Everything you ever wanted to know about Bourbon: The OG variety of coffee we all know and love

A bourbon here is a bourbon there… right? Not exactly.  Here’s a bit on the winding history of this tasty fruit that is both a single variety and a family of varieties with descendants. If we’re going to unpack how Bourbon got to be one of the most beloved and prolific varieties, we’ll have to go back in time. In the early 1700s, the French tried to introduce this variety from Yemen to the Island of Bourbon (now called La Réunion) on three occasions. These attempts were confirmed via genetic studies and the first attempt wasn’t successful at all – only some plants from the 2nd and third attempts made it onto the island to grow and propagate. Bourbon stayed on that island for a while, until the 19th century.

From there, French missionaries (ahem, colonizers) were largely responsible for the spread of Bourbon in Africa. They arrived at La Réunion island in 1841 and from there went to Zanzibar in 1859. From Zanzibar, they spread out to Bagamoyo (coastal Tanzania, called Tanganyika at that time) in 1862, to Kikuyu, Kenya and also to Taita Hills (Bura) in 1893. They covered a lot of ground. The Kikuyu (St.Augustine) seedlings were used to establish large stretches of the Kenyan highlands with coffee. The Bagamoyo seedlings were used to start several plantations in the Kilimanjaro region on the Tanzanian side.

From there in the 1930s, A Tanzanian research station near Moshi started a formal breeding program. They used “mass selection” of mother trees that showed outstanding characteristics and superior performance – This was from the Bagamoyo seed stock. The resulting selections form the base for the new generation and it continues from there. That particular research station is called Tanzanian Coffee Research Institute (TaCRI) today.

From World Coffee Research: “The bourbon seedlings from Bura were brought to another French Mission in Saint Austin (near Nairobi) in 1899, and from there, seeds were distributed to settlers willing to grow coffee. These introductions are the origin of what became known as “French Mission” coffee. Recent DNA fingerprinting has shown that old Indian varieties known as Coorg and Kent are related to the Bourbon- descended varieties. This indicates that in 1670, the first seeds sent out of Yemen to India by Baba Budan likely included both the Bourbon and Typica groups (see also Typica below). This may mean the Typica branch separated from Bourbon when the Dutch brought seeds in 1696 and 1699 from India (not from Yemen, as is often told). Bourbon was first introduced to the Americas in 1860 to southern Brazil, near Campinas.” 

From there, it spread north into Central America, and for the Bourbon that we source from the folks at Nemba in Burundi, the story continues from that point to central America, and back again via the Congo. A very long journey that we can’t help but wonder how it’s characteristics changed along the way.