Contrasting Systems

  • This month we are focusing on the effect of varietal in coffee, both in terms of cup profile and in the field.

  • Both coffees this month have a distinctive varietal, which is an important factor in both the way they are grown and the way they are expressed in the final cup.

  • The heirloom varietals of Ethiopia have begun to be sequenced, but still number in their thousands. This leads to a biodiversity not seen elsewhere in the coffee world.

  • This biodiversity, along with agronomic practices in Ethiopia, leads to effectively organic coffee growing, with very little external fertiliser required.

  • Like many washed heirloom Ethiopian coffees grown in this way, Werasa is delicate, floral and fresh.

  • The Arara varietal is much more modern, having only been released in 2012. It has risen to popularity in Brazil for several reasons, chief among which are high yield, disease resistance and importantly excellent quality.

  • In Brazil, varietal is chosen much more deliberately, in order to create a very efficient, almost industrial coffee growing system. For example, varietals with different ripening times can be used on the same farm to spread out the harvest and increase efficiency.

  • Retiro do Cedro is also typical of its region, with lower altitude and sweetness-focussed varietals leading to rich chocolate character and heavier body in the cup.

1 x coffee

Werasa (250g / 5.3oz)

2 x coffee

Werasa (250g / 5.3oz)
Retiro do Cedro (250g / 5.3oz)

Contrasting Systems

This month we are sharing coffees from two very different production systems, in very different parts of the coffee belt. The choices that farmers in these countries have to make, and the tools at their disposal in order to create high quality coffees, are also very different. One of the key choices is the varietal of coffee planted. This can have many effects, from the way that coffee is planted, fertilised and harvested, to the way the coffee tastes in the final cup.

First coffee - Ethiopia

Werasa - Washed Heirloom
A crisp washed lot from Yirgacheffe

Bergamot, Lemon and Black Tea
(250g / 8.8oz)

We have been purchasing Ethiopian coffees through Moplaco for three years now, and have grown to trust their buying practices and the quality that they are able to offer, both in coffees they produce themselves, and those they purchase from neighbouring mills. This lot is an example of the latter. This lot was purchased by Moplaco from the Mijane Werasa station, located just 10 kilometres outside of Gedeb, one of the main coffee buying centres of this micro-region, where Yirgacheffe coffees are produced. The conditions here are perfect for growing high quality Arabica coffees, with high altitude, cool temperatures and especially cool nights leading to slow cherry maturation and very dense seeds. In fact, Heleanna, founder of Moplaco and therefore one of our most trusted authorities in Ethiopia, believes that the best ‘Yirgacheffe’ coffee comes from the Gedeb Woreda, with great intensity and clarity of flavour. This washed process lot is showcasing soft florals, followed by crisp and zesty citrus and a delicate tea-like finish, very typical of high quality coffees grown in this region.


The birthplace of coffee

Coffee production in Ethiopia is distinct from most of the rest of the world, with very different coffee varieties grown in very different systems, even when compared to neighbouring countries like Kenya. Coffee here still grows semi-wild, and in some cases completely wild. Apart from some regions of neighbouring South Sudan, Ethiopia is the only country in which coffee is found growing in this way, due to its status as the genetic birthplace of arabica coffee. This means in many regions, small producers still harvest cherries from many thousands of species of wild coffee trees growing in high altitude humid forests, especially around Ethiopia’s famous Great Rift Valley.

There are three categories of forest coffee growing in Ethiopia, Forest Coffee, Semi-Forest Coffee, and Forest Garden Coffee, with each having an increasing amount of intervention from coffee producers. Forest coffee makes up a total of approximately 60% of Ethiopia’s annual crop, so this is a hugely important method of production, and part of what makes Ethiopian coffee so unique. Full Forest Coffee means no intervention, only picking coffee cherries from wild coffee trees, under natural forest cover. This mode of production is very low yielding, but has a very high value in terms of carbon capture and biodiversity. The high level of shade and diverse nutrient supply also leads to very high quality. From here, more and more intervention is allowed; in Forest Garden Coffee it is normal to prune, weed and stump coffee trees, and to remove shade trees to make way for denser coffee planting.

Throughout all of these systems, a much higher level of biodiversity is maintained than in modern coffee production in most of the rest of the world. This is partly due to the forest system, and partly down to the genetic diversity of the coffee plants themselves. There are thousands of so far uncategorised ‘heirloom’ varieties growing in Ethiopia; all descended from wild cross pollination between species derived from the original Arabica trees. This biodiversity leads to hardier coffee plants, which don’t need to be artificially fertilised. This means that 95% of coffee production in Ethiopia is organic, although most small farmers and mills can’t afford to pay for certification, so can’t label their coffee as such. The absence of monoculture in the Ethiopian coffee lands also means plants are much less susceptible to the decimating effects of diseases such as leaf rust that have ripped through other producing countries.

Second coffee - Brazil

Retiro do Cedro - Natural Arara
A fresh crop coffee from Brazil, with rich chocolate character.

Chocolate, Hazelnut and Jam
(250g / 8.8oz)

Like many Brazilian producers, agriculture is in Paulo Robert de Oliveira’s blood. However, Paulo grew up on a cattle farm, and only gained experience in coffee when he branched out into his own project, which became Retiro do Cedro. A great deal of perseverance was required in order to aim for quality, but now Paulo and his son consistently produce great coffees on their 2 hectares of land. For the region, this is actually a rather small plot, producing only 80 bags of coffee a year. The other interesting thing about this lot is the varietal. Arara is a naturally occurring cross between Obata and Yellow Catuai, which has grown popular due to its resistance to disease and drought, while retaining high quality characteristics in the cup. The natural process of this lot enhances the typical Brazilian character, dominated by rich sweet chocolate and nut notes.


Coffee’s modern home

The Ethiopian coffee lands are effectively a natural polyculture system, creating a resilient and high quality crop, but not quite as high yielding as systems in other parts of the world. Coffee growing in Brazil is rather different, with choices made very deliberately in order to create a high efficiency, high yielding system. It’s not by accident that Brazil is by far the world’s largest producer of Arabica coffee. As we’ve discussed, the choice of varietal is a hugely important one, that has a great deal of impact on business. Different varietals are better suited to different conditions and terroir and have different requirements in terms of fertilisation. There is also a question of priorities, whether it is better to prioritise high-yielding varieties, ones that have the potential to produce high quality, or ones that are resistant to disease. As many producers in Brazil are larger and have more direct access to the wider coffee market, they can also take into account market demands and the types of buyers they have access to.

This month’s coffee from Paulo Roberto de Oliveira at Retiro do Cedro is of the Arara varietal, one that we haven’t worked with at La Cabra before, but one that is gaining traction fast across Brazil. Arara is a rather new cultivar, having only been released by the Procafé foundation in 2012. The word cultivar is a portmanteau of cultivated and varietal, referring to the fact that the varietal has been cultivated by humans, normally by fertilising one varietal with the pollen of another, in order to create a hybrid. These days in Brazil most new farms are planted with rather recent cultivars, with hundreds available focussing on factors like higher yield, disease resistance, or high quality potential. Part of the wide appeal of Arara however is its apparent lack of compromise. Arara yields very high, is resistant to most problematic diseases, and appears to produce very high quality, having placed highly in several years and categories of the Brazilian Cup of Excellence. The varietal was initially discovered in the early 2000’s, when two particular trees in a field of Obata and Catuai crosses caught the attention of scientists at the Procafé foundation’s experimental farm in Varginha. These trees were very vigorous and productive, immune to coffee rust and unusually, produced yellow fruit in a field of otherwise red cherries. 12 years of careful selection and research led to the release of the varietal in 2012. Arara also has its advantages in the field. The trees are very compact, meaning harvesting is much easier. The cherries are also rather slow to ripen, when compared with other popular Brazilian varietals. This may sound like a disadvantage, but this trait can be used to help farm management on large plantations in Brazil. A producer could theoretically grow varieties with different maturation times, and as a result, wouldn’t be overwhelmed at harvest time since not all of the coffee will ripen at the same time. This could also explain the high quality we see in many Arara lots, as a longer maturation phase often leads to a greater concentration of sugars and flavour compounds in the cherries, which translates into the final cup.

The importance of choice

This month’s coffees come from two contrasting agronomic systems, and this contrast carries through into the cup. The choice of varietal is an important concept in creating an agronomic system, and these two coffees illustrate both the importance of that choice, and the many factors that can affect it. We hope that you enjoy both coffees and their stories this month.

Stay bright and curious La Cabra

About Discovery

About Discovery

The opportunity to share new experiences

Our Discovery Subscription allows us the opportunity to share new experiences with you every month, taking you with us on our journey through the changing seasons of coffee. This allows you the opportunity to taste new lots from across the coffee landscape as they arrive at our roastery, when they’re fresh and in season. We strive to find the most delicious and thought-provoking coffees we can get our hands on, working together with a group of innovative and dedicated partners we have met over our years in the industry. We are inspired not only by sharing their painstakingly created raw material, but by conveying how each step of its journey has led to what you find in your cup, be it terroir, varietal, post-harvest processing, or something else entirely.

We always aim to tell a story

One of the best ways to appreciate the effect of these factors is to taste coffees side by side. Our most popular option allows you to experience two coffees every month, maybe different varietals or processes from the same farm or region, or maybe two parallel lots from producers at opposite ends of the coffee belt. We always aim to tell a story with our coffee choice, focusing on a different aspect of what we’re finding exciting in coffee right now. Sharing these experiences each month allows us to expand our coffee horizons together, and develop a shared vocabulary within both taste and preference in coffee.

We’re always happy to continue our conversation with you through our webshop portal, whether it be purely practical, or discussions about this month’s coffees. We see our role as simply a middleman between you and some of the best coffees in the world, and the people who produce them. These people inspire us, and we do our utmost to share both their coffees and their stories with the people who appreciate them most.