Hundreds of coffee species can be found under the coffea genus, but only a few are commercially viable.
Namely, these species are Coffea arabica, Coffea canephora, also known as robusta, and Coffea liberica. While arabica contributes to over 60% of world coffee production, robusta accounts for less than 40%. Liberica provides less than 1% of worldwide supply.
In spite of liberica’s low production volume, it is a species that holds great potential in the specialty coffee market.
Malaysia is one of the few producers of liberica, alongside its neighbouring countries, Indonesia and the Philippines. Recently, the Malaysian specialty liberica industry has grown in popularity thanks to its disease resistance and unique flavour profile.
To learn more about Malaysia’s liberica species, I spoke with founder of My Liberica, Jason Liew.
What is liberica?
Liberica is a coffee species that originated from Liberia, West Africa. During the late 19th century, an epidemic of coffee leaf rust spread from Sri Lanka, destroying almost all arabica plantations in the world.
Subsequently, the disease-resistant Liberian coffee, also known as liberica, was circulated globally and spread across countries in Southeast Asia.
The first country to commercially cultivate liberica was the Philippines. However, today it is also grown in Indonesia and Malaysia.
“Liberica is planted in the lowland,” says Jason, who founded Malaysia’s first specialty liberica farm, My Liberica. “Its tree, leaves, and cherries are bigger than arabica and robusta. The pulp is thick, which means the yield is much lower.”
For example, 100kg (220lbs) of arabica cherries will produce 20kg (44lbs) to 25kg (55lbs) of green beans. However, the same amount of liberica cherries will only result in around 7kg (15lbs) of green beans.
“This is also why the price of liberica is so high,” Jason says.
Thanks to its thick pulp, liberica is also less susceptible to the coffee berry borer, one of the most serious and devastating pests to coffee crops.
Additionally, liberica beans are quite soft, which makes flavour development easier during fermentation. However, great care is required to prevent over-fermentation.
Jason reveals the flavours of liberica can vary. Depending on processing and fermentation methods, the flavours may include notes of jackfruit, tropical fruits, strawberry, and cranberry, among others.
With that being said, its inherent characteristics are intense sweetness with licorice notes and a long aftertaste. This is particularly perceived in washed or wet processed liberica coffees.
To highlight its body and sweetness, liberica is often served with milk, as when it is served black, Jason admits it is not as clean as arabica.
The emergence of specialty liberica
The term “specialty” is commonly associated with the arabica species. This is because arabica lots tend to score 80+ on the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) chart, while also providing the transparency key to the third wave movement.
In recent years, liberica has also made its way into the specialty coffee scene.
“The basis of specialty coffee is caring about the quality from seed to cup, and transparency in every part of the value chain,” Jason says. The same is true for specialty liberica.
Jason explains that quality is at the heart of My Liberica. As he has his own processing mill, he can adapt old methods used for liberica and exercise more control over the end-to-end process.
In addition to hand-picking ripe cherries, Jason’s farm practices meticulous sorting and grading methods to remove any defective beans.
My Liberica uses three different methods to process liberica cherries, depending on their quality. Typically, Jason’s farm uses the natural sun dried, washed, and pulped natural/honey processing methods.
“If cherries are overripe, I will use the pulp natural method to reduce fermentation and help prevent bad flavours coming through,” he explains.
Furthermore, Jason has also experimented with innovative processing techniques to create new and unique coffee flavours.
For example, he adds calamansi, also known as Philippine lime, into the fermentation tank, which is called the lime process. He has also tried the sous-vide process, which refers to cooking vacuum sealed coffee in temperature-controlled water.
My Liberica is currently collaborating with World Barista Champion, Sasa Sestic to test anaerobic fermentation on liberica beans.
Anaerobic fermentation is an experimental approach and refers to coffee that is fermented without oxygen.
While specialty liberica is advancing, Jason admits there are still many challenges surrounding this segment of the market.
“One area we are lacking in is cupping,” Jason says. “There is no one to judge liberica coffee, and no organisation or association to build a standard for specialty liberica.”
What does it mean for Malaysia’s coffee industry?
Specialty liberica has made a number of significant breakthroughs in the last few years.
In 2018, a specialty liberica from Sarawak was first introduced to the world at the Stuttgart Coffee Summit in Germany.
Then, three years later, My Liberica made its debut on the international coffee stage when Hugh Kelly from ONA Coffee collaborated with them to prepare for his competitions.
Jason believes it is the success liberica found on the world stage that prompted the change in consumers’ mindset. While this is positive news for the Malaysian coffee industry, there is still work to be done to engage with the larger market.
One limitation is liberica’s cost of production: it is three times higher than arabica and robusta, generally making it less profitable.
“Right now, liberica coffee is a sunset industry in Malaysia,” Jason explains. “The average age of farmers here is around 60 years old.”
He believes getting into the specialty coffee market is the only way to grow the liberica coffee industry in Malaysia.
“To target this exclusive market, we need to create good flavours that are desired by specialty coffee consumers,” Jason says.
This, in turn, may help raise the price of liberica. This can help farmers to earn a substantial income, and possibly entice the younger generation to join the coffee industry.
Thanks to the increased attention towards liberica, the Malaysian government has acknowledged the potential to become a major producer of the species. It has committed to supporting its growth, such as by investing in research and integrating the country’s farmers.
According to coffee researcher Dr Steffen Schwarz, liberica has an extensive root system which allows it to grow in different types of soil.
This suggests liberica may play a critical role in tackling the challenges climates change poses to arabica production.
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