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Editor’s note: This article first ran in Roast Magazine’s September/October 2020 issue, and is republished here with permission. Roast has generously provided a pdf of the article, which you can access here.

Bourbon’s Botanical Origins and the Evolution of Laurina

The History of Cultivation on Réunion Island
By Chris Kornman

Just under 1,000 square miles of shorlines, active and dormant volcanoes, and tropical forests cover the island known as Réunion, located a few hundred miles east of Madagascar in the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean. This isolated speck of sand and rock is the unlikely genetic bottleneck for one of coffee’s most prized and widely grown plant types.

Believed to have been uninhabited for most of its existence, the island seems to have been documented first by traders from Arabia as Dina Morgabine—though it is highly probable that seafarers and fisherfolk from Madagascar would have been aware of it before the swell of international sea trade. Stumbled-upon and documented early in the 16th century by Portuguese explorers, it would be the French who claimed and settled it in the 17th century, bringing enslaved Malagasy from Madagascar with them[1]. They named the island Bourbon (pronounced “borebon”), after the French royal family.

Anglicized as “bur-buhn”, corn-based whiskey is probably the most recognizable use of the word in modern times. The distinctly American spirit is about as far removed from French aristocracy as is imaginable, yet the French root of the word is one and the same. Bourbon whiskey, distilled in Bourbon County, Kentucky reshaped the way the American south imbibed liquor and paid homage to the importance of the American staple, corn. Likewise, Bourbon island shaped modern coffee in as dramatic a form as its immediate predecessor Typica did on the island of Java, thousands of miles to the east.

Bourbon’s journey from near-extinction to become one of the globe’s most popular cultivars is more surprising than you might expect.

Map by Evan Gilman

En Route from Yemen

The French, whose early obsession with coffee rivaled only the Dutch, were keen to gain access to their own colonial crops. After a failed attempt to cultivate coffee in Dijon, France, in 1670[2], the Dutch gifted a Javanese Typica tree to the botanical garden in Paris around the turn of the 18th century. That tree would seed some of the first coffee grown in the Western Hemisphere, brought by the French to Martinique and Haiti.

However, the French looked closer to the source when searching for crops to grow on their colonial island in the Indian Ocean. Their own East India Company identified coffee as a good prospect for the recently claimed island of Bourbon and sent an entourage to the Arabian Peninsula.

R.L. Playfair’s A History of Arabia Felix Or Yemen documents the early interactions in detail. The French first paid Yemen a visit in 1708-09 which opened free trade between the Imamate and the European state. A second expedition, begun on the 14th of February in 1712, yielded a meeting with Imam Al-Mahdi Muhammad, nearly 80 years old at the time, who greeted the French with generosity. Described as “exceedingly simple in his apparel” and “liv[ing] with the greatest of regularity,” the Imam’s pomp was restricted to his Friday mosque visits when his procession included one thousand-foot soldiers, two hundred cavalry, and his heirs. Accompanied by his sons, he would arrive “under a canopy of green silk enriched with gold embroidery[3].”

According to the memoir of French East India Company officer Louis Boyvin d’Hardancourt, a French agent stationed in Yemen named Imbert successfully secured coffee for the European nation, a deed attributed to his good relationship with the Imam. It seems Al-Mahdi credited the French for relieving him of distress caused by an abscess of the ear.

Imbert managed to obtain 60 trees from Yemeni fields with Al-Mahdi’s blessing (viable seeds were forbidden to export from Yemen). On September 25, 1715, the trees were delivered to Réunion.[4] Only 20 survived the journey.

View from Maïdo onto Cirque de Mafate, westcentral Réunion.
Photo by VillageHero

In their scurry to bring Coffea arabica from Yemen, the French all but overlooked a native species. Hardancourt took note of these “wild coffee trees, of a height of ten to twelve feet, full of fruit” in 1711 and had them sent to Paris for quality evaluation. The crop was encouraged briefly but inferior quality and a dispute over importing indigenous coffee (as opposed to the trees introduced from Yemen) led to its decline. That dispute, which was resolved by considering all coffee equal in the eyes of the law for import, inadvertently led to legally relabeling Bourbon coffee to sell as “Mocha” throughout the East Indies[5], per E. C. Spary’s Eating the Enlightenment: Food and the Sciences in Paris, 1670-1760.

The island’s indigenous trees would not be scientifically recognized until 1783. Coffea mauritiana, named for the nearby island Mauritius (where it also grew indigenously), is a conical shaped tree of low yield; like a Christmas tree that yields occasional coffee fruit. Unassuming in nature, it was ignored after the 1720s… at least until something strange began to happen to the introduced arabica trees on the island around a century later.

Heirloom Trees Gain Global Attention

The newly arrived arabica, left in the care of a pair of brothers residing in Réunion’s capital city of Saint Denis, nearly died out. Just one of the original plants survived to produce offspring. This new Bourbon tree, the only arabica tree on the island in 1718, managed to produce a little over a hundred seedlings, which by 1720 had multiplied to around 7,000 new trees.

By this time coffee labor camps began to overtake the island as the main economic driver, and subsequently the relatively small population of enslaved Malagasy and African people exploded. People from Madagascar, West and East African, and India were unwillingly taken from their homelands and forced into servitude for the sake of growing a luxury crop destined for European consumption[6]. In 1769, Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre penned one of France’s first prominent critiques of slavery in Voyage A L’Isle de France, A L’Isle de Bourbon, Au Cap de Bonne-Esperance, a book about his journeys to Mauritius and Réunion, in which he said “I do not know whether coffee and sugar are necessary to the happiness of Europe, but I do know that these two crops are responsible for the misery of two parts of the world.”

Fueled by the work of enslaved laborers, from the 1750s until the end of that century, Bourbon island enjoyed a coffee production boom. However, the newly cultivated variety of coffee remained confined to the island, aside from exports destined for consumption in France, for quite some time.

View from the Cirque de Cilaos Caldera, central Réunion. Photo by Jean- Marc Astesana

By this time, French coffeehouse culture had slowly evolved from mid-17th-century curiosities to the iconic Parisian Salon, first epitomized by Café de Procope (est. 1686) which “became the gathering place of many noted French actors, authors, dramatists, and musicians of the eighteenth century” according to Ukers, and evolved to a gathering place for revolutionaries. After the revolution, coffeehouses pivoted from cultural centers to restaurants and entertainment venues, and their numbers continued to swell in Paris, reaching over 3000 by the middle of the 19th century as the city’s population approached one million.

While coffeehouse popularity in Europe has been widely studied, an often-overlooked fact is that for many people, especially women—who were frequently barred from cafés—coffee preparation in the 18th and 19th centuries often took place in the home. According to Ukers, a “varnished earthenware” coffee roaster was employed to brown the beans over a stovetop. Tabletop and wall mounted grinders were also “so common… they were to be had for a dollar and twenty cents each.” Coffee was typically brewed and filtered through cloth. In 1763 a Parisian tinsmith “invented an urn pot that employed a flannel sack for infusing.” Early metal filtration and percolator-type devices in France would make their first appearance around the turn of the 19th century[7].

Meanwhile, Réunion’s Bourbon trees for a time enjoyed literal heirloom status, passed down generationally by hand. (Most plant breeders and gardeners use “heirloom” to refer to non-commercial fruits and vegetables, thus an heirloom plant is often a private, home-garden reaction against macro-farming, one which is frequently passed generationally like a family heirloom. In this sense, relatively few coffee modern coffee varieties would qualify, including the modern usage of Bourbon across the globe[8].)

Bourbon’s heirloom status changed in the mid-1800s, when the plant suddenly exploded onto the global scene as a flashy alternative to Javanese Typicas. The irony here, of course, is that by this time the French Royal house named Bourbon had been overthrown and, in 1848, the island was permanently renamed Réunion (after a bit of back and forth, including a short stint as “Bonaparte”).

First brought to Brazil in 1859 from its namesake isle, the Bourbon plant quickly gained popularity for a simple reason: it was more productive compared to that country’s aging Typica trees. Those trees came to the country in a story filled with intrigue and an illicit affair.

Sundown from Petite Île, Saint-Pierre, southwestern Réunion. Photo by Vicente Villamón

The year is 1727, and Europe was scrambling to secure footholds in the western hemisphere and produce cash crops in their new colonies. Coffee had been introduced to the northern coast of South America for just over a decade, and the French, English, and Dutch each claimed a slice of territory now known as Guyana (the Brits’ piece), French Guiana (then Cayenne), and Surinam (Dutch Guiana, at the time). The Portuguese had nabbed much of Brazil, but lacked access to coffee there, despite many attempts.

Lt. Colonel Francisco de Mello Palheta undertook a scheme to finally obtain the plant for the Portuguese colony. Travelling to French Guiana under the guise of arbitrating a border dispute, de Mello Palheta seduced Marie-Claude de Vicq de Pontgibaud, wife of the governor Claude Guillouet d’Orvilliers. Upon his departure, she offered him a bouquet of flowers, in which was hidden a branch of a coffee tree with viable seeds. Thus, Brazil began its journey towards global coffee domination, fueled by the labor of enslaved Africans and indigenous peoples in the 19th century and industrialization in the 20th; Brazil now produces nearly 40 percent of the global supply of arabica.

While red fruit is the norm for most ripening coffee cherries, a minority display yellow as the ripe shade (and a few rare ones in the orange/pink range). For reasons likely having to do with the country’s unique terroir, Brazil’s now-famous Yellow Bourbon trees (first noticed in 1930) became highly desirable, demonstrably better in quality than red varieties grown under similar conditions[9]. As recently as 2019, in a paper led by noted coffee scholar Dr. Flávio Borém of Brazil’s University of Lavras, the team found that “The quality of the coffee as a micro‐region product [in the in the Mantiqueira mountain region of Brazil] was identified in this study at altitudes above 1,050 m. This effect was not found in natural red coffee fruit varieties.”

Elsewhere, standard red fruit Bourbon trees made progress through the Americas, often replacing the original Typica fields. French Spiritan Missionaries from Réunion also took the tree with them to Zanzibar and to the Tanzanian central coast town of Bagamoyo in 1868. From here, Bourbon trees would disseminate throughout East Africa[10], evolving into numerous local iterations and selections.

The Emergence of Laurina

Bourbon trees generally are rounder and shrubbier in appearance than Typica, a relatively narrow-leaved plant, that grows spindly branches and produces ovoid fruit and seeds. Bourbon is characterized by broader leaves and produces more spherical fruits. This is generally true regardless of where it is grown.

Red Bourbon ripening

Yet as early as the first decade of the 19th century, short, conical trees began to pop up unexpectedly on Réunion, bearing egg-shaped fruits with angular seeds, as first described in professor and chief pharmacist of the colonies E. Rauol’s Culture du Caféier[11].  Growers began to cultivate and call it (rather unimaginatively) Bourbon pointu—“pointy” Bourbon.

Pointu earned a few nicknames as it caught the attention of local growers. Its earliest cultivators used the name Le Roy (eventually evolving into Leroy), after the soul who discovered and isolated the tree for cultivation. Today, the tree is most commonly known as “Laurina,” perhaps an allusion to Le Roy, but more likely a nod to the plant’s resemblance to the Laurel tree.

But Pointu’s source remained a mystery. No new plants had been introduced to the island, so how had Bourbon, after a century of morphological stability, evolved so dramatically?

Speculation ran wild. You’ll recall the Mauritian species of coffee, discovered growing indigenously on the island, was described similarly. It seemed all too obvious to some: C. mauritius had crossed with C. arabica var. Bourbon to create a pointy hybrid. Science added further evidence once the seeds could be measured for caffeine content: Mauritius is naturally caffeine free, and Bourbon pointu has roughly half the caffeine of arabica. The January 1917 issue of William H. Uker’s Tea & Coffee Trade Journal repeated the suggestion, and presumptively categorized the tree as an independent species:

“The Bourbon Le Roy (Coffea laurina) is sometimes considered as belonging to another family, the plant being smaller than the others, rarely attaining a height of 8 feet. The grain is small but of good quality, but the plant is not so productive nor so precocious as the Arabica. Its sole advantage is that the trees may be planted closer together.”[12]

A grove of Laurina trees in Valle del Cauca, Colombia. Photo courtesy Café Granja La Esperanza

Conclusions, it seems, were drawn. At its core, this is a pretty reasonable assumption with established precedent. Arabica has demonstrated its ability to cross with other Coffea species before: spontaneous interspecific hybrids famously include a robusta cross yielding the Timor hybrid, and a cross with C. liberica that produced a hybrid known as S228. The arabica species itself is a hybrid: springing from a cross of the highly caffeinated robusta species with the naturally decaffeinated C. eugenioides.

Yet alternative theories emerged. In 1951, an important genetic academic resource was published called simply Advances in Genetics. Based on seemingly little more than its appearance, Laurina was declared a Typica relative. Others postulated it must have been introduced from an independent species in Ethiopia, where smaller morphologies are common and so-called “longberry” seed shapes are coveted by Western markets.

Modern science offers a conclusive explanation, however. A lovely little paper entitled “Unraveling the origin of Coffea arabica ‘Bourbon pointu’ from La Réunion: a historical and scientific perspective” (on which this article admittedly leans heavily for information) was accepted for publication in early 2009 in Euphytica (a plant breeding scientific journal) and posits that Bourbon Pointu and Bourbon are genetically almost identical.

After completing genetic testing (using a method called Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphisms, or AFLP, which is a DNA fingerprinting tool requiring a sample but no prior knowledge of the genome in question) on many individual trees from the island, the team determined that of 919 genetic markers identified, 918 were “present in both progenies.”

The calculated genetic distance between the two plant types? A scant 0.05 percent. Compare that with an 18.7 percent difference between Typica and Bourbon, remarkable enough as both plants descended from a small landrace selection in Ethiopia and both evolved in Yemen.

The paper concludes “the most likely hypothesis is the emergence of the mutation of a ‘Bourbon’ tree in La Réunion… followed by its selection and its multiplication by seeds as pure line.” It seems clear that Bourbon and Pointu must be one and the same. But how?

The explanation for the emergence of this funny little Christmas-tree coffee plant with small pointy beans and low caffeine seems to be tied closely to two important factors. First, with almost no genetic diversity on Réunion—all of its cultivated arabica trees sprung from just one surviving parent—the expression of recessive genetic traits was inevitable, due to reproduction via self-pollination. Second, plants expressing those recessive traits (the Bourbon Pointu trees) were selected and reproduced intentionally by their human cultivators, resulting in an entire population of conical trees with pointed seeds.

It turns out this cycle of naturally occurring mutations, which are subsequently selected for favorable traits, is pretty common in coffee. Many hundreds of desirable characteristics spontaneously occurring in coffee offer evolutionary or agricultural benefits: higher yields, bigger cherries, resistance to disease, and more. But one mutation seems surprisingly common in Bourbon trees: short trees.

Coffee dwarfism has cropped up in multiple Bourbon tree populations after they were introduced to the Americas. Caturra is a ubiquitous short Bourbon mutation, first reported in Brazil in 1937. It has many cousins: a diminutive Bourbon was named Pacas in 1949 in El Salvador, followed by Pache in 1949 in Guatemala, and Villa Sarchi in the 1950s in Costa Rica.

Small trees, like Pointu, or the wildly popular Caturra, are favorable for several reasons. Farmers can plant the trees more densely than larger cultivars and increase their yield per square acre. They are also immeasurably easier to harvest, which still occurs manually in almost every corner of the world. Nature’s Caturra and Villa Sarchi are heavily used as the pure arabica ingredient in countless hybrids created by humans (including the eponymous groups of Catimors and Sarchimors) bred for yield and resistance—producing hearty genetics with the added benefit of compact phenotypes desirable for densely planted fields.

Laurina trees planted densely on Granja la Esperanza

In recent years, an increasing number of coffee producers have taken interest in growing Laurina on their own turf. Juli Burden, a coffee grower and student of tropical agriculture and soil science at the University of Hawaii, cares for two small groves of Laurina. She told me that in many ways it is a pretty normal tree, albeit “generally slow growing compared to other varieties, particularly in a wetter climate.”

“Laurina is still so rare currently,” Burden notes, “that there seems to be a lot of interest in just being able to try it both from a green buyer standpoint and from a customer standpoint. It is similar to other obscure varieties or species of coffee like eugenioides in this way.”

Café Granja La Esperanza (CGLE), a multi-farm venture in Colombia’s lush Valle del Cauca department run by brothers Luis and Rigoberto Herrera, grows a little more than one hectare of Laurina. The trees number just over 10,000 plants in total, split between two plots on their farms La Esperanza and Las Margaritas. Camilo Hadad, CGLE’s sales and marketing director, spoke with me and offered some details about growing the unique cultivar.

Anecdotally, I’d expected to hear that Laurina wasn’t a particularly productive tree, but Hadad told me that “the yield of Laurina variety is very high.” CGLE’s estimated 8,869 kg of Laurina cherry annual harvest easily outpaces CIRAD’s estimate of 6-7 tons of cherry per hectare for the average arabica field. The cultivar’s capacity for dense spacing makes it an efficient tree, on balance.

Hadad was quick to mention that harvesting the Laurina cherries can be challenging, and that the pickers “must be very careful since the cherries are very delicate and any heavy rain could fracture the cherries and the sugars inside can leak.” The fragile fruit might not be such a problem if the coffee were to be immediately depulped and washed, but for CGLE, and many other farmers, “Natural Laurina is most likely to sell faster and people like it more than regular washed,” and so to meet demand, the pickers and processors must exercise extra caution.

Differentiation

Specialty roasters are increasingly aware of the cultivars produced and have a checkered history of acceptance when it comes to introgressed hybrids. For example, Stumptown’s “Coffee Varieties” webpage leads with Bourbon and Catimor entries. Bourbons are “so sweet, so complex, and so delicate,” while Catimors “can be a problematic coffee bean,” it reads. Coffeeresearch.org also perpetuates the claim that “at elevations greater than 4,000 feet Bourbon, Caturra, and Catuai have a better cup quality [than Catimor].”

The perception tends to be that pure Bourbon, with its frequently lauded citric acidity, has a higher potential quality and cup score ceiling despite its lower disease resistance and productivity. The result is that many specialty coffee growers continue to cultivate Bourbon in droves, climate change and leaf rust be damned. Under good conditions the apparent risks can potentially reap rewards in prices paid and market distinction.

Another method of differentiation from the fields of generic commodity coffee has emerged for the ambitious farmer. Producers can opt to grow something rare and unique. Laurina presents an interesting option here, with its uncommon physical traits matched by unparalleled flavor profile. In some cases it is almost entirely bereft of the bright acidity for which its dominant-trait parent is known. When a roaster tackles the challenging charge of perfecting a Laurina profile, the coffee can be sugary-sweet and lacking almost entirely in bitterness (perhaps the result of the absence of caffeine).

Describing a recent experience with a Hawaiian-grown Laurina, Madeleine Longoria Garcia, Pacific Coffee Research’s educator and espresso technician, says, “On one end of the spectrum, the washed Laurina had a lot of nutty/Maillard notes with some brown sugar sweetness and black tea tannins; and on the other end, the natural Laurina was very sweet with tartaric and malic acidity, dried red fruit notes (think strawberry, plum, white grapes, green apple), dark chocolate and white wine brightness/tannins.” Hadad, too, speaks of CGLE’s natural Laurina in bold and fruity terms, noting “an intense citric aroma and an effervescent body with fruit notes of kiwi, strawberry, and vanilla.”

Bourbon and Laurina offer themselves as examples of two important methods for producers to stand out in a sea of mediocrity and attract the attention of quality-conscious buyers.

And so, on the brink of coffee’s globalization, Réunion found itself armed with the emergent commodity’s best variety, Bourbon, and a unique Pointu variant. The island boasted near-global dominance in export volumes off and on throughout much of the 18th century. Yet Réunion’s exports faltered eventually as French cultivation escalated in the Caribbean and in Vietnam. Hit by a massive cyclone in 1806 and facing competition from sugarcane, coffee fell out of favor on the island.

Réunion island remains a small-scale coffee producer in the 21st century, with a tourism board that promotes Pointu as “the king of coffees” and “the best (and one of the most expensive!) coffees in the world” citing sources ranging from Louis XV, Balzac, the Specialty Coffee Association of Japan, and Yoshiaki Kawashima, a self-described “coffee hunter” and TEDx speaker credited with “discovering” Réunion’s near-forgotten groves of Bourbon Pointu in 1999

As is the case with many “has-been” high volume production regions, the struggle for recognition has become one of differentiation. In the case of Réunion, it has been to lean into the Pointu cultivar, its own rare and unique symbol of quality.

The increasing awareness of Laurina and the ever-present ubiquity of Bourbon point to Réunion’s crucial role in coffee’s globalization. The island is responsible for nothing less than the filtration of an entire species down to a single botanical variety. Sprung from a lonely parent tree, that Bourbon cultivar would go on to successfully outcompete Typica in nearly all of Africa and the Western Hemisphere. By the dawn of the 20th century, Bourbon had become the dominant coffee type grown, practically akin to the dominance of the Hass avocado or the Cavendish banana.

Bourbon has more than earned a distinction as a legacy variety. Its mark on coffee worldwide is indelible, and the island responsible for its emergence is cemented as a centerpiece in the story of coffee.

Sundown from Saint-Leu, western Réunion. Photo by VillageHero

[1] https://books.google.com/books?id=WixiTjxYdkYC&pg=PA293&lpg=PA293&dq=coffee+export+history+bourbon+reunion&source=bl&ots=5O1i-dzfuQ&sig=ACfU3U14QN00f-vlxKR3KErU6Rdy_erT2Q&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjh1eGhxOrlAhWTHjQIHcl4BXM4ChDoATAAegQIBxAB#v=snippet&q=bourbon&f=false

[2] Ukers

[3] https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.24536/page/n129

[4] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225435706_Unraveling_the_origin_of_Coffea_arabica_’Bourbon_pointu’_from_La_Reunion_a_historical_and_scientific_perspective

[5] https://books.google.com/books?id=5pCbLoZ546cC&pg=PA81&lpg=PA81&dq=hardancourt+yemen&source=bl&ots=QC19mqnXkV&sig=ACfU3U3bKgr_Qqk9LH7BMubFGhEmUKUEzg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjyktz3y6_qAhVB_J4KHSqvD6UQ6AEwAHoECAQQAQ#v=onepage&q=hardancourt%20yemen&f=false

[6] https://www.portail-esclavage-reunion.fr/en/documentaires/the-slave-trade/the-origin-of-the-salves-on-bourbon-island/

[7] https://books.google.com/books?id=oJxpQX4ko7cC&pg=PT521&lpg=PT521&dq=coffee+preparation+in+France+1750&source=bl&ots=OiiYD-05-W&sig=ACfU3U3G7bHQm-vjzbijLzH1CdC05zGtHw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjx0anQ06_qAhUGsp4KHfr6DGQQ6AEwF3oECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=coffee%20preparation%20in%20France%201750&f=false

[8] Quoting myself: https://dailycoffeenews.com/2018/12/12/a-roasters-guide-to-understanding-coffee-plant-types/

[9] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337174718_Coffee_sensory_quality_study_based_on_spatial_distribution_in_the_Mantiqueira_mountain_region_of_Brazil

[10] https://books.google.com/books?id=y1p61xARWY4C&lpg=PA493&dq=reunion%20island%20catholic%20mission&pg=PA493#v=onepage&q&f=false

[11] https://books.google.com/books/about/Culture_du_Caf%C3%A9ier.html?id=gn37vgEACAAJ

[12] https://books.google.com/books?id=KomScOSduYcC&pg=RA1-PA119&lpg=RA1-PA119&dq=coffee+introduction+into+indochina&source=bl&ots=4YkL_ks74r&sig=ACfU3U0xG38I4yaQrmi4a-d-o7ZDzZ-TSA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj7yaTKq6fqAhXOhXIEHR8aCdwQ6AEwD3oECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=coffee%20introduction%20into%20indochina&f=false

[13] https://tedxhamamatsu.com/en/speakers/kawashima-yoshiaki/