This Seriously Hipster Bean Is Coffee’s Best Hope for Survival
By Matt Reynolds, Science Jan 2023
OK, WE GET it. You fancy yourself a coffee snob. You’ve got a favorite single-origin bean and are low-key judgmental of anyone who takes milk with their morning brew. You rate an espresso by the consistency of its crema, so it’s fortunate that you’re on first-name terms with a neighborhood barista who gets it dead right every single time. “Oh, you’re into coffee too?” you say to your colleague, eying the 10-gallon Starbucks tankard on their desk. “That’s nice. Everyone has to start somewhere!”
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But how far into the depths of coffee connoisseurship have you really dived? There are 124 coffee species out there and just two of them—arabica and robusta—account for around 99 percent of global coffee production. Even the most adventurous coffee fans rarely stray beyond these two headliners. But relying so heavily on just two coffee species is starting to look foolhardy. In our warming world, coffee plantations are coming under increased pressure from diseases, drought, and poor growing conditions. Coffee prices have almost doubled in the past two years largely due to droughts and frosts in Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer.
Enter liberica. It’s the hipster bean that some coffee aficionados hope will herald a more resilient—and delicious—future of coffee. “It’s surprising a lot of people,” says Aaron Davis, a coffee specialist at Kew Gardens in London and author of a new paper in the journal Nature arguing that liberica’s time has come. Coffee importers and sellers are starting to pay attention to liberica, he says, thanks to its distinctive taste and because it can grow in conditions other species can’t. It could be time for this previously much-maligned bean to come back to the big leagues.
Liberica wasn’t always on the periphery of the coffee industry. For a brief time in the late 19th century, it was the bean du jour. At the time, the ubiquitous arabica coffee plants were stricken by leaf rust disease, which was annihilating trees in coffee plantations across Southeast Asia. Liberica seemed to be more resistant to leaf rust and grew well in warmer lowland regions, unlike fussy arabica, which prefers cool temperatures and higher altitudes. Coffee growers switched their crops, and for a while liberica and arabica were the two big beans in the global coffee industry.
Alas, liberica’s time at the top of the (coffee) tree did not last long. Its big fruits were harder for coffee manufacturers to process and the knobbly beans inside were prone to being either over- or under-dried, resulting in a subpar cup of coffee. When coffee production in Brazil started to boom around the turn of the 20th century, most plantations opted to grow arabica, which quickly became the top dog in the international coffee trade. Since then, only two species have dominated. The more expensive arabica beans are used for smooth-tasting, high-end blends and specialty coffees. Robusta, on the other hand, is cheaper and packs a higher caffeine punch. You’ll usually find it in instant coffees or blended with arabica for cheaper ground coffees.
One of the big problems with liberica has been that unless it is processed and roasted carefully, the taste itself can be off-putting. “I first tasted liberica back in 2012 and wrote it off as being completely disgusting,” says Davis. The taste reminded him of tinned soup. People who taste coffee for a living have a name for this: vegetal. In cupper parlance, calling a brew “vegetal” is basically a polite way of saying that the coffee sucks.
But in the right hands, liberica can be a revelation. In 2016 Davis visited some coffee farmers in Uganda and tried a brew of their local beans. The taste surprised him. It was sweet, smooth, and had notes of jackfruit. He started bringing beans back to the UK and sharing them with coffee importers. They were impressed too, and saw the potential for a high-yielding, tasty bean that could grow across a relatively wide range of locations.
“We are talking about people who are doing this for profit, not for passion. If it’s not commercial then they’re not going to be interested,” Davis says while, incidentally, sipping on a coffee made with a variety of liberica beans called excelsa.