Gonzalo Hernandez, proprietor and manager of Coffea Diversa Coffee Varietal Garden (aka Coffee Wonderland), doesn’t let a guest commence a tour of the varietals filling his land without first getting a history lesson. The varietals planted on the acres of Coffea Diversa include plants that range from tiny to gargantuan and some that look so much like the stuff of Carroll’s fiction that they seem too bizarre to be real. Gonzalo knows that his farm holds much “ooh” and “ahh” appeal even to the non coffee industry beholder, which is why he always starts any visit with a quick tour though the years. Coffea Diversa’s wonders become even more remarkable when you realize the history they’re flying in the face of.
Coffee historians like Mark Pendergrast in his book Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World give much fuller explanations of coffee’s fascinating history (it is actually pretty fascinating), but here’s the abbreviated version: coffee is native to what is now Ethiopia (and a tiny corner of Sudan and a small section of Northern Kenya) and was first brought out of Africa to Yemen by Arab traders. The names we see on our single origin menus today, like Jimma, Geisha, Harrar, Yirgacheffe, and Sidamo, are the regions coffee was first found growing wild in forests. But, from all the hundreds of varieties of coffee trees growing in Africa, the Arabs only brought one to Yemen: Typica (a varietal within the Arabica genetic family).
From Yemen the Dutch took that Typica to Sumatra where they propagated it in their colonies and brought a few seeds back to Europe for show and tell. France’s Louis XIV got his hands on a Typica seed on two from the King of Holland, and grew a plant in his botanical garden at Versailles. From that single plant, coffee seeds traveled to the French colonies in the Caribbean, particularly to the island of Martinique, the Island of Guadalupe, and to Jamaica in 1728. Cuba and Mexico also inherited Typica.
The French next brought Typica to their Island of Bourbon (now called Reunión), where it underwent a mutation to yield the Bourbon variety, which was what was then brought to Brazil. From these two varieties of Typica and Bourbon, which both in fact have Typica genes, all the varieties of coffee planted in Latin American and Asia can be traced back.
Today people are getting curious and going back to Africa to get fresh material to create new hybrids and varieties with qualities desirable in the world’s current climatic realities. But overall there’s not much diversity going on in coffee.
Gonzalo and his work at Coffea Diversa’s wonderland aim to change that. Here, there are hundreds of varietals of coffee planted up and down the Costa Rican hills. The varietals offer a range of flavor profiles and genetic diversity seldom seen in coffee. Who knows what these different plants will yield in the cup; Gonzalo and his fearless team are finding out.
For logistic regions, coffee used to be much more homogenized than it is today. When coffee was shipped break bulk (bags all tossed into the stowage area of a ship) there was no paperwork ensuring traceability and guaranteeing origin. If it was coffee it was coffee; no one was checking to make sure it was actually from Aceh in the north of Sumatra and that it was never mixed with coffee from Padang farther south.
Now we have electronic and instantaneous information sharing and air freight and sealed container ships and detailed customs documents. Experts can preserve a coffee’s qualities all the way from the mountains of Costa Rica to the urban centers of Osaka. We’re better coffee drinkers than we used to be; we notice subtle differences in flavors and expect to see those flavors again—and to discover new ones.
Diversity in the coffee garden not only means better things in ecological terms of resistance to pests and plagues and adapting to evolving environmental conditions, it means more product diversity in the cup, and a whole lot more coffee to love.
Check out photos from my visit to Coffea Diversa. Note that coffee can be big, small, green, purple, and can be processed according to even broader of a rainbow of methods. Coffea Diversa only processes its coffee using the Natural (letting whole cherry dry as one) or Honey (pulping off skin and leaving sticky sweet mucilage on bean to dry) methods. They use raised mesh beds and an innovative system of indoor beds heated by precisely controlled air currents to expedite drying and make best use of space.