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Discovering the Bourbon Coffee Varietal

A new coffee varietal I got to try this year is the Red Bourbon. The one I tried was grown at the M. S. Estate at Balanoor Plantations in Karnataka and roasted by the Bloom Coffee Roasters in Chandigarh. The coffee was incredibly sweet with great aromas and it is sure going down as one of the most memorable coffees I have had in 2021. If you love a well-balanced cup, you would simply adore the Red Bourbon I had. A little while later, I got to try the Yellow Bourbon from the Fazenda Santa Barbara in the Serra de Mantiqueira and Alta Mogiana region of Brazil. The region is know for their bourbons. It was also a very delicious coffee, though I did like the Red Bourbon more than the Yellow Bourbon.

Now since I had never tasted the Red Bourbon or any other Bourbon before I had the Red Bourbon, I was keen to learn more about this varietal – Where did it come from? What are its typical characteristics? How is the field performance of the Bourbons? Here is what I discovered.

Where did the Bourbon Coffee Varietal come from?

Interestingly, a large part of the modern-day cultivars of coffee is derived from two base populations – the Typica or Tipica and the Bourbon. Both of these are ascensions of Yemen and had spread worldwide sometime in the eighteenth century.

Around 1715, the French introduced a few plants of the Arabica to the Reunion island in the Indian Ocean which was then known as Ile Bourbon. These were Typica plants that then mutated on the island, giving birth to the Bourbon varietal which was found to be more productive than its Typica ancestor. The higher productivity made the Bourbon highly sought after and a valuable transplant throughout Brazil, parts of Central and South America, and the African subcontinent, especially in Rwanda.

The Bourbon came to Brazil in the 1850-60s. It was hoped that they would make up for the supply loss caused by the coffee leaf rust outbreak in Java. The Bourbons have played a key role in making Brazil one of the world’s coffee superproducers since then. So, in a way, when you are having a Bourbon coffee, you are having a slice of history, you are tasting something that changed history, and in a way helped coffee survive when the deadly leaf rust almost drove the crop out of the world. Interestingly, the Bourbons are not immune to coffee lead rust. Quite the contrary, they are susceptible to rust. However, all over the world, breeders have taken the appealing attributes of the Bourbons and created Typica as well as Bourbon-derived cultivars.

Characteristics of the Bourbon Coffee Varietal (Source: World Coffee Research)

Typical characteristics of the Bourbon Coffee Varietal in the field

The Bourbons are known to grow best at a height of 1,100 to 2000 MASL. While they produce a similar quality of coffee as the Typica varieties, the Bourbons give about a 20-30% greater yield than the former. However, when you compare the Bourbon yields with Bourbon-derived varietals like Caturra, Catuai, and Pacas, the Bourbons have lower productivity.

If you are wandering through a coffee plantation, you can identify the Bourbon coffee plant as one with large, wide leaves with wavy edges. These plants would have more secondary branches compared to other coffee plants, generally. The Bourbon berries are relatively small but quite thick. The berries can be red, they can be yellow, or they can be pinkish-orange. The color of the beans is dictated by the natural mutation of one specific recessive gene in the coffee’s gene pool. Also, it is this color of the beans that leads to the Bourbon varieties – Red Bourbon, Yellow Bourbon, and Pink or Orange Bourbon. Red Bourbons are very widely found in the world and are the main type of recessive gene trait. The Yellow Bourbon is a natural mutation of the Red Bourbon which was first found in Brazil in the 1930s. The Orange Bourbon is another natural mutation of the Red Bourbon which was first found and developed in El Salvador. The cherries of this plant are a bright peachy pink, which is why in some parts of the world it is called the Pink Bourbon.

Usual cup characteristics of the Bourbon Coffee Varietal

The Bourbons are valued for their complex acidity and wonderful balance in the cup. They often have a sweet, caramel quality with nice, crisp acidity. More specific characteristics would highly depend on where the Bourbon has been cultivated. For instance, the El Salvador Bourbons tend to lean towards butter, toffee, and fresh pastry, whereas, the Rwandan Bourbons are punchier and fruitier.

How was the Red Bourbon from M.S. Estate x Bloom Coffee Roasters?

I had the washed process Red Bourbon. It was roasted to the ‘lighter side of a medium roast’. I brewed it on my V60 – both as a hot brew as well as iced. I brewed it on my French Press. I also brewed it as a cold brew. I tried the regular two-pour on the French Press as well as the Pulse Pours thing that I have been trying out. I loved the results I got with pulse pours in the French Press and the iced pour over in a V60 the best, though a hot brew on the V60 would come close for me too. This, however, is my personal preference.

Overall, not one disappointing cup. The cup has a great, lingering sweetness and gives a beautiful red-colored brew. The flavors are delicate and memorable. There’s great citric acidity in the cup, I believe, and the flavors long after I have drained my cup.

The best part – the last sip of the coffee is just as delicious as the first one – so, for me, the coffee tasted great even after it had gone slightly tepid, say 10 minutes or so after brewing.

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If you’d like to read my interview with Rohan Kuriyan from Balanoor Plantations, you can read it here:

And if you have something to say – any feedback or questions, find me on Instagram – @banjaranfoodie or drop me a line in the comments below.

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