How various coffee varieties differ in taste

Why is this fuss about these various major varieties of coffee? The answer comes from a recent genetic study of coffee beans

Updated - February 19, 2024 09:11 am IST

Published - February 17, 2024 09:10 pm IST

Coffee seeds were brought to India by Arab traders

Coffee seeds were brought to India by Arab traders | Photo Credit: Getty Images

How did the word coffee come about? Coffee came from Ethiopia, where they called it qahve. Late Dr K.T. Achaya, in his book ‘A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food’ (Oxford University Press, 1998) mentioned that coffee seeds were brought to India by Arab traders for use by the gentry. Arabs introduced coffee plantations in South India and Sri Lanka. And a Sufi, Baba Budan, grew coffee plants around Chikamagaluru, Karnataka. Starting in 1830, British pioneers planted coffee estates in two varieties of coffee plants — Coffee arabica at high altitudes, and Coffee robusta in lower reaches. (Arabica, because Arab traders traded qahve to Europe; Robusta, as this variety from West Africa is more resistant to disease). As I had mentioned in my earlier articles on coffee (December 8, 2019 and May 28, 2023 on South Indian filter coffee), coffee is a health drink particularly when mixed with hot milk. Many Americans drink black coffee with no added milk.

 In the city called Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu, the residents who are fond of coffee, call their coffee Kumbakonam Degree Coffee. They claim that this is unmatched by any other rival in taste. They further say that this coffee is pure Arabica, and not mixed with chicory, which is usual when we buy coffee beans or powder in department stores and coffee shops. Likewise, the Coffee shop in Secunderabad from where I buy my coffee, offers pure Arabica, as well as Arabica mixed with chicory for those who want it that way. 

What then is chicory? It too is a variety of coffee, and India is the third largest producer of chicory. In our country, it is grown in the Far Eastern states (Assam, Meghalaya, Sikkim). While some claim that chicory might be nutritionally better than Arabica, due to its lower content of caffeine, a molecule that stimulates the central nervous system, there is no conclusive evidence for it. 

Andhra Pradesh is famous for its special coffee grown in the hilly region of Araku Valley, which they claim is the best coffee not only in India but also abroad. It is pure Arabica. Very good Arabica is also grown around the Shevaroy hills of Tamil Nadu and the Manjarabad Fort, Karnataka. Many youngsters in big cities across India buy and drink Starbucks coffee, and also at Café Coffee Day. Starbucks uses pure Arabica alone, while it is not clear whether Café Coffee Day uses pure Arabica or a mixture.

Better brews

Why is this fuss about these various major varieties of coffee? The answer comes from a recent genetic study of coffee beans, by the Italian geneticist Dr Michele Morgante, who has published a paper in January 2024 in Nature Communications that several cultivated Arabica coffees can offer better brews. The Hindu briefly mentioned this in its science page on January 27, 2024, and BBC News writes that these genetic changes promise better brews. It is thus time for Indian geneticists to sequence Indian coffees.

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