The fascinating history of bourbon coffees

Bourbon is one of the major coffee varietals and it has a long and strange history.

Photo Burundi coffee farmer harvesting bourbon coffee cherries
Taking its name from the French Royal House of Bourbon via an island off the coast of Madagascar, Bourbon is one of the major coffee varietals and it has a long and strange history.


Ethiopia is the birthplace of all coffee, but the Bourbon sourced from Burundi for our November Bean of the Month travelled the world before it circled back to its original continent, its characteristics evolving along the way.

A natural mutation of the Arabica varietal Typica, all Bourbon is a descendant of what is known as The Noble Tree.

This was the property of the endlessly curious King Louis XIV who, having spent the last 40 years transforming Louis VIII’s hunting lodge into the Palace of Versailles, was looking for a fun new hobby other than sitting for portraits (he commissioned over 300 paintings of himself during his 72 year reign.)

Along with the rest of French nobility, the Sun King was a big coffee fan. Calling in a favour from the Dutch he requested a tree for his greenhouse.

Photo Jean-Joseph Patu de Rosemont - a coffee plantation at Île Bourbon

This was no small matter. This tree, descended from the first coffee plants of Ethiopia, had already been traded to the Dutch through the Port of Mocha in Yemen before travelling to the colony of Java for cultivation.

The Noble Tree was recalled from Java back to the Netherlands to be hothoused before transportation and presentation to King Louis XIV back in France.

Fortunately, he was thrilled with his new acquisition and spent an entire day alone in his greenhouse in the Gardens of Versailles, communing with the plant.

Tended dutifully and carefully by the Royal Botanists, the plant flowered, bore fruit and, most importantly, the seeds we refer to as coffee beans.

Descendants of the Noble Tree were sent out to the French colonies, (most successfully in the Caribbean thanks to the theft of Chevalier Matthieu de Clieu, but that’s another story for another day) including the small island we now call Reunion, but which was then Île Bourbon, named for King Louis XIV’s forefathers of the House of Bourbon.

In a spectacular demonstration of what is known as terroir – the characteristic taste and flavour imparted to a coffee or wine by the environment in which it is produced – the descendants of the Typica Noble Tree on Île Bourbon developed the smooth sweetness, gentle brightness and lovely mouthfeel which would make it so popular worldwide.

The farmers of the tiny island also found the plant proved to be prodigious producers of coffee cherries, more disease resistant and hardier. So, winning all round.

These new characteristics are so profoundly different to the parent tree that it is deemed a new varietal and named for the island which gave us the new strain.

Bourbon coffee spread throughout coffee growing regions worldwide, including into East Africa.



And so we end up here, 300 years after the Sun King decided he might like to go into the coffee business, enjoying the Burundi Kirundo. Produced a mere 3,000 kilometres south east of Ethiopia, but coming to us via half the world.

The journey of the bourbon varietal:

Ethiopia – birthplace of coffee

Mocha – port African coffee is traded out of

Java – Dutch colony where coffee is grown

Amsterdam – where the Noble Tree first arrives in Europe

Versailles – greenhouse of Louis XIV

Reunion – the Noble Tree’s descendants are planted and mutate from Typica to Bourbon

Burundi – Kirundo Province, the home of our November 2015 BOM

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