As in most of the South and Central Americas, the first coffee plants to arrive in Colombia were Typica, descendants of seeds smuggled out of Yemen in the eighteenth century and planted in the botanical gardens of Amsterdam (World Coffee Research 2020). The Dutch sent the seeds from these trees to their colony in Suriname, on the northern coast of South America, and coffee cultivation spread from there into the rest of the South and Central Americas.
Until the 1960s, Typica remained the only variety grown to any significant extent in Colombia (Cortina et al 2013). From the 1940s onwards, Cenicafé began selecting improved strains of Typica, creating cultivars with more-vigorous growth or higher productivity. However, Typica’s low genetic diversity limited the potential for improving the variety, and so from the 1950s onwards Cenicafé’s plant breeders began focusing on other varieties.
Ripe Typica cherries at Finca La Meseta, Cauca. Image courtesy of Café Imports
Typica is prized for its large seeds that produce excellent cup quality. Yields are low, however, and the variety is susceptible to disease. It can grow up to 5 metres tall if unpruned. Its sprawling branches make harvesting the fruit relatively difficult and limit the planting density to a maximum of 2,500 trees per hectare.
In Colombia, Typica is often called Criollo (Creole), a word used to describe anything indigenous or typical of the region. It is occasionally referred to as Pajarito (little bird), Nacional (national), or simply Arábigo (arabica).
Bourbon was first planted in Colombia in 1928, but because it couldn’t reach its full potential when grown under shade, producers didn’t adopt it widely. In the early 1950s, after researchers discovered that Bourbon had a higher yield potential than Typica, Cenicafé began distributing Bourbon seeds to farmers in central Colombia and using the variety in breeding programs (Arcila et al 2007).