Coffea arabica is native of Ethiopia, where the major genetic diversity of the species is found. Historians believe that coffee seeds were first taken from the coffee forests of Southwestern Ethiopia to Yemen, where it was cultivated as a crop. From these early plants, farmers and breeders have selected and created dozens of widely cultivated Arabica coffee varieties, each unique in its performance and adaptation to local conditions.
Recent genetic tests have confirmed that the main seeds taken from Ethiopia to Yemen were related to the Bourbon and Typica varieties. From Yemen, descendants of Bourbon and Typica spread around the world, forming the basis of most modern arabica coffee cultivation.
By the late 1600s, coffee trees had left Yemen and were growing in India. These seeds gave rise to coffee plantations in the Mysore region known as Malabar at that time. Recent genetic fingerprinting results indicate that both Typica- and Bourbon-like varieties were included in this introduction from Yemen to India. The Typica branch likely separated from Bourbon when the Dutch sent seeds in 1696 and 1699 from Malabar coast of India to Batavia, today called Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, located on the populous island of Java. The Dutch had attempted to introduce seeds from Yemen directly to Batavia in 1690, however, the resulting plants died in 1699 after an earthquake. In other words, the isolation of the Typica branch and it’s subsequent movement around the world likely originated when the seeds came to Indonesia from India, not directly from Yemen as is often told.
From this Typica group introduced in Indonesia, a single coffee plant was taken in 1706 from Java to Amsterdam and given a home in the botanical gardens. This single plant gave rise to the Typica variety (just one variety among many in the Typica genetic group) that colonized the Americas during the 18th century. In 1714, after the Utrecht peace treaty between the Netherlands and France was signed, the mayor of Amsterdam offered a coffee plant to King Louis XIV; it was planted in the greenhouse of the Jardin des Plantes and quickly produced seeds (Chevalier and Dagron, 1928).
From the Netherlands, plants were sent in 1719 on colonial trade routes to Dutch Guiana (now Suriname) and then on to Cayenne (French Guianna) in 1722, and from there to the northern part of Brazil in 1727. It reached southern Brazil between 1760 and 1770.
From Paris, plants were sent to to Martinique in the West Indies in 1723. The English introduced the Typica variety from Martinique to Jamaica in 1730. It reached Santo Domingo in 1735. From Santo Domingo, seeds were sent to Cuba in 1748. Later on, Costa Rica (1779) and El Salvador (1840) received seeds from Cuba.
From Brazil, the Typica variety moved to Peru and Paraguay. In the late eighteenth century, cultivation spread to the Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo), Mexico and Colombia, and from there across Central America (it was grown in El Salvador as early as 1740). Until the 1940s, the majority of coffee plantations in Central America were planted with Typica. Because this variety is both low yielding and highly susceptible to major coffee diseases, it has gradually been replaced across much of the Americas with Bourbon varieties, but is still widely planted in Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica.
Records show that the French attempted to introduce this coffee from Yemen to Bourbon Island (now La Réunion) three times, in 1708, 1715 and 1718 ; recent genetic studies have confirmed this. Only a small number of plants from the second introduction and some from the third introduction were successful. Until the mid-19th century, Bourbon coffee did not leave the island.
French missionaries known as Spiritans (from the Congregation of the Holy Ghost) played a major role in the dissemination of Bourbon in Africa. In 1841, the first mission was established in La Reunion. From there, a mission was established in Zanzibar in 1859. From Zanzibar, one mission was established in 1862 in Bagamoyo (coastal Tanzania, called Tanganyika at that time), another at St. Augustine (Kikuyu, Kenya), and another one in 1893 in Bura (Taita Hills, Kenya). In each of the missions, coffee seeds originating from La Réunion were planted.
The St. Augustine seedlings were used to plant large swaths of the Kenyan highlands, while the Bagamoyo seedlings were used to establish several plantations in the Kilimanjaro region on Tanzanian side. As soon as 1930, a Tanzanian research station at Lyamungo near Moshi began a formal coffee breeding program based on “mass selection” of outstanding mother trees found in the neighboring plantations planted with Bagamoyo seeds. (Mass selection is also called massal selection and means that a group of individuals are selected based on their superior performance, seed from these plants is bulked to form a new generation, and then the process is repeated). This research station is the ancestor of today’s Tanzanian Coffee Research Institute (TaCRI) main research station.
The seedlings from Bura were brought to another French Mission in Saint Austin (near Nairobi) in 1899, and from there seeds were distributed to settlers willing to grow coffee. These introductions are the origin of what became known as “French Mission” coffee.
Recent DNA fingerprinting has shown that old Indian varieties known as Coorg and Kent are related to the Bourbon-descended varieties. This indicates that in 1670, the first seeds sent out of Yemen to India by Baba Budan likely included both the Bourbon and Typica groups (see also Typica below). This may mean the Typica branch separated from Bourbon when the Dutch brought seeds in 1696 and 1699 from India (not from Yemen, as is often told).
Bourbon was first introduced to the Americas in 1860 to southern Brazil, near Campinas. From there, it spread north into Central America.
A landrace is a domesticated, locally adapted, traditional variety of a species of animal or plant that has developed over time, through adaptation to its natural and cultural environment of agriculture and pastoralism, and due to isolation from other populations of the species.
In coffee, most landrace varieties originate from the forests of Ethiopia, where C. arabica evolved, through a process of human-led domestication. They are generally associated with very high cup quality and lower yields.
BOURBON AND TYPICA GROUP
A small number of coffee trees taken out of Yemen beginning in the late 17th century form the basis of most worldwide arabica coffee production today, what we now call the “Bourbon and Typica genetic groups” (so-called because of the names of the famous Bourbon and Typica varieties which are the progenitors of this group). From Yemen, seeds were taken to India and then from India to the Indonesian island of Java by the Dutch, which gave rise to the “Typica” lineage (also called Arabigo or Indio). Typica plants were taken to conservatories in Europe and then spread across the American continent along colonial trade routes during the 18th century. Seeds were also introduced from Yemen to the island of Bourbon, which gave rise to the “Bourbon” lineage. The first Bourbon plants reached the American continent through Brazil after 1850. Both Typica and Bourbon plants were introduced to Africa in the 19th century through various routes. For a detailed history of how varieties in the Bourbon and Typica genetic group came to dominate global coffee production, see History of Bourbon and Typica.
These varieties are associated with standard or high cup quality, but are susceptible to the major coffee diseases. Today, coffee production in Latin America is still based to a large extent on cultivars developed from Typica and Bourbon varieties, contributing to a significant genetic bottleneck for C. arabica. It Brazil, which accounts for 40% of world production, 97.55% of coffee cultivars are derived from Typica and Bourbon.
Introgressed varieties are those that possess some genetic traits from another species — mainly, C. canephora (Robusta), but also sometimes C. liberica. (“Introgressed” means “brought over.”) In the 1920s, a C. arabica and a C. canephora plant on the island of East Timor sexually reproduced to create a new coffee now known as the Timor Hybrid. This Arabica variety contains Robusta genetic material that allowed the plant to resist coffee leaf rust. Coffee experts realized the value of this disease resistance and began using the Timor Hybrid in experiments to create new varieties that could resist leaf rust. They selected many different lines of Timor Hybrid, and then crossed them with other varieties, most commonly the high-yielding dwarf Arabica varieties Caturra and Villa Sarchi. These crosses (Timor Hybrid x Caturra, and Timor Hybrid x Villa Sarchi) led to the creation of the two main groups of introgressed Arabica varieties: Catimors and Sarchimors. It’s important to note that, contrary to common belief, neither Catimors nor Sarchimors are themselves distinct varieties. Instead, they are groups of many different distinct varieties with similar parentage. Other introgressed varieties, like Batian, were created from complex multiple crosses involving the Timor Hybrid; RAB C15 is the only introgressed Arabica variety in this catalog that was not created using the Timor Hybrid — it originates from a controlled cross made by Indian breeders between an Arabusta (a different C. arabica x C. robusta cross) and the Arabica Kent variety. Many introgressed varieties are covered in this catalog. These varieties have traditionally been associated with lower cup quality than others, but they have been essential for coffee farmers for whom coffee leaf rust and coffee berry disease are a major threat.
Coffee leaf rust is one of the most important threats to coffee production globally. Coffee rust is a disease caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix that causes defoliation and may result in severe crop losses.
The emergence in the late 20th century of introgressed arabica varieties that were resistant to coffee leaf rust provided key protection against crop loss for many coffee producers for nearly three decades. Starting in the early 21st century, coffee experts in Central America began to notice that some historically rust-resistant varieties were being infected by rust, notably, Lempira in Honduras and Costa Rica 95 in Costa Rica. Because most of the available introgressed varieties obtained their rust resistance via a shared parent (the Timor Hybrid), it is believed by most experts that most existing rust-resistant varieties will no longer be resistant in the near-to-medium term.
Data in the catalog about specific varieties rust resistance status is based on validated reports by scientific entities. Unfortunately, because the coffee sector is still in the very early phases of building a good global system for rust research, tracking rust outbreaks, and following the breakdown of resistance, it is not always easy to validate when a variety is being affected by rust. In addition, the impact of rust on a specific variety can be different in different geographies, and depending on the race of rust (something that is not easy to identify currently). The challenge is made greater because many farmers don’t know for certain what varieties they have; in such cases, reports of rust impacting a historically resistant variety have to be carefully checked to ensure that the plants being affected are indeed the supposed variety.
Even so, significant anecdotal evidence supports the conclusion that the breakdown of rust resistance is accelerating in many parts of the world, and World Coffee Research is working closely with research bodies in various countries to understand the impact.
World Coffee Research will update the resistance status of a variety in the following circumstances:
Hybrids generally are offspring resulting from the crossing of two genetically distinct individuals. For the purposes of this catalog, “hybrids” refers to F1 hybrids, a new group of varieties created by crossing genetically distinct Arabica parents and using the first-generation offspring. Many of these relatively new varieties were created to combine the best characteristics of the two parents, including high cup quality, high yield, and disease resistance. F1 hybrids are notable because they tend to have significantly higher production than non-hybrids.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT F1 HYBRIDS
Seeds taken from F1 hybrid plants will not have the same characteristics as the parent plants. This is called “segregation.” It means that the child plant will not look or behave the same as the parent, with potential losses of yield, disease resistance, quality, or other agronomic performance traits. The variety should only be reproduced through clonal propagation. It is therefore important for farmers to know that F1 hybrids seedlings should be purchased from trusted nurseries.
World Coffee Research is a 501 (c)(5) non-profit, collaborative research and development program of the global coffee industry to grow, protect, and enhance supplies of quality coffee while improving the livelihoods of the families who produce it.
We've created a printable version of our coffee variety catalog specifically for farmers. Available in English and Spanish.