Not to be confused with barrel-aged whiskey, the coffee variety Bourbon, pronounced “boar-bone”, is among the most cherished varieties in the coffee world. With juicy red berry notes and abundant sweetness, red bourbon shines in the cup. It’s these qualities that attract consumers and coffee roasters alike.
Of course the basis for its popularity starts at the farm level. Bourbon trees thrive at high altitudes and in nitrogen-rich volcanic soils, making the island of Hawai’i a near perfect terrior for them to prosper. With just the right ratio of elements, the end result is a small and mighty dense coffee cherry bursting with flavor. While it can prove a delicate challenge to grow and harvest, farmers who are successful are well-rewarded.
Distinct Tasting Notes of Bourbon Coffee:
Red Bourbon is the parent variety which has given rise to two sub-varieties, Yellow and Pink Bourbon, each bringing its own unique twist on the classic Red Bourbon profile. Somewhat like Willy Wonka, when it comes to Bourbon, the red tastes like red and the yellow tastes like yellow. We don’t make the rules, it’s just science!
Red Bourbon typically offers a fuller body, red fruit sweetness, nutty sweetness, and fruit-forward notes. Yellow Bourbon often has a flavor profile leaning towards yellow fruit - think apricot, banana, and juicy tropical fruits. The end flavor profile with each unique coffee is always contingent on multiple factors such as geography, roast level, and process, to name a few.
Owner of Big Island Coffee Roasters and seasoned coffee farmer of 10 years, Brandon Damitz, describes that in a bit more detail: “Red Bourbon has exceptional cup quality and structure. It's the kind of coffee where you can honestly and accurately pick out each layer of its flavor profile. All of the notes ring distinct and clear.” With this symphony of flavors, Red Bourbon is frequently awarded in Coffee Reviews and Cupping Competitions.
Bourbon's flavor journey is diverse, influenced by mutations and regions. “You can usually tell a Red Bourbon from a Yellow Bourbon by a certain flavor profile. If you’re picking up on rich notes like nougat, chocolate, and butter it's usually a Red Bourbon, while Yellow Bourbon is more citrusy and bright,” April Des Combes and Farmer Relations Manager at Big Island Coffee Roaster points out. WhileYellow Bourbon has a significant amount of fructose which results in a sweet and juicy cup, Red and Pink Bourbons have more glucose, which can make for a more full-bodied coffee.
Hawai’i Regional Characteristics in Red Bourbon
In addition to mutations creating differences in flavor profiles between Red, Yellow, and Pink Bourbon varieties, there is yet another layer of complexity when comparing Red Bourbons from different regions. Red Bourbon grown in Ka’u tends to produce a more hefty cup of coffee, while Red Bourbon grown in Kona tends to produce a more delicate end product.
“The noted differences between Kona and Ka’u Red Bourbon are reflective of the overall and general distinctions between the two regions; soil fertility in Ka’u tends to be richer than Kona. Kona coffee farmers often have to rely on macro and micronutrient inputs more heavily than Ka’u farmers,” Damitz recalls from his farming experience. He notes, “Of course, all of that is somewhat full of caveats. Every farm is different and unique”.
Roasting Red Bourbon
Despite Red Bourbon’s delicate nature and susceptibility to diseases, roasters and consumers alike, play favorites to Bourbon varieties. Production Roaster and Q Grader at Big Island Coffee Roasters, Lora Botinova, observes, “With the Red Bourbon, there is very little bitterness that needs to be mitigated, which makes it a lot easier and more fun to play around with. It's always nice to have a 'how can we make this taste even better' approach, rather than 'how can we eliminate the undesirable flavors', which is what I get to do with Red Bourbon!”
Our team at Big Island Coffee Roasters loves working with farmers who bring us this delicate variety; it’s always a delight highlighting its distinct flavor profiles.The minute differences arising from changes in altitude, origin, or processing method make each Bourbon unique, creating a tapestry of flavors that captivate the palate.