Variety or Varietal: There’s a Difference and It’s Important

Variety or Varietal: There’s a Difference and It’s Important

There aren’t many scandals in specialty coffee, but the ones that do exist typically revolve around labeling. The big-time controversies include misleading or downright fraudulent labeling. There are serious offenses that come with legal ramifications, but there are smaller switcharoos that can cause a bit of dust-up.

For instance, there’s the misuse of the word varietal.

We see it on bags and on coffee profiles, read it in articles and hear it in barista competitions: Bourbon varietal, Typica varietal, and so on. While the term varietal correctly refers to the brewed liquid, it is not, as a matter of fact, the correct term for the subspecies of plant. That would be the coffee’s variety.

In wine, from whose lexicon specialty coffee has inherited both good and bad habits, there are several ways that the two words are used. Variety can refer to either the grape itself (Malbec, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris), or to the style or kind of wine, as in red, white, or sparkling, etc. Varietal is used to describe a wine made from a single variety of grape. So, a glass of Chardonnay would be a varietal wine, made from Chardonnay variety grapes. In specialty coffee, we often see these terms being confused. Varietal is often used synonymously with variety, even when the plant itself is a cultivar or a hybrid, causing even more confusion.

“You know, some people love it, others hate it,” Cohen said about the banter regarding variety/varietal. “That eye rolling is just because the eye roller doesn’t quite share the passion. I think about all the cocktail nerds who flock to bars and talk amongst themselves about acceptable Manhattan recipes and making their own bitters and whatnot, and I just think there’s space for everyone — professionals and consumers — to enjoy as they see fit. Would be nice if the eye rolling stopped, though.”

“I try not to be pretty about it anymore because there are exceptions to all the rules we try to make,” Giuliano said. “I’ve been much more embracing of the gray areas, because coffee is agriculture, and agriculture doesn’t fit into these neat little thing she try to fit it into. The world resists our attempts to simplify it.”

To learn more about coffee varieties, cultivars, and hybrids, visit World Coffee Research’s Varieties catalog, the webpage on the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s heritage site about coffee plants of the world, or the botanical breakdown of Coffea arabica presented by the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew.

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