There is a lot of confusing jargon in the world of specialty coffee. So many different cultures, nations, and languages have contributed to the production of coffee that it often seems like some terms got jumbled in translation. For me, one of the most perplexing descriptors on a coffee label is “varietal.” Each coffee shop or roaster refers to some of their coffees as “varietals,” but it always seems to mean something slightly different.
According to this article from Roast Magazine’s Daily Coffee News, the tension over the term “varietal,” especially versus “variety,” is nothing new. The misuse of the two terms has caused confusion between coffee producers and consumers alike. This language has been handed to us coffee nerds from the wine industry, in which the term “variety” can describe either the grape itself or the style of wine, and a “varietal” is a wine made from one “variety.” However, the coffee world often uses these words interchangeably and ignores other important descriptors, such as “cultivar” or “hybrid.”
To help clear things up, the Specialty Coffee Association of America has this page that lists concise definitions for terms such as "variety," "cultivar," and "hybrid," and describes some of the different species and varieties of coffee.
The two main species of the Coffea plant are Arabica and Robusta, with Arabica being the most popular in specialty coffee. From these two species, many different varieties of coffee plants have been produced and grown throughout the world. Some of the most popular varieties of Arabica are Typica and Bourbon, with each of those having their own subgroups as well. This graph from Café Culture is incredibly helpful in understanding coffee’s subgroups:
While there are definitely some heirloom varieties in the specialty market, meaning a coffee that has been bred from one variety with no influence from others, most coffees today are hybrids of different varieties.
It is still a bit confusing, but it seems that “variety” is the proper way to refer to the coffee plant itself, while “varietal” refers to the brewed liquid in your cup. Although I think that coffee fans should choose our descriptors with clarity and precision, it seems that your best bet would be to ask your barista what their specific shop means when they describe a coffee as a “varietal.”