While many consumers around the world enjoy coffee for its caffeine content – US consumers have an average daily intake of 193mg – more and more are starting to look for lower levels in each cup they drink.
The decaffeination process was first discovered in 1903 when Ludwig Roselius’ coffee shipment was accidentally submerged in seawater. Since then, the global decaf coffee market has grown and grown; in 2019, it was worth approximately US $1.65 billion in 2019. This has been in no small part fuelled by consumer behaviour – according to a 2017 NCA report, 68% of the US population believe they should reduce their caffeine intake.
So, what does this mean for coffee varieties that are naturally low in caffeine? Since 2018 World Brewers Cup Champion Emi Fukahori used the Laurina variety in her winning performance, they have become even more popular. Today, interest in coffee varieties which are naturally high in quality and low in caffeine is growing.
To learn more, I spoke to a roaster and a coffee researcher. Read on to find out what they told me about Laurina and other low caffeine varieties.
Laurina: What is it?
“Bourbon Pointu, or Laurina, is most likely a mutation of the Bourbon that was cultivated in La Réunion,” he tells me. “The arabica Bourbon variety [originates] from La Réunion, [which was named] Île Bourbon in the past.”
The island of Réunion is east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, and was first documented by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century. It was colonised by the French in the 17th century, and remains a French territory to this day.
“The first Laurina trees were discovered and described on La Réunion in the early 19th century,” Christophe says. It is believed that arabica first arrived on Réunion from Yemen, where it thrived and mutated into Bourbon Pointu.
“It was called…’Bourbon Pointu’ [by local farmers],” he adds. “‘Pointu’ in French means ‘pointed’ or ‘sharp’, [referring] to the specific shape of the beans.
“In the 20th century, the French botanist Auguste Chevalier would name the tree ‘Laurina’, due to its resemblance to a laurel (an evergreen shrub or tree with glossy leaves).”
Laurina was also introduced to Brazil at some point in the 19th century. Around 1932, researchers began to study the variety at Instituto Agronômico de Campinas (IAC). The first official study was released in 1954.
“Laurina is a mutation due to a single recessive gene, as described by Brazilian researchers [at IAC] in 1954,” Christophe explains.
Is there a market for it?
The IAC’s research concluded Laurina was unable to grow as successfully as other arabica varieties, mainly because of its naturally low caffeine levels.
Ralf Rüller is the founder of The Barn in Berlin. “The caffeine levels work like an immune system for the coffee plant,” he explains. “So low caffeine varieties can die quickly. After the first year, you see that 30% need to be replanted because they died.”
Production of Laurina in Réunion Island peaked in 1800 at 4,000 tonnes, but around 80 years later, the variety was almost extinct. Exports continued to France into the first half of the 20th century, with the last recorded cargo taking place in 1942 at 200kg.
However, interest in Laurina remained elsewhere. The IAC created the Laurina IAC-870 cultivar some time after publishing its study, but this was mainly used for research in the Campinas germplasm, rather than commercial production.
In the 1970s, during his time with the National Coffee Research Institute in El Salvador, Yoshiaki Kawashima discovered the Laurina variety. He joined Ueshima Coffee Co. Ltd in 1981, and travelled to Réunion in 1999 in search of it.
Kawashima was able to locate 30 Laurina trees growing in the wild, and subsequently dedicated eight years to recultivating them. Around the same time, Edgardo Alqipzar discovered Laurina trees growing in the wild in Costa Rica. He planted two trees in the Doka Estate in Alajuela, and after some time harvested roughly 80 plants.
In 2006, two tonnes of green Laurina from Réunion were produced. The first lots were sold in Japan. Kawashima’s efforts to recultivate the variety were successful: the Specialty Coffee Association of Japan declared the Laurina lots to be “premium”, meaning they had no faults or defects.
Laurina’s association with quality still continues to this day. Ralf explains this led The Barn to source this and other similar varieties after some decaf samples were unable to pass the roaster’s stringent quality control measures.
“Our values lie in building the market for high level specialty coffee through single origin coffees from 86 points and above, showcasing terroir and clean flavours. However, this excludes decaffeinated coffees.
“With this in mind, we searched for a natural product with low caffeine, and we came across Laurina, then later Aramosa.”
Why are low caffeine varieties becoming more popular?
Ralf tells me more about The Barn’s decision to offer low caffeine coffee instead of decaf. “We started with a slogan: ‘our answer to decaf is locaf’,” he says. “We started this two or three years ago, [when] the Amsterdam Coffee Festival [was] on.
“There was a discussion [at the event] about The Barn’s low caffeine coffee. It tastes amazing,” he says. “We are happy [with] this product and we have strong demand for it.”
The push for higher-quality, lower-caffeine coffee is largely attributed to the millennial demographic. In 2017, the NCA reported that people aged between 18 to 24 were the biggest consumers of decaffeinated coffee, comprising around 19% of all US consumption. This is likely driven by the millennial habit of drinking coffee throughout the day, rather than solely in the morning or early afternoon.
“There are also regions where people drink coffee in the evening,” Ralf says. “That was our market for low caffeine varieties.”
In order to maintain quality, Ralf says that The Barn sourced their low caffeine varieties from Daterra – a renowned coffee estate founded in 1976.
“We were looking for producers that would [care for] their plants,” he explains. “We started working with Daterra in Brazil [because] they have a huge capacity for R&D and have carried out a few projects over the years with Laurina and Aramosa.”
Daterra have been researching and producing Laurina for around 12 years and hold an annual Masterpieces auction featuring it; in 2018, the highest price paid for a Laurina lot was US $141.10 per pound.
The Brazilian estate also cultivates Aramosa, a hybrid of Coffea arabica and the rare Coffea racemosa species, which is also naturally low in caffeine. A recent Daterra Masterpieces auction featured Aramosa lots which had been processed using a range of different methods, including honey and carbonic maceration.
“We also work with Volcan Azul in Costa Rica [who are producing] a beautiful Laurina for us,” Ralf adds.
Locaf vs decaf: A breakdown
“Laurina usually has 0.2 to 0.3% caffeine, [while] regular arabica has 1.4 to 1.8%,” Ralf explains. “Aramosa probably has around 0.7 to 0.8%, so we usually say the locaf varieties have less than 50% of regular arabica.”
However, it’s important to note that these levels are still considerably higher than decaf coffee. To be classified as decaffeinated in the EU, for instance, coffee must be 99.9% caffeine-free.
But reaching these levels has historically required the use of targeted decaffeination processes. Benzene was initially used in the early 1900s, until it was found to be carcinogenic.
After benzene, other solvents were used, such as methylene chloride and ethyl acetate, which stripped the coffee of its caffeine content. However, despite claims by the US Food and Drug Administration that low levels of these solvents were harmless, consumer concern grew over their use.
The Swiss Water process was first used commercially in 1979; it was the first mainstream technique that removed caffeine without the use of solvents. Swiss Water decaffeination is where green coffee is soaked in water and green coffee extract (GCE), before being passed through carbon filters which bind to the caffeine molecules and remove them.
Despite this, some stigma does remain about the health effects of decaf coffee, as well as concerns about the loss of acidity and sweetness and increased astringency. This means the demand for low caffeine varieties is growing.
“We have a low caffeine subscription service, which is popular,” Ralf says. “We feature either Laurina or Aramosa. There’s certainly a growing demand for connoisseurs that are looking for quality and that are not necessarily [looking for] caffeine.”
Could low caffeine varieties replace decaf?
The exclusivity and high quality of Laurina and Aramosa mean they have potential to grow in the wider specialty coffee market. In 2016, Starbucks purchased an entire Laurina harvest from a farm in Nicaragua, amounting to around 340kg. The coffee was sold at 20 locations in US $16 half-pound (227g) bags. It sold out within 24 hours.
In 2018, The Barn purchased two 86+ Laurina lots, one washed and one natural. The natural in particular was described as having notes of guava, honey, and plum – its complex flavour profile meant it had potential for specialty coffee consumers more widely.
Ralf says: “Today, we have washed and natural Laurina, but the carbonic maceration and anaerobic fermentation [coffees] usually fetch [higher] prices.”
Experiments with different processing techniques will further advance the sensory profiles for low caffeine varieties. This, Ralf adds, is something that The Barn is investing in.
“We are one of five roasters working on long-term [field] projects [with] Daterra,” he says. “We have half a hectare of Aramosa plants, and we are experimenting with honey processing and anaerobic fermentation.”
However, there are barriers for Laurina and Aramosa in the wider market, for both roasters and farmers.
“Laurina and Aramosa are so expensive because they are really rare and hard to plant in nurseries,” Ralf says. “Laurina coffee trees, for example, are susceptible to diseases and don’t have high yields. The best environment is at high altitudes, where pests and diseases are usually less present.”
This makes them difficult to manage and ultimately more expensive to cultivate. As such, they’re often not a viable option for smallholder farmers who are less financially stable.
Thanks to their highly desirable flavours and aromas, there is arguably potential for Laurina and Aramosa (alongside any other emerging low-caffeine varieties) in the specialty coffee sector.
However, their low caffeine levels seem to be detrimental to their growth and make them expensive to grow. In addition, the comparatively small market means there is little incentive for farmers to cultivate them.
More research on how farmers could successfully harvest these varieties will be necessary for the global coffee market to unlock the true market potential of low caffeine coffee.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article about the “truth” behind decaffeinated coffee.
Photo credits: The Barn
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