Hibrido de Timor (or Timor hybrid) coffee is the result of a spontaneous interspecific cross between Coffea arabica (arabica coffee) and C. canephora (robusta coffee). Arabica coffee represents more than 60% of global coffee production and, due to its superior quality, is the source of dozens of specialty varieties. Unfortunately, it is also highly susceptible to coffee leaf rust (a fungal infection caused by Hemileia vastatrix) and other diseases. Robusta coffee makes up most of the rest of global production and, while it is of lower quality than arabica, has the advantage of being resistant to many diseases, including rust. Hibrido de Timor, which likely originated from a single robusta parent plant, has robusta’s disease resistance, but its quality is closer to that of arabica. These characteristics have made it popular among coffee breeders, growers, and drinkers alike.
Hibrido de Timor was discovered in 1927 in a plantation of typica coffee (a variety of arabica) that had been established in 1917, in what is now East Timor. Coffee farmers in Timor began cultivating hibrido de Timor in the 1940s. In the late 50s and 60s, the seeds were spread to other Indonesian islands and then to research institutes across the coffee-producing world, where breeders crossed them with arabica coffee to create rust-resistant cultivars such as catimor and sarchimor.
Despite the obvious importance of hibrido de Timor for the global coffee industry, little research has been done on the geographic extent and genetic characteristics of the original plants of East Timor. This is partially due to the fact that many of the plantations where this heritage hybrid occurs were abandoned in the aftermath of the Indonesian invasion of 1975, and now exist in a semi-wild state. Coffee is fundamental to the economies of East Timor (almost half the population relies solely on coffee to make a living) and several dozen other developing countries. The ability of coffee breeders and growers in these countries to combat leaf rust and other diseases—which could become more severe and widespread due to climate change—may very well rely on genetic resources from hibrido de Timor. It is therefore critical to research and protect the original hibrido de Timor plants that contain these genetic resources.
Most coffee in East Timor is wet processed. In rural households, the beans are roasted in a pan over an open fire before being pounded into powder. The powdered coffee is then placed in a cloth filter and boiling water is poured over it. In the capital city of Dili, on the other hand, mass-produced and instant coffees are gaining popularity. This, combined with young people’s lack of interest in becoming coffee farmers, presents a threat to East Timor’s coffee industry. Thankfully, young baristas are expressing interest and pride in high-quality Timorese coffee.