Around the world, many consumers prefer to drink coffee which contains less caffeine. For some, it’s essential. Typically, people looking to minimise their caffeine intake opt for decaf coffee, where most of the caffeine is removed. Decaffeination usually involves soaking green beans in water, before passing them through several filters to remove the caffeine.
But what about coffee varieties that are naturally low in caffeine?
Laurina is one of the most prominent low-caf coffees in the world. It has experienced a resurgence in popularity over the past few years, despite being identified over two centuries ago.
As well as containing around half the caffeine content of other arabica varieties, it is also known to have a desirable flavour profile. This was notably showcased in the winning 2018 World Brewers Cup routine.
To explore the unique history of Laurina and its potential for the wider market, I spoke to three industry experts who all work closely with this arabica variety.
You may also like our article on whether low caffeine coffee varieties could replace decaf.
The origins of Laurina
The Laurina variety was first discovered growing wild on Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean (previously known as Bourbon). Réunion is an overseas region of France, located east of Madagascar.
During the 1600s and 1700s, coffee consumption increased across Europe. The French attempted to grow coffee in eastern France, but were unsuccessful, so French colonists instead looked for other regions with more suitable climates and terrain.
In 1715, French colonists shipped several coffee plants from Mocha, Yemen to Saint-Denis, Réunion. These plants were of the Bourbon variety: one of the most genetically diverse coffee varieties in the world.
Out of the original 20 coffee plants shipped to Réunion, only one yielded cherries. However, the island’s Bourbon production steadily increased over the following years.
As most of Réunion’s production was focused on Bourbon, the island’s native coffee species were largely ignored by farmers and researchers. In 1783, Réunion’s indigenous coffee plants were scientifically recognised (originally referred to as Coffea mauritiana, as Réunion is located close to Mauritius), but producers were more focused on the higher-yield Bourbon plants.
Around 1810, according to the Réunion Museum, farmers noticed new types of Bourbon plants growing on the island. These plants were smaller and produced oval-shaped cherries and seeds – leading to its nickname of “Bourbon pointu”.
At the time, it was believed that Bourbon pointu was a hybrid of Réunion’s indigenous coffee plants and the Bourbon plants imported from Yemen.
However, the Unravelling the origin of Coffea arabica ‘Bourbon pointu’ from La Réunion: a historical and scientific perspective research paper confirms that Bourbon pointu is actually a natural mutation of the Bourbon variety. This means they are almost genetically identical.
The name Laurina is said to originate from the coffee plant’s similarities to laurel plants: an evergreen shrub with large, oval-shaped leaves. Producers also referred to it as Le Roy, after the first farmer who is believed to have discovered the variety.
The Laurina variety is characterised by its Christmas tree-like shape, as well as small leaves, densely packed branches, and pointed cherries.
The coffee plant is a dwarf mutation of the Bourbon variety, meaning its plants are typically small. Dwarfism is fairly common in varieties that belong to the Bourbon family, including Caturra, Villa Sarchi, and Pacas. The plants typically reach heights of around two metres (eight feet).
Smaller coffee plants are generally beneficial for coffee farmers as they can be planted more densely, as well as being easier to harvest. However, Laurina cherries are more delicate than other varieties, so they must be harvested with care. They are also prone to falling off plants early because of heavy rainfall.
Laurina’s low caffeine content can also be detrimental to its growth. Caffeine acts as a natural pest deterrent, so reduced caffeine levels can leave it more susceptible to damage.
However, it’s now believed that the variety is more resistant to drought conditions, which has helped it to survive.
Researchers growing Laurina in Hawaii claim the plant grows at a slower rate than other arabica varieties, which is another factor contributing to its limited presence in the wider coffee market. At the same time, though, it does also yield more cherries per plant than other arabica varieties – indicating some potential to scale production.
The variety’s revival
Laurina production began to decline towards the end of the 19th century, almost leaving the variety at the point of extinction.
Sugarcane farming eventually replaced coffee production in Réunion as it was more profitable. This means the island’s native coffee plants only grew wild, rather than being intentionally cultivated.
José Yoshiaki Kawashima is a coffee agronomist and founder of MI CAFETO Co. Ltd in Japan. He previously studied at the National Coffee Research Institute of El Salvador, before joining UCC Ueshima Coffee Co. to establish coffee farms in Jamaica, Hawaii, and Sumatra.
José tells me he was first made aware of Laurina in 1975 while he was studying. He says: “Ever since then, I’ve wanted to go to Réunion to discover more about the variety.”
During his first trip to the island, he says he spoke with the agricultural director there. José informed him about how important Réunion was for the coffee industry in general, and convinced him that if they found the coffee, they could redevelop it.
José and the local team searched for the variety during this trip, but they couldn’t find it. Before leaving, he left all the information he had about Bourbon pointu and went back to Hawaii. A couple of months later, the agricultural director called him to go back to Réunion because they had found 30 coffee plants growing in the wild.
A few years on, in 2001, the Réunion government decided to take José up on the redevelopment of the coffee industry, with the support of the Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) and the National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD). In 2002, they started a trial cultivation across the entire island.
José and his team recruited volunteer farmers across the island through radio announcements. More than 300 farmers responded and 105 of them were chosen to take part in the trial.
“We cultivated some 50,000 seedlings from the 30 coffee plants we located,” says José. He tells me that each cultivation site measured around 1,000 square metres. José and his team monitored and assessed the growth rate, caffeine content, and cup quality of the variety. *The 50,000 seedlings were carefully selected and separated from the 30 coffee plants because some of them were not purebred.*
By the end of 2006, 800kg of Laurina green beans were collected. From those, José picked out the best, and around 200kg was exported.
“Within one week we sold out,” José says. The coffee was sold for US $70 per 100g.
Has Laurina production increased in other regions?
Gabriel Agrelli is Head of Market Development and Research at Daterra Coffee, a 2,800ha farm in Brazil. Daterra has been producing Laurina for some 20 years.
Laurina was first brought to Brazil in the 19th century. By 1932, researchers were studying the variety at the Instituto Agronômico de Campinas (IAC).
Daterra began experimenting with the variety through a partnership with illycaffè and the IAC, and is currently growing plants across approximately 6ha of farmland. Over the past 20 years, the farm has selected the most productive plants for reproduction, thereby helping it to adapt to their farm’s climate.
“We might increase Laurina production in the future,” Gabriel tells me. “However, because the variety requires extensive care, production levels will most likely remain small and exclusive.
“Every time we plant a new field of Laurina, around 30% of the plants die in the first year,” he adds.
This is a significantly higher death rate than other arabica varieties. This is mainly because of the variety’s lower caffeine content.
Gabriel emphasises that monitoring pest and disease levels is essential to ensure that most Laurina plants don’t become contaminated.
“We place traps all over the farm, especially around the Laurina plants, to attract insects and pests,” he says. “But the benefit of growing it is that it is not as susceptible to drought as other varieties,” Gabriel adds.
Through selected trials, Daterra found that the variety grows better in shady conditions, so the farm cultivates most of their Laurina plants under shade to improve yields and quality.
Is there a wider market for Laurina?
James Evans is the founder of Moon Mountain Coffee in Costa Rica, which also operates a coffee shop in California. Moon Mountain has a Laurina which has been a key selling point for the company.
“People come from far away to purchase Laurina coffee,” he says.
In 2016, James bought 5,000 seedlings from another Costa Rican producer. Shortly after, Moon Mountain received a gold award for its Laurina at the 2019 Golden Bean North America roasting competition.
Although the variety is mostly sold as a natural alternative to decaf coffee, more roasters are marketing the variety as a rare coffee with a unique flavour profile.
“Laurina has a taste profile that we don’t often experience with other Brazilian coffees,” Gabriel explains. “It is bright, sweet, and delicate, with a mild body, citrus flavours, and minimal bitterness.”
Laurina’s unique proposition in the coffee sector has led to high prices being paid for individual lots. In 2016, Daterra auctioned an anaerobic fermentation Laurina for US $58/lb, which at the time was a record-breaking price paid for a Brazilian coffee.
“Demand for the variety has been increasing in recent years, mostly thanks to its increasing presence in global coffee competitions,” Gabriel tells me.
In 2018, Emi Fukahori of MAME Coffee won the World Brewers Cup championship using Daterra’s anaerobically fermented Laurina.
“We have also witnessed an increase in demand for low caffeine coffees,” he adds.
James emphasises that because Laurina is a delicate coffee, roasters must be careful when developing a roast profile. Lighter roasts will often taste underdeveloped with more sour notes, whereas medium roast profiles allow more of the variety’s natural sweetness to shine through.
Gabriel agrees, saying clients often claim roasting Laurina can be tricky.
“There is a sweet spot,” he says. “The beans are small and dense, so there is a fine line between under and overdevelopment.”
Generally, the denser and smaller that coffee beans are, the more energy is needed to roast them – meaning roasters should be more cautious with this variety.
Despite its challenges, Laurina presents a viable opportunity for both producers and roasters who are looking for rare or unusual coffee varieties.
Thanks to its naturally low caffeine content and flavour profile, the variety is becoming increasingly popular with a number of specialty coffee consumers. As such, there is reason to be confident about its potential to become much more prominent in the years ahead.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on Bourbon coffee varieties.
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