There are more than 120 identified species under the Coffea genus. Producers, traders, roasters, baristas, and consumers will be predominantly familiar with two of these: arabica and robusta.
However, there is a third species after these two which is predominantly grown in Southeast Asia: Coffea liberica. Today, it is the main species of the Coffea genus grown in Malaysia and the Philippines.
So where does liberica come from? What does it taste like? And will it become more popular? To answer these questions and learn more, I spoke with Pacita Juan from the UN, and Coffea diversa’s Gonzalo Hernandez.
Where Does Liberica Come From?
Liberica originated in Liberia, West Africa. However, today, it is mostly grown and consumed in Southeast Asia – namely the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. In the Philippines alone, liberica accounts for more than 70% of all grown coffee.
Pacita is a Member of the Steering Committee for the Forest and Farm Facility Department of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation. She discusses the species’ journey from Africa to Asia.
“It could be that from Liberia, liberica went to Ethiopia, and there it could have gone to the Middle East and consequently spread to Southeast Asia. [At that time, Muslim people were often] going to Malaysia for religious reasons.”
It’s also likely that colonists brought liberica plants with them to Southeast Asia when they settled. “Most of Southeast Asia was occupied either by the French, the Dutch, or the Spanish. These European colonists would bring coffee with them, which then influenced the coffee drinking habits of most of Southeast Asia,” Pacita adds.
While the details of how liberica arrived in Southeast Asia might be disputed, research does indicate that it experienced a huge surge in popularity in the late 19th century.
This is because around 1890, an epidemic of coffee leaf rust swept across more than 90% of all arabica plants around the world. Subsequently, resilience to disease and pests became a high priority for many producers.
While many producers switched to robusta at this time, producers in the Philippines were instead encouraged to plant liberica. This is because the liberica plant is much more resistant to coffee leaf rust, and it can also be grown more easily than arabica at higher temperatures and lower altitudes. Furthermore, pests find it more difficult to penetrate the skin of liberica cherries, as they are noticeably firmer.
Close proximity and easy travel from the Philippines to other Southeast Asian countries meant the species spread quickly. “The Philippines are just a boat ride away from Malaysia and Indonesia,” Pacita explains. “Coffee and spices could [move from country to country] without [the need for] big ships.”
The Characteristics of Liberica
Gonzalo Hernandez is the proprietor and manager of Coffea diversa, a “coffee garden” in Costa Rica that grows more than 700 different botanical variants of coffee. He explains that today, liberica “can be found growing wild throughout tropical Africa”.
“It is a very sturdy coffee plant,” he adds. “In the conditions of Coffea diversa in southern Costa Rica, it grows well.
“We have a couple of natural mutations that even occurred spontaneously at Coffea diversa. There is a natural mutation of [liberica] which produces ripe cherries that are yellow in colour, and another that ripens to be pink,” he adds.
Liberica trees begin to bear cherries up to five years after being planted. They grow tall, with some trees boasting heights of up to 17 metres – which can make picking cherries difficult.
The leaves and cherries are also noticeably larger than those of arabica and robusta plants. Liberica leaves can grow as wide as 30 centimetres, and the species’ cherries can be almost double the size of the other two when ripe.
Furthermore, the pulp to parchment ratio for liberica is about 60:40, compared to a 40:60 ratio for both arabica and robusta. This not only increases the drying time for liberica cherries, but also affects the flavour. “Because liberica has a lot of pulp and ferments when it dries naturally, it has a fruity flavour,” Pacita explains.
“Some like that it tastes like jackfruit (which is now popular as a substitute for meat),” she notes. “In Southeast Asia, jackfruit is very popular. The flavours that we get in liberica, we almost always describe as [being similar to] jackfruit – more often than stone fruits or citrus.”
Naturally processed liberica tends to produce these delicate jackfruit notes, whereas washed processing results in more citrus and floral flavours, or even more “traditional” flavour notes, like chocolate.
Beyond this, liberica’s other notable flavour characteristics include a lingering mouthfeel and a consistent sweetness – liberica is often described as being sweeter than arabica. This may be because liberica seeds are more porous, which means that the beans ultimately absorb more sugars from the mucilage.
Around 20 years ago, liberica was less of an established presence in the global coffee market, and was mainly used in commodity-grade instant coffee.
Pacita says: “Liberica was mixed with robusta because farmers had no buyers for it. Often, they [would] sell this blend to soluble coffee manufacturers like Nestle or those who usually bought robusta.”
However, she adds that efforts in the early 21st century helped to popularise the species in the Philippines. “In 2001 and 2002, we paid a premium to get farmers to sort their coffee and [identify] the liberica. It got this whole movement going… we did taste tests, and [many people] actually liked the taste of liberica.
“We wrote a book on it in 2005, called Barako: The Big Bean. [It explains that liberica] has got more value than commodity robusta, which led to more interest in planting the species.”
Furthermore, importing arabica into parts of Southeast Asia – namely Malaysia and the Philippines – can be expensive. As liberica is grown locally, it is often readily available and considerably more affordable.
Today, liberica has a solid position within the Southeast Asian market. Pacita notes that this could be partly due to the demand created by religion. “Malaysia and Indonesia are largely Muslim [countries],” she says. “After prayer, [drinking coffee is often] part of the routine.
“[Furthermore], in the Middle East, liberica is very much in demand, too. It has a [fruity] taste profile, and it is brewed lightly, almost like tea… it is often drunk with dates, as an afternoon tea.”
Further afield, liberica has also traditionally been used in blends to provide a lingering finish. However, Gonzalo explains that Coffea diversa is experimenting with various processing techniques to allow the species to flourish as a single origin.
“We process our liberica coffee using several methods: washed, honey, natural, winey carbonic maceration, honey carbonic maceration… all these processes render different taste profiles and nuances which are highly appreciated by our clients.”
What Could The Future Hold?
All around the world, perceptions of liberica are starting to change and improve. Last year, Borneo held its first Coffee Symposium, with a focus on specialty liberica, and even had a liberica roasting competition.
However, Gonzalo notes that just like with arabica, producing specialty or high-quality liberica can be exacting. “The only way to overcome the negative connotations associated with liberica is for specialty coffee lovers to have the opportunity to taste specialty liberica.
“For that to happen, cutting-edge specialty coffee roasters need to include liberica coffees produced under specialty protocols in their offering.”
This might be of particular interest to some third wave roasters and cafés, especially those who are more interested in the rarer, more unorthodox varieties and processes. “[There are] even Facebook groups just for liberica,” Pacita says. “There’s renewed interest in Japan, too, as that market often wants [coffees] that are premium or rare.”
For producers, liberica holds a wide range of benefits. Alongside its resilience to disease and pests, it grows well among other crops, allowing farmers to diversify what they grow for added stability.
“You can even plant liberica among other fruit trees,” Pacita says. “Bananas, papaya, and pineapple in particular grow well with coffee, so they are good companion crops. Peanuts [are also good as] they fix the nitrogen in the soil.
“These are economic solutions for farmers who can only harvest coffee once a year; [liberica gives them the opportunity] to grow cash crops in between the harvest seasons.”
Furthermore, climate change means that much of the land suited for growing arabica plants (which have exacting temperature requirements) is becoming unusable. For producers in these areas, investing in a more robust crop could be the only option. Liberica has even proven to be more resilient than robusta in some areas – its root system grows deeper, and it can grow in a number of different types of soil.
Pacita adds that farmers are likely to receive better prices for liberica when compared to robusta. However, the liberica plant is not as productive as robusta, making it something of a trade-off. “It balances out,” she says. “You have fewer trees to care for and less coffee to sell, but ultimately [farmers] can get the same amount of money.”
If we want to collectively push the industry forward, then diversity among the varieties and plants we grow is important. It is another step towards wider sustainability for coffee producers, and the supply chain as a whole.
Liberica’s unique cup profile, high resilience, and storied background make it an intriguing new option for producers and consumers alike. In an age of problems and concerns, it could be a rare opportunity. Whether or not it will serve as a solution, however, remains to be seen.
Enjoyed this? Then try How The Malaysian State Of Sarawak Is Rethinking Liberica Coffee
Photo credits: Coffea diversa, The Philippine Coffee Board Inc.
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