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What’s the difference between Heirloom and Landrace?

As an importer, we are often asked about varietals in coffee. There are many rabbit holes to fall down here, with great resources from World Coffee Research, or national coffee boards and breeders that can give you great insights into the stories that lie within. Even old history books can give you great places to hunt, or modern scientific papers with all their citations.

Before we look too much at these though, let’s start a little higher up, and cover the nuances in variety, cultivar, mutation, hybrid and more. Given that fresh-crop Ethiopias are here, I’m grabbing myself a nice Yirgacheffe and asking –

What’s the difference between an Heirloom and a Landrace variety?

Heirloom varieties and landraces are both terms we come across in coffee and are sometimes (often) used interchangeably. Look into it a bit deeper, and you will discover they have some key differences in terms of their origin and use.


Heirloom varieties are plants that have been traditionally cultivated and preserved by gardeners and farmers over several generations. They are known for their historical significance and cultural heritage. Typically, heirlooms are open-pollinated plants, which means they can be pollinated naturally by insects, wind, or other means without human intervention. These varieties often have unique traits, flavours, and appearances that have been maintained over time. That length of time is still open for discussion, with some happy at 50+ years, others more insistent at 100.

Key characteristics of heirloom varieties:

  • They are usually associated with a specific region or cultural group.
  • They have been passed down through generations, often within families.
  • They may have specific historical or sentimental value.
  • They can be open-pollinated, allowing for seed saving and preservation.
  • They often have distinct flavours, colours, or growth habits.
WCR Ethiopian Landrace


A landrace is a population of plants that has developed naturally and adapted to a specific local environment over a long period, usually without human intervention. Landraces are a result of natural selection and the accumulation of genetic diversity within a particular geographic region. They are often found in traditional agricultural systems and are well-suited to specific local conditions, such as soil type, climate, or pests.

Key characteristics of landraces:

  • They are shaped by natural selection and adaptation to local environments.
  • They can exhibit a wide range of genetic diversity within a given population.
  • They often have traits that enable them to thrive in specific ecological niches.
  • They may be associated with indigenous or traditional farming practices.
  • They are generally open-pollinated and can evolve over time.

In summary, heirloom varieties are historically significant cultivars that have been preserved through generations by gardeners and farmers. They are often associated with specific regions or cultures and can have unique traits. Landraces, on the other hand, are populations of plants that have adapted naturally to specific local conditions over time. They have a broader genetic diversity and are shaped by natural selection rather than deliberate human selection.