What’s in a name? Would not a rose by any other name smell just as sweet? Have Geshas lost their price-fetching nuance now that we’ve done away with that problematic “i”? (Most of us anyway.) A name is a name is a name, a collection of sounds and letters signifying an unchanged referent. But what if the name is… wrong?

Thus is the case with the Pink Bourbon. There were two things we thought we knew for certain about one of the hottest varieties on the planet right now: its cherries were pink and it was a Bourbon. Turns out, one of these is wrong. In an article published today, Cafe Imports finds that Pink Bourbon isn’t a Bourbon at all, but an Ethiopian landrace variety.

The history of Pink Bourbon is more folklore than hard science. As Cafe Imports’s Director of Sensory Analysis Ian Fretheim tells it, back in 2014 a cryptozoologist named Lucho (otherwise known as Luis Arocha, a Senior Green Coffee Buyer with Cafe Imports, but the story is more fun without that tidbit) spotted something peculiar, presumably while out search for clues to the existence of the Boraro or the Moan or some other Colombian cryptid. But what he found wasn’t monstrous in origin, but a coffee plant, one with pink-colored cherries. After some research, Lucho found the coffee farm where the plant originated. There he found more Pink Bourbon trees growing among traditional Bourbon. Since both shared a similar appearance—tall and scraggly, per Fretheim—and the fact that Bourbon is not particularly common in Colombia, the producer believed it to be a spontaneous cross of Red and Yellow Bourbon.

cafe imports pink bourbon ian1
Ian Fretheim

But as physically similar as the different colored Bourbons appeared, the genetics tell a different story.

Sprudge Design Awards 2023

 

Cafe Imports began genetic testing Pink Bourbon back in 2017. For this first round, they used leaves from two morphologically different plants—one short tree and a tall one—both known colloquially as Pink Bourbon. That testing, done with DNA Analytica, found that the two subjects had high similarity percentages with plants possessing Ethiopian coffee genetics and were “similar to wild plants coming from Ethiopia.” But they also shared commonalities with Catimor and Bourbon and even the Tanzanian variety Mufindi.

In short, the low-80% rate suggested a different genealogy, but it was hardly the clear-cut 95-100% match rate found in similar tests for other varieties.

Fast forward six years and genetic testing has made pretty large strides. This time five samples from different regions of Colombia and Costa Rica—four Pink Bourbon and one Orange Bourbon—were sent to RD2 Vision for analysis. When the results came back, all five of the samples were determined to be Pink Bourbon: two were mixed with Bourbon, two with Catimor, and one “pure” Pink Bourbon. But there was one certainly across them all: “All five are containing Pink Bourbon, which has nothing to do with Bourbon, as it is an Ethiopian landrace.”

cafe imports pink bourbon blog6

So how did this happen? How did an Ethiopian landrace end up in Colombia? The Cafe Imports post has two suggestions. Though itself not a hybrid, Pink Bourbon may have been brought over to be a parent of another hybrid. Or, it could have been a mistake. Someone may have tried to bring over another Ethiopian landrace variety, Gesha, to grow, but what they ended up with is what we now know as Pink Bourbon.

Now, the big question is: should the name change? Fretheim doesn’t think so. “It’s not really ours to change, and of course the entirety of spoken language is filled with similar noms de guerre: from strawberry to koala bear to wild rice,” he tells Sprudge. “At least the coffee cherry is pink in this case!” Fretheim goes on to note that, while shocking, he doesn’t expect the findings to have much of an effect on Pink Bourbon’s current popularity. “The industry has been fickle around ‘tasting names’ versus cups at different points, but Pink Bourbon is so established and undeniable in the cup that I think it should be just fine.”

Zac Cadwalader is the managing editor at Sprudge Media Network and a staff writer based in Dallas. Read more Zac Cadwalader on Sprudge.