In south London, Nigel Motley is one of the very few UK-based coffee shop owners also extolling the virtues of the liberica bean. Liberica coffee is widely grown in the Philippines, where Motley’s mother is from, and there it is called barako, which loosely translates as “stud” and has strong associations with masculinity. “It’s seen as this horrendously strong coffee that would give you fuel for the day,” says Motley. One of the reasons for the jarring taste is that liberica beans tend to be oddly shaped with pointy tips that can burn easily while roasting.

But a delicate lighter roast can bring out a different side to the bean, Motley says. “If it’s processed in different ways, not just as a one-dimensional coffee, it can really be exciting for the shop to use and for the customer to try,” he says. He orders his beans from a grower in the Philippines and roasts them in a 3-kg roaster in London. A lot of his customers are surprised when they try liberica for the first time. Prepared in the right way, it can deliver a much more subtle cup than its history suggests. “It’s showing a different side of the liberica bean that the older generations aren’t used to,” Motley says.

Davis is particularly excited about the excelsa variety of liberica. This has smaller, more manageable fruits that are easier to process than the usual chunky liberica beans. A coffee bean is actually the seed of a small cherry-like fruit that grows on coffee plants. The less pulp there is surrounding that seed, the easier it is to harvest and process those fruits. Liberica plants—including excelsa—are also more resilient to warming temperatures. “We’re seeing excelsa and liberica as something you can grow, when you simply can’t grow arabica,” says Davis.

Higher Temperatures from Climate Change make areas unsuitable for growing coffee beans

Having more coffee species to choose from isn’t just nice to have—it might end up being a vital way to preserve the livelihoods of people who grow coffee for a living. For example, coffee makes up a quarter of Ethiopia’s total exports, and between 39 to 59 percent of its current growing area could become unsuitable for coffee farming as the climate warms. As other coffee-growing regions get hotter, the need for a plant that’s more resilient to higher temperatures will become even more pressing. History is also dotted with examples where an over reliance on a single crop ends up in disaster. Prior to the 1950s, most exported bananas belonged to a larger, sweeter variety than what we have today, called Gros Michel, which was wiped out by a fungal infection. As temperatures rise, it could make more coffee-growing regions susceptible to leaf rust disease, the infection that sparked the rise of liberica more than a century ago.

Climate Change and Coffee Beans