Liberica coffee is one of the rarest and most unique coffee beans in the world. Largely overshadowed by the Arabica and Robusta beans, Liberica coffee makes up only two percent of beans being consumed across the globe.
With such minimum quantities, it’s not surprising that Liberica beans are facing near extinction (the original beans, anyway). Many coffee enthusiasts are eager to try the brew, yet few are familiar with the plant’s long history.
The article below outlines the plant’s history, as well as details about its aroma, flavor, and brewing tips in case you get to try this endangered fruit for yourself.
Liberica Coffee Origins
As the name suggests, Liberica coffee beans originated on Africa’s western coast in the Republic of Liberia. With a hot, equatorial climate, most of the fruit-producing plants were grown on the western side of the country, on the Atlantic coast.
It was during 1880 that this coffee plant saw the height of its popularity. Farmers in Liberia also produced Robusta beans, yet 10,000 metric tons of Liberian beans were harvested and dried for the local 3.5 million population to consume.
As a hardier plant, it also managed to resist many of the diseases Arabica or Robusta fall prey to. It was the coffee rust outbreak in 1890 that shut down harvests across the globe. While Liberica plants survived the rust started its global migration.
Coffee rust, also known as coffee leaf rust, is a fungus by the name of Hemileia vastatrix that can decimate an entire coffee crop in little time. In the early 1890s, much of the globe’s coffee crops had been wiped out due to the fungus.
Coffee rot starts on the leaves of the plant. It appears as a brown powdery substance that resembles metal rust. The fungus quickly consumes areas of vegetation leaving disaster in its wake.
Farmers and merchants began to recognize that the Liberica bean was not decimated, however. They began to plan for the restoration of their coffee crops. To help keep the coffee trade from failing completely, Liberica coffee was sent to different parts of the world in hopes it could be re-cultivated.
Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia
This is how Liberian coffee made its way to the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It was in the Philippines where it shined, however. During the re-cultivation, the Philippines was a province of the United States, who capitalized on the coffee trade.
The Philippines, however, won its independence from the United States shortly after WWII. To keep smaller countries from hoarding the coffee trade, the United States placed harsh restrictions on exports effectively halting the progress of Liberica coffee.
This allowed Malaysia to grow into one of the largest coffee exporters in the world. Today, Malaysia is still the top producer of the Liberica bean with The Philippines, Indonesia, and Libera trailing behind.
Coffee Growth in Liberia Post-Civil War
After the re-cultivation of their namesake plant, Liberia continued to grow both Robusta and Liberica coffee beans. No longer one of their main exports, much of the brew was consumed locally, lessening the amount that went out into the world.
Unfortunately, late 1980 brought civil unrest to Liberia. In 1989, a military-led coup started the first of two civil wars which caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. With the second civil unrest ready to follow on its heels, Liberia’s harvests did not regain strength until peace was established in 2003.
Unfortunately, most of the coffee farms had been neglected, and they were overrun with outside vegetation. Not only that, but farmers were also drawn to more lucrative harvests. Crops, such as rubber trees and cocoa plants, were more profitable and took most of the labor away from ailing coffee farms.
Other issues such as infrastructure issues and the wariness to invest in planting and process technologies also took their toll. Liberia has never regained itself as a leader in Liberica bean growth. Instead, farmers turned to more profitable pursuits or continued with the more sought-after Robusta bean.
Current Harvest Locations
Liberia is still a leading coffee producer, but mainly in the Robusta bean category. Any Liberica coffee produced in the area is made for local consumption as it is still a popular local beverage.
As mentioned, The Philippines and Malaysia have stepped up, yet they have created some changes to the plant that will be discussed later.
The Liberian Coffee Plant
Liberica coffee is unique because of its history, but it’s also because of its unique features compared to its more common counterparts. First, the Liberica plant is a lot bigger and taller than the Arabica or Robusta plant. Standing at 20 meters, it is one of the tallest coffee plants in the world.
Not only is the plant itself oversized, but the cherries are equally so. They also stand out in appearance, Where Arabica and Robusta have smaller beans, Liberica’s beans are nearly double the size and have an asymmetrical shape.
The flavor and aroma are also quite different, which we will discuss next:
Liberica coffee is thought to have one of the most interesting and distinct flavors around. It has a bold, woody mouthfeel that has a certain kick. The complex notes are both woodsy, and smokey, yet sweet. Interestingly, most experts find much of the flavor to be in the aftertaste.
The boldness of the flavor is also often described as liquid tobacco as it shares the same smoky sweetness. It is called the “Kape Barako” by many Phillipean harvesters which roughly translates to “Manly Coffee”.
On another note, Liberica beans are less bitter than their two counterparts. Additionally, Liberica doesn’t have as much caffeine. With only 1.23 grams of caffeine per 100 grams of beans, it puts Liberica coffee closer to the area of tea.
The aroma of this coffee is in marked contrast to its flavor. Instead of the bold, earthiness, you would expect, it has a light floral aroma. Some enthusiasts even describe it as a fruity scent. This is pre-bloom, however.
Once you begin to brew, Liberica gives off a delicate chocolate-like aroma. This is where you will slowly begin to detect nutty notes and woody, deep notes that will be reiterated in the flavor. All the scents merge to provide a very unique cup, however, many feel it is an acquired taste.
New Varieties of Liberica
After the Philippines won its independence from the United States, the impending restrictions on coffee beans (specifically Liberica coffee) made it difficult for them to keep up with the market on a sustainable level. Although the restrictions were lifted during the 1950s, the damage had been done. Liberica coffee was in the minority.
That was only the beginning, however. Like most coffee plants, Liberica beans require specific elevations, temperatures, and humidity levels to thrive. With the ongoing climate change and deforestation, the areas where it’s harvested have been greatly reduced in size.
That being said, all four countries continue to produce Liberica coffee, but on a smaller scale. Most of the harvest is kept for local consumption. It keeps the beans from being in danger of extinction, yet it also keeps them rare.
What is in danger of disappearing, however, is the wild-grown coffee plants. Liberica is a notoriously difficult plant to harvest and cultivate. That has led to many farmers creating hybrid beans that are easier to deal with.
These “new” beans are losing the characteristics of the original Liberica bean. First, the plants and beans are smaller than their original counterparts. While this makes the beans easier to harvest, the finished coffee product is losing its customary robust flavor.
Recent bouts of coffee rust have also taken their toll on Liberica coffee. Farms and wild coffee plants have both been affected by the disease. Thankfully, the Liberian government, along with other countries, have made steps to preserve the original Liberica plant.
It is no wonder, though, it is such a rare treat to try the original version of this bold brew.
How to Brew Liberian Coffee
- Small saucepan or kettle
- 2 cups of water
- 2 tablespoons of ground Liberica coffee
- 2 teaspoons of sugar brown sugar or muscovado is recommended
- Start by bringing the two cups of water to a boil. Reduce heat immediately.
- Add sweetener of choice to the water. Stir until it completely dissolves.
- Add the coffee, cover, and turn off the heat.
- Let sit for five to ten minutes while the coffee brews.
- Strain coffee into a cup to remove coffee grounds. Enjoy.
Liberica beans from Malaysia tend to be a bit sweeter, so the recipe is adjusted slightly. For example, if you are grinding the beans, they should be a bit coarser than normal.
- Boil two cups of water. Reduce heat.
- Add one tablespoon and one teaspoon of coffee.
- Turn off heat. Let brew for two minutes.
You will also notice the sweetener was left out. Most Liberica coffee drinkers find the Malaysia brew to be sweet enough, but sweeteners can be added if need be.
While this is the traditional way of brewing Liberica beans, there is no limit to the imagination. Feel free to experiment with grind size, water amount, and additional ingredients.
With such a long history, Liberica coffee is a rare treat in the brewing world. Not only does it stand apart from its more popular cousins, but its robust flavors and aromas are enough to make it a favorite. Keep your eyes open for your chance to experience this hearty cup.
Featured Image Credit: Katherine Tan, Shutterstock
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