It’s not often I get surprised (as in jaw dropping to the floor surprised) when it comes to coffee anymore.
But it happened recently. I had encountered the rare Liberica coffee for the first time.
As you probably already know, Arabica and Robusta are the two main species being grown commercially.
Liberica, however, is a third and separate species that accounts for less than 1 percent of the total production worldwide. Traditionally, it’s been seen as an inferior bean with no potential flavor-wise.
It has mainly been grown in the Philippines and Malaysia without much emphasis on quality.
Let’s liberate Liberica
Last week I arrived in the Malaysian part of Borneo (Indonesia owns the most significant chunk of the island). Even though coffee is grown here, it’s by no means a famous origin.
The inaugural Borneo Coffee Show took place in the city of Kuching. It wasn’t a big show, but it had an exciting focus; namely Liberica — the most ignored coffee species.
Most of Malaysia’s neighboring countries have been growing and exporting Arabica and Robusta for years, so it makes sense for this country to seek a competitive advantage by focusing on a pretty much unknown coffee species. Sure, Liberica has been a staple in the local ‘white coffee’ for years, but it has never been grown, processed and roasted in a specialty/third wave manner. That is; until now.
Before this event, I have never, ever seen a third wave roaster featuring Liberica. This isn’t peculiar since the coffee has had a reputation for tasting plain and woody historically. I was to find out that nothing could be further from the truth.
Liberica is mouthwatering sweet
In recent years, a few Malaysian producers have started to focus on specialty grade Liberica. I tried some samples at the festival, and I was flabbergasted.
The aroma and flavors were astounding, especially the ones produced by a farm named My Liberica from the Johor-province close to Singapore.
The coffee shop Earthlings along with German coffee expert Dr. Steffen Schwarz from the Coffee Consulate had put on a cross-species cupping including Robusta, Arabica, and Liberica at the same table.
There were exotic Geishas and esteemed Bourbons. The Liberica was the real showstopper (both literally and figuratively, it was the last of the coffees to be cupped, since Dr. Schwarz urged us to proceed ‘in order of sweetness.’)
The natural processed Liberica had vibrant jackfruit and unusual (but delicious) chorizo aroma, while the washed ones were more traditional with intense flavors of bitter fine chocolate as well as lemon and bergamot.
The most remarkable thing was the sweetness. It was intense like something I have never experienced before. Way sweeter than any Arabica I have tried. At the same time, the acidity was almost absent.
Sure, Liberica is not going to replace arabica, but it can supplement it. While it tastes great on its own, it would probably rock even more in an espresso blend. The flavor and sweetness are so much more appealing than Robusta.
A giant tree
After the festival, I visited a Liberica farm in Borneo with the Malaysian coffee-preneur Edward Yong of the local startup “Reka Jaya.”
My girlfriend and I had an epic day at the plantation, picking a bunch of ruby red Liberica cherries.
Liberica is famous for being gigantic compared to arabica. Being at the farm with Mr. Yong it was immediately apparent that this species is totally different from Arabica.
The cherries are double the size, and the leaves and tree stem are like a real tree, not a bush.
While Arabica is finicky, susceptible to disease and demanding to grow, Liberica is hardy and robust. If it gets leaf rust, it will cure itself, and the skin of the cherry is too firm for the coffee borer beetle to penetrate (except when it’s over-ripe).
Mr. Yong showed us a branch that was half broken yet still carrying loads of cherries. Also, he said, that Liberica can grow in almost any soil and at any altitude. Being close to the Equator his trees were blooming and carrying fruit practically all year long, and he urged us to pick as many cherries as we wanted.
I bit into the skin of ripe one, and it was almost like eating an apricot.
Grow with me
When we got back, we had a bunch of cherries. For a brief moment, I thought about trying to process, dry, and roast them myself.
However, milling of the parchment without dedicated equipment is incredibly tedious. So I decided to prepare the seeds to be planted instead. Since I have way more seeds than I could ever plant, why not give it away to other coffee lovers so they can see for themselves how awesome Liberica is?
When you buy green coffee, it’s rather challenging to get the seed to grow since it’s been dried to around 11 percent moisture. However, when the coffee is still in the parchment, it is quite viable.
Find some good soil, insert the seeds a few inches deep, and water it once a week. Soon you’ll have a baby coffee tree. If you live in a place with tropical or subtropical weather, you can move the plant outside after half a year.
You should be able to harvest your first nano-lot in three to four years!
(Update May ’19: Sorry, the giveaway is over. I don’t have any seeds left!)
I have a feeling that Liberica is the future of coffee and I’d love to help spread the awareness. Pests and climate change are a massive threat to Arabica, but Liberica, on the other hand, looks a lot stronger.