While my experience pales in comparison to some of the others contributing here, I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring.
I agree that variety is a better predictor of flavour than country of origin, but I don’t really believe that variety is a particularly good predictor. Origin, by and large, is a geopolitical idea - often heavier on the politics - and has value in its familiarity to our customers, but little beyond that.
When it comes to varieties my thoughts turn to the talk given at the GCQRI back in October 2010 by Dr Vincent Petiard. As part of his talk he discussed how Nestlé had analysed around 100 varieties and then classified them. He put them into three categories:
- Varieties that taste good pretty much anywhere they grow. Essentiallly the quality was linked to the variety itself.
- Varieties that pretty bad no matter where you grow them.
- Varieties that can taste good in certain areas/under certain conditions.
I think our selective, positive experiences with certain varieties mean that we put more of them into category 1 than really belong there. I think many varieties are reliant on terroir for their expression of quality.
Some varieties seem more resilient. I’d be inclined to agree that the sweetness of Bourbon is noticeable (though I always worry a little about confirmation bias), and desirable. I think the floral qualities of well grown Geisha is a quality strongly linked to the variety itself. Pacamaras would be another example of a variety’s ability to express a consistent quality, with less regard to terroir than others.
Varieties with these qualities are in the minority. I don’t know (and I’m going to pull the caveat of my limited experience here) if I can describe a certain consistent cup quality of Caturra. I’ve had 100% Caturra cups that have been wildly different in flavour profile. Lots of Pacas from Santa Barbara in Honduras appear to have an interesting commonality of cup quality, that Pacas lots from El Salvador are missing. There are a great deal of varieties that we prize that seem to fall into Category 3.
I think it is always worth remembering that variety selection by the producer is rarely (in the great scheme of coffee production) a decision made on likely resultant cup quality. Yes, some great producers do make considered choices and are exploring variety but our microcosm of speciality makes this appear a more common decision than it really is. Characteristics like dwarfism (for easier picking), yield or disease resistance are more important for most producers dependent on a solid coffee crop for their livelihood.
Like many others I’ve been intrigued by the world of varieties and wanted to dive in. Resources like Raimond Feil’s are great places if you want a lot of information. (At over 10,000 words I am not understating when I say “a lot”).
I don’t think I need to rehash why we’re interested in varieties and their connection to taste. I also think that in time, with more research and understanding about terroir and variety expression, that variety will play a stronger role in flavour prediction and consumer preference.
I hope I’ve made clear why I don’t think variety is a great indicator of flavour, without devaluing its importance and contribution to cup quality. For now, I shall sign off. Rather than offer up any alternatives, I’d rather not derail the conversation this early on. I hope to continue this discussion for a while yet!