them apart from other varieties like Typica:

Leaves: Broader than Typica, with young leaves being green and mature leaves larger.

Fruit and Seeds: Rounder than those of Typica.

Stems: Stronger and more upright.

Branches: Slightly bushier with more secondary branches growing at slight angles.

Trunks: Thicker and less flexible than those of Typica.

Cultivation Insights

Bourbon plants have a medium nutritional requirement and typically begin producing fruit in their fourth year. The cherries ripen early, and the cherry-to-green-bean outturn is average. Optimal planting density for Bourbon is between 3,000 and 4,000 plants per hectare when using single-stem pruning techniques.

Bourbon's Legacy

Bourbon’s journey from the island of La Réunion to becoming a staple in Latin American coffee farms is a testament to its resilience and quality. It remains a cornerstone in the coffee world, influencing the development of many other varieties and continuing to delight coffee lovers with its distinctive, high-quality flavors.

In summary, Bourbon is more than just a variety; it is a symbol of the rich history and intricate journey of coffee cultivation. Whether you're a coffee enthusiast or just starting to explore the world of specialty coffee, Bourbon offers a unique and delightful experience worth trying.

To learn more about Bourbon and other coffee varieties, I encourage you to visit worldcoffeeresearch.org. I used their research as a reference for this article and they have a ton of great resources about varieties, growing practices, value chains, and more.

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