Coffee varieties: A complete guide to Bourbon

Matteo Pavoni
October 19, 2021
bourbon coffee

The arabica coffee species is made up of many varieties and cultivars. Each one has its own set of unique characteristics, from disease resistance to distinct flavour notes.

Among the most popular arabica varieties in the specialty sector is Bourbon.

Not to be confused with the American whisky, Bourbon is widely recognised for its complexity and sweet cup profile. It is one of the two main cultivars from which other coffee varieties are bred, although it was first cultivated on the French island of Réunion.

For roasters, Bourbon is a good choice thanks to its high quality potential. It offers a clean cup, with a nice balance of sweetness and body, while it can be found growing in a range of origins.

To understand more about Bourbon and its characteristics, I spoke with three-time Guatemalan Cup Tasters Champion and head of quality control at Bella Vista Coffee, Dulce Barrera.

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bourbon coffee cherries
Bourbon coffee was first cultivated on the French island of Réunion

Where did Bourbon originate?

Alongside Typica, Bourbon is one of the most culturally and genetically important varieties of arabica coffee in the world.

Seeds were first introduced to Yemen from Ethiopia in the 17th century. From there, they began to spread around the world and, in the early 1700s, arrived on the French island of Île Bourbon (now La Réunion) where it got its name.

Around the mid-19th century, Bourbon plants returned to Africa and arrived for the first time on the American continent via Brazil.

As the variety spread north into Central America, it mixed with other Bourbon-related varieties introduced from India and Ethiopian cultivars. This gave rise to several Bourbon mutations that are different to those found in East Africa to this day.

Bourbon plants have the highest quality potential when grown at high altitudes (between 1,000 m.a.s.l. and 2,000 m.a.s.l.), and in nitrogen-rich, volcanic soils. The plants produce small, dense cherries that mature quickly – however, their yield is relatively low compared to other varieties.

According to World Coffee Research, Bourbon is susceptible to a range of diseases, from coffee berry disease to coffee leaf rust. As a result, it requires a high level of care to preserve its health.

filter coffee
Bourbon is recognised for its sweet and complex cup profile

What does Bourbon coffee taste like?

Owing to the sheer number of mutations and regions in which it’s grown, Bourbon’s characteristics can be hard to pin down.

For example, Bourbon from El Salvador tends to have a buttery, toffee-like flavour, whereas coffees from Rwanda often have a fruitier punch.

Dulce Barrera works as head of quality control at Bella Vista Coffee in Guatemala. She tells me that Bourbon is one of her favourite coffee varieties due to its superior cup profile.

“With Bourbon, I always find sweetness more than anything,” she says. “But it is also very clean and well-balanced with a brilliance that’s not always apparent in other coffees.

“As well as being one of my favourites, it’s the favourite of many of our customers due to its delicious profile.”

Altitude and processing methods also play a significant role in shaping the characteristics of Bourbon. A natural Bourbon, for instance, might be sweet and winey, but if washed, it could be brighter with more acidity.

The same is true across the Yellow, Red, and Pink cultivars. Pink Bourbon (named for the peachy-pink colour of the cherries) is commonly found in El Salvador and known for its bright, floral flavour that can take on a fruity punch.

Meanwhile Yellow Bourbon is recognised for its pronounced acidity and raisin-like flavour notes.

bourbon coffee beans
According to Dulce, Bourbon is popular due to its versatility

Why is Bourbon so popular?

Despite the challenges presented by low yields and high susceptibility to diseases, the consistent and high-quality results in the cup make Bourbon an immensely popular choice among both roasters and consumers.

Dulce explains that what draws her to the variety is its versatility and the relative ease with which it can be roasted.

“I like Bourbon because it’s easy to roast, easy to sell, and easy to consume thanks to its delicate body and elegant cup profile,” she says.

“It also works well across light, medium, and dark roasts, and it can be brewed using either manual or automatic methods. It’s very versatile.”

“I like Bourbon because it’s easy to roast, easy to sell, and easy to consume.”

Another draw is the minute differences that can be detected in each Bourbon. As mentioned, a change in altitude, origin, or processing method can bring out dramatically different characteristics in the cup – even among those from the same farm.

“I have been tasting Bourbon from Hacienda Carmona located in Antigua, Guatemala for years,” Dulce tells me. “I always enjoy its sweet, elegant, and refined profile with a vanilla, honey, and pecan aroma and a bright, citric acidity.

“But then there’s also the Bourbon from Hunapu Dueñas and one from Comalapa that have really stuck with me. The truth is I taste and taste so many but they are always there and I guess they are engraved in my mind – like a sort of language.”

sustainable coffee bags
High-barrier coffee bags are key to preserving the freshness of roasted coffee

Of all the arabica coffee varieties, Bourbon is without a doubt one of the most popular among roasters and consumers.

Recognised for its complex and full-bodied cup profile with bright acidity and prominent sweetness, it can be found across a wide range of origins and altitudes, each one offering its own set of distinct characteristics.

For roasters, it’s important to not only unlock the full potential of their Bourbon coffee beans during a roast, but also promote it effectively using all the tools available – which includes packaging.

At MTPak Coffee, we understand how crucial it is to highlight your coffee’s variety and all its characteristics using packaging. Our expert design team can help you create a bag that showcases the coffee, while preserving its freshness right up until the moment of consumption.

All our bags are either recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable, while our additional components, such as BPA-free degassing valves and resealable zippers, are also recyclable. Furthermore, we use the latest in sustainable UV printing technology and low-VOC water-based inks to minimise our carbon footprint.

For information on our sustainable coffee bags, contact our team.

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