February 21, 2020

Bourbon Coffee Variety: A Guide For Producers & Roasters


Arabica coffee is significant in specialty coffee production, with Bourbon being one of the varieties that takes centre stage. The World Coffee Research Organization (WCR) even refers to it as “one of the most culturally and genetically important… varieties in the world”. 

Whether you’re considering producing it or roasting it, understanding where this variety comes from – and what it needs to thrive – will deepen your understanding and appreciation of it.

Here’s what producers and roasters need to know about the Bourbon coffee variety.

Lee este artículo en español Variedad de Café Bourbon: Guía Para Productores y Tostadores

A mix of green and ripe Pink Bourbon cherries before harvesting, at a farm in Colombia

A mix of green and ripe Pink Bourbon cherries before harvesting, at a farm in Colombia. Credit: Café La Morelia

What Is The Bourbon Variety?

The WCR describes the Bourbon variety as a tall, medium-yielding plant with green leaf tips, which has the potential to produce a good quality coffee at high altitudes. It is a natural mutation of the Arabica plant, which has grown wild in Ethiopia for many centuries.

As a result of transportation and migration, Typica and Bourbon were first cultivated as crops in Yemen. In the 18th century, Typica was transported to Southeast Asia by the Dutch, while the French transported Bourbon to Île Bourbon, an island off Madagascar’s coast. In the 19th century, French missionaries began introducing Bourbon across Africa and the Americas.

Hanna Neuschwander is Director of Communications at World Coffee Research, which is an organisation dedicated to the growth, protection, and enhancement of quality coffee supplies, as well as the improvement of the livelihoods of producers. I spoke to her about the Bourbon variety’s role in specialty coffee, and its future.

While she acknowledges that Bourbon has played a major part in the history of coffee, it might not be part of its future. She explains to me that “as new varieties are developed that offer farmers fewer trade-offs between cup quality and agronomic traits of interest (yield, disease resistance, drought tolerance, etc.), it will become rarer”.

This does not mean Bourbon will necessarily become obsolete, as she says it will continue to be grown by those who can focus on it as a specialty product, and who have access to specialty coffee markets. This will have certain implications for those who wish to produce it.

Discover more! Read Tracing Coffee’s Roots Back to Al-Mokha, Yemen

Bourbon coffee cherries dry in the sun at Finca Las Azacuanes in El Salvador

Bourbon coffee cherries dry in the sun at Finca Las Azacuanes in El Salvador. Credit: Geca Coffee

Considerations For Producers

Carlos Mendez Flores is a producer for Geca Coffee, a business that farms and exports specialty coffee in El Salvador. He says that Bourbon is a disease susceptible variety that requires dedication and care to maintain its health, and that its ideal growing conditions in El Salvador are shade growing, as it enables the cherries to mature properly and be picked at their optimum ripeness. This usually results in lower yields, but higher quality. 

For producers looking to introduce this variety, shade growing is worth consideration, as it can prevent disease and enhance quality. It can keep temperatures low and stable, potentially reducing the need for fertiliser by fixing nitrogen in the soil, and allows the coffee to ripen slowly. While these natural conditions are conducive to its growth, Carlos adds that “the nutritional and health treatment” of Bourbon will be important to maintain its productivity.

After Bourbon is harvested, the fermentation methods used to process it should be chosen with care, as it can impact its attributes and cupping score. Fabian Torres is Manager at Café La Morelia, a Colombian coffee producing and processing company. He says that some of his best Bourbons “are naturally processed”, but cautions that the fermentation process used should consider “the needs of potential customers”, as each one will highlight different qualities and characteristics.

You may also like Geisha vs Bourbon: A Crash Course in Coffee Varieties

Maria, Teresa, and Jose Magaña (left to right) at Finca Los Azacuanes with freshly harvested Orange Bourbon coffee cherries.

Maria, Teresa, and Jose Magaña (left to right) at Finca Los Azacuanes with freshly harvested Orange Bourbon coffee cherries. Credit: Geca Coffee

For example, honey and natural processed Bourbons will thrive in dry harvest climate conditions, as little to no rain means that its sugars won’t get washed away. Bourbon can also suit a double washed or double fermentation process. However, this will require more time and labour

Other considerations for producers include coffee diseases and climate change, which can also encourage certain pests and diseases to develop. Carlos mentions that the 2012 coffee rust crisis affected Bourbon producers in Colombia, causing some to start farming other crops. Rising temperatures and irregular rain patterns can also lead to unpredictable harvests and premature cherry ripening, which will need to be monitored.

If producers are willing to face these challenges and take additional care with their Bourbon production, Carlos and Fabian both admit that it could be a profitable variety to produce.

Pink Bourbon cherries develop a pink/orange colour when they are ripe. Credit: Café La Morelia

Variations of The Bourbon Variety

A variety of regional profiles and colour mutations of Bourbon exist, the latter of which occurs across different Bourbons at maturation. East African countries like Rwanda and Burundi are known for cultivating this variety, as their high altitudes and volcanic, nitrogen-rich soils enhance the Bourbon’s sweet, full-bodied characteristics.

Latin American countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru still cultivate Bourbon. El Salvador mostly produces Red, Yellow, and Orange Bourbon, which Fabian tells me is ideally shade-grown, allowing the cherries to ripen fully so they can be harvested at full maturity. He also tells me that Pink Bourbon originates in Colombia, and generally offers a good cup score, good productivity, and easy adaptability.

When it comes to colour differences, Hanna explains to me that the main difference between Yellow and Red Bourbon is that yellow has one recessive trait while red has one dominant trait. However, she acknowledges that there are more questions than answers when it comes to colour variations across Bourbons and other varieties. 

Ensei Neto is a Coffee Consultant at The Coffee Traveler, a general coffee information site. He explains to me that for him, often the distinction between colours is most notable in the taste. He says that Yellow Bourbons have a substantial amount of fructose, creating a sweet and juicy cup, while Red and Pink Bourbons have a substantial amount of glucose, creating a silkier body and cup. 

Orange Bourbons right after being picked (bottom) and after ten days of natural processing (top). Credit: Geca Coffee

Roasting & Serving The Bourbon Variety 

Ensei explains that as the Bourbon variety is dense, high in glucose, and with a complex chemical composition, it requires care during roasting. Roasters can manage this by controlling the charge temperature at the beginning of the roast, to develop the Bourbon’s sweet qualities and silky body – or the desired roast level. Roasting small batches at a higher charge temperature for a shorter period is ideal for developing denser beans.

When it comes to serving this variety to customers, Baristas will need to understand that different brew methods will extract different qualities from this variety. Fabian explains that brew methods also need to be specific to the needs of the customer. Two brew methods that can help bring out a Bourbon’s best qualities are the Chemex and French Press. The Chemex will create a clean cup that retains the Bourbon’s sweetness and complexity, while the French Press will enhance its silky and creamy body.

A ripe Pink Bourbon cherry. Credit: Café La Morelia

Bourbons have the potential to produce an incredible cup of coffee. However, it’s apparent that for producers to successfully grow it, extra time and care must be put into the process. This kind of attentiveness will also be required during the roasting process. While effort will be required for this, the result will be more than worth it.

Enjoyed this? Then Read Bourbon vs Caturra: What’s a Variety & Why Should I Care?

Feature photo caption: Coffee trees growing under shade at a farm in El Salvador. Feature photo Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

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