by Thai Dang
I. What is Coffea Liberica?
The main commercial coffee species, Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora, better known as Arabica and Robusta, are two household names when one thinks about coffee varieties. But the world of coffee varieties, genetics, and genomics expand much beyond. One of the lesser known species, which is proudly produced by and served at 96B cafe & roastery, is Coffea Liberica, accounting for just under 2% of commercial coffee worldwide (The Prima Donna Life 2019).
As one of the world’s rarest coffee, C. Liberica is only cultivated in some Southeast Asian countries (Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam) and limited areas in Western and Central Africa. This species includes other varieties such as Excelsa, Dewevrei, Dybowskii, and Liberica (Charrier et al. 2012, 39).
Indigenous to Liberia and Zaire (C. Liberica is otherwise known as Liberian coffee), this species was brought to Indonesia and the Philippines in the 1890s to replace the Arabica plants, after they suffered a mass die-off due to coffee rust disease. Liberica proved to be more resistant to diseases and pests, adaptable to hotter climates and lower altitudes, and drought resistant. The size of the trees (5-20m), however, makes cultivation and harvesting extremely difficult. In Vietnam, it takes five years for a Liberica plant to begin to bear. The cherries' large pulp makes processing complicated and costly, while the high sugar content (up to 30%) makes Liberica cherries a favourite target of ants and pests. Soon, Robusta and Arabica replaced Liberica as more sensible options.
(Coffee leaf comparison: Liberica leaves are noticeably larger than other species’, dark green, 20-30cm long, and have a leathery texture // CATIE Collection)
II. 96B & Liberica
96B cafe & roastery’s founder, Hana Choi, read about this exceptional species in a book and was immediately intrigued. On various scouting trips in Lam Dong in 2016, she was pointed to a village in Lam Ha - rumoured to have a handful of Liberica trees cultivated as shade trees for Robusta. This village, perched at 1200 masl, turned out to have quite a few fully grown Liberica trees.
(Left: The exceptional height makes Liberica a great choice as a shade tree, not so much as a financially-sensible cultivar; Right: Liberica leaves // Hana Choi, 96B cafe & roastery)
Upon meeting Mr. Lam and his wife, the engineer-turned-coffee-farmer showed Hana the handful of trees resiliently growing under the burning sun. The condition was ideal for Liberica trees, as research has shown that too much rainfall compromises the productivity of the trees, while one to two months of under 50 mm rain encourages uniform flowering (FAO Ecocrop). The tall trees had been growing for almost 10 years, appreciated mainly for their shade and the cherries are used as filler for the Robusta-heavy crop. Not surprisingly, barely anyone he knew had tried the pure Liberica, as the beans' delicate taste is shadowed by the smoky, bold-bodied Robusta.
(Mr. Lam & his wife // Hana Choi, 96B cafe & roastery)
Liberica has a bad rap for its inferior ‘woody’ flavour, considered even worse than Robusta. The 1% caffein content puts Liberica way behind Robusta (2.6%) and Arabica (1.6%), making this species even less desirable (Ling et al. 2001). What is lesser known, however, is that when Liberica is properly roasted (we opt for City+ profile), the result is a significant reduction of Chlorogenic acid (CGA) content (comprised of caffeic acid and quinic acid) (Mubarak et al., 2019), which is responsible for a lot of the bitterness in coffee (Hoos 2015). Liberica coffee has the potential to be very sweet, with lingering citrus notes.
(Fruit-bearing Liberica trees // Hana Choi, 96B cafe & roastery)
Not knowing what to expect, Hana decided to pre-order a sample of this coffee. A few months later, 10 kg arrives at 96B doorstep. Natural processed Liberica proved to be clean, juicy, sweet, with a mild acidity. While the aroma right after roasting resembles that of puffed brown rice, when fully developed, the dry aroma is quite fruity. For 2018 harvest, 96B worked with five households in Lam Ha, collecting more than one ton of Liberica coffee. The rest is, indeed, history.
About five tons of ripe cherries are carefully picked, and dried under the sun for 12-15 days, before being hulled, to produce one ton of green beans. Due to the village’s geographical and logistical challenge, we encouraged the farmers to go with natural processing. As the mucilage and sugar content are exceptionally high, frequent raking is necessary to prevent mold development and pests. Before roasting, the green beans go through another process of hand-sorting to remove defects.
(Left: Ripe cherries; Right: Due to its susceptibility to ants, up to 50% of the total green beans are not up to 96B’s standards. Hand-sorting is necessary to produce quality beans. // Hana Choi, 96B cafe & roastery)
(Left: We opt for natural processing due to the village’s geographical and resource constraints; Right: Beans after hand-sorting. // Hana Choi, 96B cafe & roastery)
III. Moving forward
Upon first glance, Liberica seems to possess only undesirable traits: low productivity, slow to produce fruits, difficult to harvest, complicated to process, and bears little reputation. And yet, for the past three years, we have steadfastly held onto our commitment with the farmers of Lam Ha and with this underrated species. With proper processing, sorting, and roasting, 96B team believes that Liberica deserves to be known and to be savoured - for the coffee itself should not be appreciated only for its rarity but also for its taste.
As the new harvest is coming, we are committed to promoting and spreading awareness about this unique coffee. For the first time, we are confident to serve Liberica on its own, instead of blending the beans with Catimor or Robusta for some of our signature blends. Constant improvement will eventually pay off. And together with our farmers, we are striving to constantly improve our coffee quality.
(Three blends and one single-variety offerings at 96B shop // Thai Dang, 96B cafe & roastery)
Charrier, A., P. Lashermes and A. B. Eskes. "Botany, Genetics and Genomics of Coffee" in Wintgens, Jean Nicolas (Eds). 2012. Coffee: Growing, Processing, Sustainable Production. 2nd ed. Singapore: WILEY-VCH.
Hoos, Rob, 2015. Modulating The Flavor Profile of Coffee One Roaster’s Manifesto. Portland.
Linh, Liew Siew, Nik Ismail Nik Daud and Osman Hassan. 2019. "Determination Of Coffee Content In Coffee Mixtures." Malaysian Journal of Analytical Sciences, Vol. 7, No.2 (2001) 327-332.
Mubarak, Aidilla, Kevin D. Croft, Catherine B. Bondonno, Nurul Sakinah Din. 2019. "Comparison of Liberica and Arabica Coffee: Chlorogenic Acid, Caffeine, Total Phenolic and DPPH Radical Scavenging Activity." Asian J Agric & Biol. 7 (1): 130-136.
FAO Ecocrop. "Coffea liberica." http://ecocrop.fao.org/ecocrop/srv/en/cropView?id=751 (accessed 6 January 2020).