What are heirloom beans? (Part 2)
At Primary Beans, we’re focused on connecting home cooks to delicious beans grown with climate-friendly practices. In honor of Earth Month, we’ve created a special 4-part series that takes you deep into the world of beans. Together, we’ll explore beans’ treasured role in agriculture, the allure of heirloom beans, and the art of bean breeding. And finally, we’ll share how we’re playing a role in creating a feedback loop between breeders and home cooks, to celebrate the types of beans that are good for you and the planet.
Popularized by the heirloom tomato, the word "heirloom" tugs at the heartstrings of diehard food lovers and gardeners, alluding to a rich history of seeds being passed down through generations. Since beans themselves are seeds, it’s only natural that the term has permeated into the bean world in a big way. Famous for their taste, color patterns, names, and stories, heirloom beans have a lot going for them, especially when the options for the home cook seem to be binary: rare heirlooms versus run-of-the-mill varieties found in grocery stores.
But it’s really not that black-and-white.
There are hundreds of thousands of bean varieties all over the world with a wide range of colors, nutritional profiles, flavors and textures, plant types– from bush to climbing beans, and resistance to disease and environmental stress. All beans are the result of many generations of human selection and environmental adaptation, and stem from just a handful of plant species. We cover this topic extensively in Part 1 of the series, Small but mighty: Beans’ treasured role in agriculture.
While the variations are endless, let’s break down the main types of beans you might encounter:
Heirloom beans: In the broadest sense, heirlooms are varieties that stood the test of time, unchanged other than evolving with the people who grew them and adapting to the local growing conditions. The term has evolved to specifically embody centuries-old beans that have been passed down in families from generation to generation.
Landrace beans: While the name doesn’t have the same romantic undertones, landraces similarly evolved from the agricultural practices of a specific region, but are not necessarily bound to a particular story or family.
Commodity beans: The varieties you most commonly find in grocery stores. They’re developed by breeders to meet the commercial interests of the supply chain that brings these beans to market, either as dried or canned beans.
There are distinct market channels for these different types of beans. Commodity beans are mostly found at grocery chain stores while non-commodity beans, largely known in the US as heirlooms, are usually found at farmers’ markets, specialty stores, and online. Non-commodity beans typically have a higher turnover rate (and are therefore fresher), grown at a smaller scale and with fewer steps to the home cook. Commodity beans, on the other hand, can be stored for years before even reaching grocery store shelves. That’s a big reason why heirloom beans taste so good. Freshness matters when it comes to dried beans.
Today, heirloom and landrace varieties play a meaningful role in regional food systems all over the world. They’re typically saved from year to year– important for food security and self-sufficiency. These beans are equipped with a range of traits that thrive under local growing conditions, helping to shape a region’s cuisine and culinary traditions. And, for the discerning food shopper, the word heirloom means delicious.
But– any farmer will tell you that these varieties can be a challenge to grow. The plants tend to be feeble and disease-prone, lower yielding, and susceptible to weed pressure, making production more expensive and difficult to grow at scale. In an effort to preserve the best characteristics of heirlooms and landrace beans, and improve these crops for use by farms in the long term, a new category of beans has emerged.