Coffea arabica, var. Bourbon

Bourbon and Typica varieties are considered to be the two “Heirloom” or “Heritage” Arabica coffee cultivars. Typica originated in Ethiopia and was possibly the first coffee introduced into Yemen. The Bourbon variety could have had the same beginnings or it may have originated in Yemen from Typica. We don’t know for sure as early records are nonexistent. All Arabica coffee beans originate from one of these two varieties.

It is commonly accepted that the Bourbon variety of coffee tree is a natural or so called “spontaneous mutant” variety of Typica that found its way into cultivation on the Indian Ocean island of what was once called Ile Bourbon, so named by its French occupiers.

The original Typica that was introduced to the island was possibly progeny of a selection previously gifted to the French by the Dutch, although some think it an Ethiopian variety introduced through Yemen then on to the island of Bourbon. Exactly when this variety was recognized is also vague.

What is more important is that coffee growers recognized Bourbon’s unusual characteristics and it was conserved and put into separate production because it had characteristics that were in some way superior to its progenitor, Typica. Both Bourbon and Typica  were later introduced to mainland Africa as well as into French holdings in the Caribbean and South America.

Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus described Coffea arabica in 1753.

Typica – This is the base from which many modern coffee varietals have been developed.  Like the other Coffea arabica varietals that have been developed from it, Typica coffee plants have a conical shape with a main vertical trunk and secondary verticals that grow at a slight slant.  Typica is a tall plant reaching 3.5-4 m in height.  The lateral branches form 50-70° angles with the vertical stem.  Typica coffee has a very low production, but probably the best cup quality of all coffees.

The main differences between the original variety of Typica and Bourbon are:


The tree shows exceptional vigor

Bourbon is considered hardier than Typica

New leaves are usually green but sometimes bronze

Leaves are larger and broader than Typica

Cherries are more round than Typica

Branches are thicker and less flexible than Typica

Stem larger and branching more erect

Branching is 60 degrees off stem by one account

Branching is upward 45 degrees by another

Bourbon is considered higher yielding than Typica

Bourbon – Bourbon coffee plants produce 20-30% more coffee than Typica, but have a smaller harvest than many other coffee varietals.  Bourbon has less of a conical shape than Typica coffee plants, but has more secondary branches.  The angles between the secondary branches and the main stem are smaller, and the branch points on the main stem are closely spaced.  The leaves are broad and wavy on the edges.  The fruit is relatively small and dense.  The cherries mature quickly and are at a risk of falling off during high winds or rains.  The best results for Bourbon coffee are realized between 3,500-6,500 feet.  Cup quality is excellent and similar to Typica.

The Island of Bourbon could be considered “The Other Hawaii”

The island of Reunion, once known by its French name, Bourbon, is 39 mi long; 28 mi wide; and covers 970 sq miles. It is similar to the island of Hawaii in so far as both are located above hotspots under the Earth’s crust. The Big Island of Hawaii and Reunion are about the same size and both have climates suitable for coffee production. Hawaii is about 20 degrees north of the equator where as Reunion is about 20 degrees south.

Reunion is just a dot on the map, found 600 miles east of Madagascar and just slightly west of Mauritius by 100 nautical miles.

The Piton de la Fournaise, a shield volcano on the eastern end of Réunion Island, rises more than 8,632 ft above sea level and is sometimes called a sister to the Hawaiian volcanoes. It has erupted more than 100 times since 1640 and is under constant monitoring. It most recently erupted on 2 January 2010. Before that, the most noticeable eruption was during April 2007, when the lava flow was estimated at 3,900,000 cu yd per day. The Piton de la Fournaise was created by a near surface hotspot, which also created the Piton des Neiges as well as the islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues.

(Apparently in Reunion the word Piton is synonymous with the term “volcano” even though it has other meanings and is not the proper French word for volcano.)

The Piton des Neiges volcano, the highest point on the island at 10,070 ft is north west of the Piton de la Fournaise. Collapsed calderas and canyons are seen southwest of the mountain. Like Kohala on the big island of Hawaii the Piton des Neiges is extinct. The slopes of both volcanoes are heavily forested. Réunion also has three other calderas: the Cirque de Salazie, the Cirque de Cilaos and the Cirque de Mafate.

Unfortunately we don’t see Reunion coffee imported into the US anymore but its namesake variety, “Bourbon” is still cultivated in many countries around the world.

Historical notes about Reunion:

In the 11th century, Arab traders were familiar with the small-uninhabited island and because of the numerous volcanoes referred to it as the “island of destruction.”

1638 Portuguese traders claimed the island as their own.

1638 The French Navy of Mauritius claimed the island from the Portuguese

1649 Named changed to Ile Bourbon after the French Royal House

1665 French East India Company initiated settlements

1715 Coffee first introduced to Bourbon from Yemen

1719 Coffee reintroduced from other sources by the French

1723 Typica introduced to French occupied Martinique in the Caribbean

1793 With the fall of the House of Bourbon, the name was changed to Reunion to commemorate the union of revolutionaries from Marseille with the National Guard in Paris

1801 Renamed Ile Bonaparte after Napoleon

1810 Invaded by British Royal Navy and again referred to as Bourbon

1815 The island was restored to France

1848 French revolutionaries changed the name back to Reunion

1848 With the abolition of slavery, coffee production fell and other crops replaced it.

Accounts of the introduction of coffee into Reunion (Ile de Bourbon)

In 1708 two French vessels called at the port of Mocha where 60 small plants and some seeds were purchased from an Arabian sheikh and taken to Bourbon but they failed to grow. In 1715 Captain Dufresne d’Arsel of the French East Indian Company transported another 60 trees from Mocha (Yemen) to Bourbon. Of the 60 trees shipped on the vessel Chasseur, of which 40 failed to survive the crossing and another 18 died after being landed. One of the two surviving plants was entrusted to Mr. Martin of St Denis and the other was given to Mr. Houbert, parish priest of St. Suzanne. Over the next ten years planting of trees became compulsory.

According to Di Fulvio (1947) the coffee plant was introduced by order of the regent Philip of Orleans in 1715 or 1716. Another account by Lecomte (1899) states the Compagnie Francaise des Indes sent plants of Mocha coffee in 1717 or 1718.

Supposedly by 1720 the one surviving plant had produced enough seeds to start plantations. In spite of a hurricane, that devastated the plantations in 1806, the crop recovered and by 1817 production had reached 3000 tons but for some reason fell off by the end of the century. (Wrigley)

This scenario would be repeated with the French attempt to start coffee on Martinique.