April 11, 2023

What is Maragogipe & how big is the market for it in specialty coffee?


Within the specialty coffee market, there are a growing number of more exclusive and highly-prized coffee species and varieties. One of the most notable is Gesha – a unique variety which was “rediscovered” at the 2004 Best of Panama auction, and is now commonly used in competitions like the World Barista Championship.

Rare coffee species and varieties can become more revered for a number of reasons, including their high cup quality and desirable sensory profiles. However, some varieties are also sought after because of their unusual physical characteristics, such as large bean size.

One of these is Maragogipe (or Maragogype) – a natural mutation of Typica, which is one of the most genetically important arabica varieties in the coffee industry. Maragogipe produces very large cherries and beans, which ultimately has an impact on how you process and roast it.

To learn more about Maragogipe, as well as whether there is a wider market for this variety, I spoke with three coffee professionals. Read on to find out more.

You may also like our article on how El Salvador can leverage Pacamara coffee like Panama leveraged Gesha.

Maragogipe coffee cherries ripening on a tree.

Where did Maragogipe come from?

According to World Coffee Research, the variety was first discovered in 1870 in the municipality of Maragogipe in Bahia, northeast Brazil – hence its name. 

It’s believed that Maragogipe is a natural mutation of Typica, which has historically been known for its large bean size and high cup quality. As a result of its single dominant gene, Maragogipe produces unusually large leaves, cherries, and beans – which has led many coffee professionals to name it the “elephant bean”.

Researchers have also concluded that Maragogipe is a parent species of Pacamara and Maracaturra, which both yield very large beans. While the latter originated from Nicaragua, the former grows primarily in El Salvador, where it frequently receives high scores at annual Cup of Excellence competitions.

Gerson Silva Giomo is a Scientific Researcher at Instituto Agronômico de Campinas (IAC) in Brazil.

Up until the 1950s, Gerson explains that it was common to find small numbers of Maragogipe plants growing in some of the main coffee-growing regions in Brazil. 

“Because of its low yields, Maragogipe has never been grown on a large commercial scale,” he explains.

Although the variety’s potential cup quality is very high when grown at high altitudes, its yield potential is not. Moreover, Maragogipe is also highly susceptible to several pests and diseases, including:

  • Coffee leaf rust
  • Coffee berry disease
  • Nematodes

Mauricio Salvaverra is a producer at Divisadero Coffee in El Salvador.

“Before the 1950s and 1960s, more farms in El Salvador used to grow Maragogipe,” he explains. “However, because of its low yields and susceptibility to la roya (coffee leaf rust), more farmers started to grow Bourbon and Pacamara.” 

Declines in production

Gerson tells me that because it produces lower yields, many farmers in Brazil began to replace Maragogipe with more productive varieties – such as Mundo Novo

“Today, the production of Maragogipe in Brazil is largely limited to a small number of farms who cater to customers looking for larger-sized beans,” he says. 

Despite the challenges associated with its production, the variety’s unique characteristics have made it more popular in a range of origin countries. These include Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Colombia, and Hawaii.

Ripe and unripe coffee cherries on a coffee tree.

How is it processed and roasted? 

When it comes to processing and roasting, bean size is certainly an important factor for any kind of coffee. However, it is especially relevant for varieties which produce very large beans, like Maragogipe.

“Generally speaking, natural processing methods help to enhance the variety’s complexity, sweetness, and body, as well as highlighting more fruity flavours,” Gerson explains. “Conversely, with washed processing techniques, Maragogipe is less sweet and has a less pronounced body, but you can enhance the acidic and floral aromas.”

Brandon von Damitz is a co-founder and co-owner of Big Island Coffee Roasters in Hawaii, which grows a 94-point Kaʻū Maragogipe with notes of peach, bergamot, and honey.

“The variety’s potential lies in how well it responds to its terroir, farming practices, processing method, roast profile, and brewing method,” he says. “What I love about Maragogipe grown in Hawaii is that it’s both high quality and versatile.

“The variety works well with a number of roast profiles and brewing methods,” he adds. “The size of the beans, as well as its other attributes, all play a role in determining how we apply heat when roasting.”

Mauricio mentions that because Maragogipe has such desirable sensory properties, producers often sell and market it as a single origin micro or nano lot. He adds that some producers also use honey processing techniques, or even controlled fermentation methods.

“Some roasters say that it’s not the easiest variety to roast,” he says. “However, I have clients in Australia, France, and the US who would certainly buy more Maragogipe if we had more available.”

Brandon agrees, saying: “Given its rarity and low yields, we prefer to sell and market Maragogipe by itself, [rather than in a blend].”

Coffee cherries in the palm of a hand.

What does Maragogipe coffee taste like?

As with any variety, flavour profile and sensory attributes are naturally a result of the plant’s terroir. This includes the soil, climate, altitude, and the region in which the coffee grows.

Furthermore, post-harvest processing methods also have a significant impact on a coffee’s cup profile.

It’s fair to say that over the years, opinions on the quality of Maragogipe have ranged widely. For example, in William Ukers’ book All About Coffee, which was first published in 1922, he states:

“The green bean is of huge size, and varies in colour from green to dingy brown. It is the largest of all coffee beans… but woody and generally disagreeable in the cup.”

However, many coffee professionals agree that with agricultural best practices, Maragogipe can produce high-quality coffee with desirable characteristics.

“Typically, Maragogipe is naturally very sweet and low in acidity,” Gerson explains. “It also has some floral nuances, as well as honey and sometimes spice tasting notes.”

Brandon agrees, telling me: “I love the dynamic sweet-savoury flavour and aroma qualities of Maragogipe. 

“It has peach-like flavours with some chocolate undertones, as well as some more herbaceous notes of hops and sandalwood,” he adds. “The sensory experience can change day-to-day, as well as when using different brewing methods, so there is plenty to enjoy from a single coffee.”

Green maragogipe coffee beans in a container.

Is there a wider market for this variety?

Undoubtedly, Maragogipe is a popular choice among specialty coffee roasters who sell more exclusive varieties. 

Mauricio says he has been growing Maragogipe for nearly a decade, and sells the coffee as part of Divisadero’s nano lot range. 

“The variety’s bean size and great cup quality usually rivals that of Pacamara in El Salvador,” he explains. “However, because Maragogipe is expensive to produce, very few farmers are interested in planting more, and market prices remain very high.”

While Maragogipe isn’t considered an ultra-exclusive variety, Brandon tells me that it can be difficult for consumers to find it.

“We’re fortunate that it grows in Hawaii where we can experiment with different growing regions and processing methods to create even more diverse and unique sensory experiences,” he says. 

Brandon adds that when Big Island Coffee Roasters first sold Maragogipe, it was notably very popular among its customers – indicating there is growing demand.

“The combination of its rarity, size, and flavour profile means it’s a unique coffee that people don’t want to miss out on,” he explains. “When it’s sold out, it’s gone until the next harvest season.”

Gerson tells me that IAC has been studying Maragogipe since 1931, with a specific focus on genetic modification to improve yields.

“Knowing that in the specialty coffee market there is growing demand for varieties which produce larger beans, the IAC has preserved several female Red and Yellow Maragogipe plants in its germplasm bank for future use,” he explains.

“With the goal of increasing productivity, the IAC has developed specific protocols for commercial Maragogipe production,” he adds. “These include a particular focus on defining best plant spacing, nutrition, and phytosanitary management (ensuring the plants are free from dangerous pests and diseases).”

Is there potential to improve yields?

Although there are clear challenges when it comes to Maragogipe production, Gerson is hopeful that it could become more widespread.

“Based on the IAC’s Maragogipe lineage selection, as well as the application of farming and post-harvest processing best practices, production of Maragogipe could increase in Brazil,” he explains.

Brandon is also optimistic about the variety’s future in the specialty coffee market.

“Maragogipe’s cup qualities are more suitable for consumers who are more adventurous, and usually have more developed palates,” he says. “It’s a fantastic entry point for people who want to experience what different coffee varieties have to offer.”

Roasted Maragogipe coffee beans alongside smaller coffee beans.

It’s clear that specialty coffee places a lot of value on more exclusive and highly-prized varieties, and producers and roasters selling Maragogipe can certainly capitalise on this.

However, at the same time, the variety’s low productivity and vulnerability to pests and diseases pose a significant number of challenges for scaling production. 

So if we want to see more Maragogipe available in the future, further research and extensive support for coffee producers is certainly necessary.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on coffee varieties: a crash course in Gesha vs Bourbon.

Photo credits: Gerson Silva Giomo, IAC, Juleigh Burden, Kelleigh Stewart

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