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What Is Bourbon Coffee? An Unusual Bean’s History & Flavor

yellow bourbon berries

Okay, slow down there. It’s not quite that time of the day yet. Save the whiskey and coffee cocktail for happy hour. Right now, we are talking about the Bourbon coffee variety which is a cultivar of the species Arabica. If you’re wondering what all that means, allow us to explain.

Coffee is divided up into primarily four species. They are Robusta, Liberica, Excelsa, and Arabica. Most gourmet coffees throughout the world are classified as Arabica, which is much harder to grow than Robusta and more widespread than Liberica, which is mostly in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia.

Bourbon coffee is a cultivar of the Arabica species. As it pertains to coffee, a cultivar is a variety that is specifically bred for certain characteristics. We shall see what the characteristics of the Bourbon variety are. But first, why the name “Bourbon?”

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Why Is It Called Bourbon Coffee?

This coffee was originally brought from Yemen by French missionaries to the island that is now known as La Réunion. It was formerly called Île Bourbon, or Bourbon Island. This island is just east of Madagascar and is technically a region of France.

However, though the French may have played a great role in propagating it on Bourbon Island, coffee did exist on the Island before French control. It was formerly known to the Portuguese who settled it in the 1500s. But about a hundred years later, the French occupied it and named it after the reigning French dynasty, the House of Bourbon.

Though it shares the same name as the American whiskey which is usually pronounced [BOOR] + [buhn], the coffee variety is usually pronounced [boor] + [BOHN], which follows French pronunciation more closely.

yellow bourbon
Image Credit: Noiz Stocker, Shutterstock

Where Does Bourbon Coffee Grow?

Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, and other Central American and Northern South American countries are the primary places where Bourbon Coffee is grown today. This coffee started on the Arabian Peninsula and then moved to the middle of the Indian Ocean. You might be wondering how it ended up in the Western Hemisphere.

In the 18th century, Brazil was already one of the world’s most premier coffee growers and exporters. However, they were mostly reliant upon the Typica variety of Arabica beans. So, a Brazilian emissary was sent to La Réunion to acquire seeds from the Bourbon variety, which had a greater yield than the Typica. They brought it back to Brazil and propagated it there.

Arabica coffee plants are already pickier than Robusta in terms of environment. Robusta will have high yields in suboptimal conditions. Bourbon coffee beans, being a part of the Arabica family, have a lower yield rate, and a lower yield rate than other Arabica coffee beans.

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What Are the Different Types of Bourbon Coffee?

There are essentially two types of Bourbon coffee beans. They are Red Bourbon and Yellow Bourbon. Something happened in the years following the introduction of the Bourbon coffee variety to Brazil. The already existent Typica variety had a genetic mutation that caused yellow coffee cherries. But in 1930, it was discovered that among Red Bourbon coffee plants in Sao Paolo, Brazil was a Bourbon plant producing yellow cherries. It is thought that the Bourbon plant developed yellow cherries due to breeding between Yellow Botucatu (the genetically mutated Typica variety) and the Red Bourbon plant. The Yellow Bourbon variety has a more notably citric flavor.

red and yellow Bourbon coffee berries
Image Credit: Lucas Knupp, Shutterstock

What Does Bourbon Coffee Taste Like?

Bourbon coffee is known for its buttery flavor, nuttiness, and smooth consistency. It is low in acidity and medium-bodied. But probably the most appealing thing about Bourbon coffee is that it is rather sweet when compared to other varieties, like some from Ethiopia for example which can be rather earthy. Bourbon coffee also has tastes of chocolate. When roasted lighter, you can pick out certain fruit flavors including fig and cherry. Overall, this bean makes a bright and vibrant cup, one that will indulge your senses of taste and smell, but the mouthfeel will not disappoint. It goes down smoothly and will not upset your stomach.

What Is the Best Way to Brew Bourbon Coffee?

Bourbon coffee, due to its subtle flavors is more suited for brewing methods that will accentuate the notes. This means that dark roasted beans and espresso are passed over in favor of a medium to light roast. It can be brewed either using a pour-over method or a French press to discover the depth of flavors within the bean.

Featured Image Credit: afotostock, Shutterstock


Aaron Rice

Aaron is a Pacific Northwest native who enjoys coffee, playing guitar, and playing cribbage with his wife. He is currently a graduate student in Boston, Massachusetts.

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