The Curious Case of Catimor
This week, we will follow the Caturra family of the Bourbon branch on coffee’s family tree by looking at Catimor. Catimor is an especially intriguing variety because of its history and parentage, as well as its varied cup quality. Catimor is a forced hybrid of Caturra and a variety called East Timor Hybrid (Tim-Tim, for short). Tim-Tim is a natural hybrid of Arabica and another common species called Canephora (known popularly as “Robusta”). Being an interspecific hybrid, Tim-Tim was found to be uncommonly resistant to diseases that affect Arabica, especially the common, and devastating, leaf rust disease. It was bred with Caturra in Portugal in 1959 with the hope of magnifying the disease-resistant qualities of both, while capitalizing on the high-yield characteristics of Caturra. The result was Catimor, which shows exceptional disease-resistance with above-average yield.
Catimor appeared to be the answer much of the industry was looking for after numerous leaf rust epidemics had wiped out entire crops in several countries, year after year. Thus, Catimor was introduced into the world’s largest coffee-growing country, Brazil, on a large scale during the 1970’s to prove its worth. Though the crop remained healthy and increased capacity for many producers, much of it was completely unfit for the market from a quality standpoint. The reason for this lies in its heritage.
The Canephora and Arabica species have one major difference directly affecting cup quality. On average, Arabica contains much more naturally-forming sugars than Canephora, while Canephora contains more proteins than Arabica. Generally speaking, the sweet and acidic flavors in coffee are a result of higher sugar content, while the savory and bitter flavors are the result of higher protein content. Thus, in Arabica’s ideal growing conditions Canephora is meaty, vegetal, and astringent. Because Catimor contained some Canephora genetic structure, the Brazilian growing conditions were a disaster from a quality standpoint.
But this would hardly spell doom for this forced hybrid with such unique characteristics. While many in Latin America gave up on it from a specialty point of view, some commercial markets remained open to it. Also, Catimor was taken back to the Indonesian region where Tim-Tim first flourished and where it found a more hospitable home. The higher average rainfall of tropical micro-climates like Sumatra, combined with some lower growing elevations around the Sumatran lakes Tawar and Toba were perfect for the cultivation of both high-yield and high-quality Catimor. Today many, if not most, specialty coffees from Sumatra contain some degree of Catimor, some being exclusive to the variety.
Though many claim that a good Catimor is hardly distinguishable from Bourbon, with a crisp acidity and lingering sweetness, many of our cuppings with Catimor have shown some very unique characteristics. The higher protein content tends to bend fruit and floral flavors in a more savory direction, adding depth and complexity. Where many Bourbon-types produce dominant citrus notes, Catimor gives a much earthier stone fruit acidity, with molasses and brown sugar sweetness. The aftertaste of most Catimor is straightforward savory, sometimes conjuring root vegetable, sometimes bending toward red pepper. Needless to say, balancing these unique coffees can be a particularly perplexing, but also rewarding, challenge.