What’s so Special about Pink Bourbon?

What’s so Special about Pink Bourbon?

By Rachel Beebe

Steampunk just launched our first ever lot of washed Pink Bourbon variety coffee and we were thrilled to have this elegant coffee on our lineup. I didn’t know much about where the variety came from or why it tastes so good, so I did a little research and went down a speciality coffee rabbit hole.

All the digging led to a few realisations relating to coffee genetics, biodiversity, the present day impacts of colonialism and a lot of reflection on the interplay between roaster-led trends, the livelihoods of farmers and the sustainability of specialty coffee generally.

It’s a lot, but I’ll do my best to explain.


Most consumers don’t know that much about the varieties of the plants they eat. Maybe you know you like Braeburn apples, but not Gala. Maybe you prefer Maris Piper potatoes to King Edward. Maybe you grow heirloom tomatoes in your garden. But that’s usually as far as it goes when it comes to consumer agricultural knowledge. Bring up coffee and most people don’t even know it’s the seed of a bush, let alone being able to name a variety they enjoy.

But in coffee, varieties are a big deal. Bigger than I realised. Most specialty coffee companies publish the name of the variety or varieties on the bag (or tin!). To me, this practice always seemed a tad superfluous. As a roaster, variety matters mostly because it impacts the size and shape of the bean, and therefore how it will take on heat in the roaster. You want to roast a tiny bean a little differently to a giant bean. But a lot of coffees we get are blends of two or three varieties, so to be honest it’s not a crucial factor. 

But in the last 20 years or so there’s been a surge of new varieties on the market. Starting in 2004 with the rediscovery of the Gesha variety, the specialty coffee world has experienced waves of excitement over the unique and delicious flavour profiles of these new players. Since then some of the novel ones to have gained notoriety include Wush Wush, Chiroso, Sidra and Ají; but probably the most well known is Pink Bourbon.

Excitement over a new variety usually starts either with its appearance in a Cup of Excellence competition or on the stage of the World Barista Championships. From there, market economics whips into full swing and prices for rare and coveted varieties can reach crazy heights. For instance there have been a few Gesha lots sold for upwards of USD $10,000/kg at the Best of Panama auction in the last few years.

At Steampunk the stunning flavour profile of the Pink Bourbon variety turned our heads when we first tasted it last year. It gained notoriety when in 2022 it elbowed out the Geshas for two of the top 10 spots at the Colombia Cup of Excellence competition and last year it was used by two World Barista Championship competitors. 

Origin Story

The origins of Pink Bourbon are a funny story though. It was given its name by a Colombian farmer who found a coffee plant with uniquely salmon orange and pink tinged cherries growing on his farm. Because he found it growing amongst his Bourbon variety plants and because of the colour of its cherries, he assumed it was a hybrid between his Yellow and Red Bourbon. But last year one importer, Cafe Imports, had genetic testing done and concluded that Pink Bourbon isn’t related to the Bourbon variety at all. It’s an Ethiopian landrace variety. “Landrace” means it’s a variety that grows wild in the forest. Ethiopia, where all coffee originates, is home to thousands of varieties of coffee, many of which grow wild or are cultivated only locally on a small scale. 

How an Ethiopian coffee plant came to be cultivated in Colombia only to be noticed for the first time around 2014 is a mystery. But it’s not a mystery unique to Pink Bourbon. A few of the varieties mentioned above—Chiroso and Ají for instance—are genetically known to be Ethiopian landrace varieties that have somehow been cultivated unknowingly, at least at first, in Colombia. Ian Fretheim, Director of Sensory Analysis at Cafe Imports and the author of the blog post that first identified Pink Bourbon as a landrace variety (well worth a read for his quirky coffee geek humour alone), hypothesised that the first Pink Bourbon plant brought to Colombia was possibly misidentified as a Gesha that was brought to be cultivated or to be used as parent stock to develop new hybrids. 


Does it matter that Pink Bourbon is a landrace and not a hybrid Bourbon or is this simply a funny story of mistaken identity? 

I’m not a plant scientist, but I think genetically it might matter a lot. If you wade into the middle of Fretheim’s post and start reading about the coffee genetics it’s pretty heavy going. But from what I can deduce it looks like most arabica plants have only very slight differences in their genomes despite often looking very different physically. Put another way, coffee has a problem with biodiversity. It’s a problem because a genetically similar plant population is less resilient. It’s more susceptible to disease and environmental factors resulting from climate change. 

Historical context

And this is where we have to talk about the history of coffee cultivation. Coffee is a monoculture because of the way it was spread around the world through colonialism. There are two main branches of arabica, Typica and Bourbon, that are the parents to most of the arabica coffee planted in the world today. Both originate from a landrace variety from Yemen that was cultivated by the Dutch in colonial Indonesia and then taken from there to the Western Hemisphere by Dutch and French colonists, where they used slave labour to grow it in the Caribbean and Central and South America.

There have been a few really great infographics developed recently that show the history and science behind how coffee was spread around the world. Royal Coffee released a beautifully illustrated poster showing the World History and Geography of Arabica Coffee Cultivars last November. RD2 Vision, the company hired by Cafe Imports to look at Pink Bourbon genetics, published their interactive Arabica Coffee Cultivars Wheel in 2022 (we do love wheels in the coffee industry!). And, World Coffee Research, a nonprofit working to make coffee economically and ecologically sustainable, has a really cool Coffee Varieties Poster that compliments their extensive variety catalogue. And finally, for an excellent primer on coffee varieties have a look at this video produced by Counter Culture Coffee—an oldie but a goodie. 

Research and development in coffee

Because most arabica plants are so similar genetically, they are very susceptible to disease and unable to withstand the vagaries in temperature and rainfall that come with climate change. The epidemic of coffee leaf rust that swept through Central and South American coffee farms in the 2010s, devastating livelihoods, is a result of the lack of genetic diversity in coffee. According to World Coffee Research there is surprisingly little investment in agricultural research in the coffee sector compared to other agricultural crops despite coffee being a high value commodity in many of the countries in which it’s grown. The lack of investment in agricultural research is likely due to coffee not being a food crop and the fact that many of the countries for which it is a large export are poor. Research into coffee genetics is also arduous and it takes a long time, meaning it’s expensive. 

There’s a fascinating story about the failure of Ruiru 11 in Kenya told by Hannah Neuschwander of World Coffee Research to Chris Kornman, Director of Education at Royal Coffee, who led the development of the poster mentioned above. It took years to develop the Ruiri 11 variety, which Neuschwander says is, “an enormous mash of every genetic material they could get their hands on, SL 28, local Bourbon, K7, Sudan Rume, and the mother plant is a stature Catimor, itself is a hybrid of a couple of different Catimors.” Scientists had to hand pollinate the plants to get seeds and then breed several generations to get a stable variety. After all that work, they released it onto the market and cuppers rejected it because the flavour profile wasn’t what they were looking for, so it was a market failure. The podcast interview is definitely worth a listen, or you can read the transcript of the interview on Royal Crown’s blog. 

So, despite the fact that there is work being done on safeguarding coffee’s genetic integrity, it’s a lot harder than it might seem at first glance. The good news is that there are big strides being made in DNA sequencing of coffee. Just last month news was made by researchers at University of Udine in Italy, who produced the most complete sequence map of coffee yet. The BBC reports that this new map shows the genes scientists think are responsible for some of the flavours in coffee. 

Head Upstream!

The specialty coffee industry is investing money and time into research and development as well. Obviously, Cafe Imports’ genetic testing is one example. Another is the effort to create a taxonomy of the many varieties of coffee growing in Ethiopia. The Reference Guide to Ethiopian Coffee Varieties was published in 2018 by Tim Hill, Counter Culture Coffee’s Head Buyer and Quality Manager, and Getu Bekele, their East African supply chain manager. Bekele, who is also a coffee breeder and researcher at Ethiopia’s Jimma Agricultural Research Center published an interesting video at the time talking about why lumping together thousands of varieties of coffee under the term “heirloom” is counterproductive. Ethiopian farmers have names for them of course, but Bekele and Hill’s book was the first publication to catalogue them for a Western audience. 

Given the need for genetic diversity in coffee and the fact the most palate pleasing varieties to hit the market in the last few years have turned out to be transplanted Ethiopian “heirloom” varieties, I imagine it's a fertile area for future research and development. As coffee lovers, growing our knowledge about varieties will help us to be more informed consumers and facilitate a more sustainable coffee industry. 


Like the story about Ruiru 11 shows, understanding the science is only half the battle. The coffee has to taste good to consumers. I would argue that in specialty coffee there’s a tendency toward always being excited about novel things. The newest kit, the latest roasting technology and, inevitably, the most delicious new variety. But trendiness in coffee has the potential to be a destructive force. Consumer taste and market trends are hard to predict and the imbalanced economic risk inherent in the coffee market means that farmers are the ones who will bear the brunt of misalignment. What happens to farmers if they use the limited land they have to cultivate a variety that loses its popularity after the novelty wears off? Or another latest greatest variety or technology comes onto the stage. 

And the risk for farmers doesn’t stop there. According to Neuschwander in the podcast mentioned above, the high value of some of these plants can also lead to deception. It’s easy to misidentify coffee plants so there’s no guarantee that farmers are investing in the plants they think they are. And, even without dishonesty, we don’t fully understand why coffee tastes the way it does. A coffee grown on one farm might taste different to a coffee grown on another, and a coffee that thrives in one place might not thrive in another. In short, there’s no guarantee that farmers will make the profit they might expect from a particular variety.

In conclusion

All of this is to say that despite jumping on the Pink Bourbon bandwagon with our newest release, we think it’s important to take a minute to be curious about the bigger picture. There’s a lot more to coffee than what’s in your cup. There’s scientific discovery, there’s the legacy of exploitation and there’s the livelihoods of all the folks who worked to bring it to you. Like I said, it’s a lot. But as you sip on your morning brew I hope this post helps you to understand a little more about it. 



Original Blog re genetic origins:


Cool infographics:



Video about Ethiopian varieties: 


Great primers on coffee varieties:




New Varieties:


Other blog posts about PB:


Origins of Castillo (mentioned in CI post re PB)


F1 Hybrids and genetic diversity in coffee:







Genetic diversity:

Coffee crisis: How to breed — and farm — a better cup - Vox

Counter Culture Video:


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