The Basics of Liberica Coffee
Scientifically known as Coffea Liberica, liberica coffee originates from the West African country of Liberia. The first liberica coffee plant was discovered in the wild during the late 18th century. However, its commercial cultivation spread rapidly beyond West Africa well into Asia through the 18th and 19th centuries.
Today, liberica coffee grows in west, east, and central Africa along with Asia, in countries like India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. But, liberica coffee doesn't enjoy such a generous coffee market share globally, as Arabica coffee (70%) or Robusta coffee (30-40%). Instead, liberica coffee accounts for only 1.5% of the total global coffee market, explaining its less popularity.
Fun Fact: The Philippines account for over 70% of the global liberica coffee production and consumption today.
It is believed that liberica coffee spread to Asia quickly and prominently due to its special environmental characteristics. Compared to varieties like Robusta and Arabica, liberica coffee is strongly resilient to diseases (such as leaf rust) and pests (due to the liberica beans.
Additionally, its tolerance to humid and hot conditions, higher temperatures, and low altitudes extend the variety's growing area. Among other reasons for liberica to be more tolerant are its deep roots. Their deep roots penetrate various soil conditions, allowing them to extract more nutrients and grow in a wider variety of conditions, compared to Arabica or robusta.
Liberica coffee grows as a shrub or tree, extending to about 66 feet tall. This is considerably taller than Arabica and robusta coffee shrubs, which average around 33 to 40 feet tall. The significantly taller tree sometimes requires producers to use ladders during harvest.
Similarly, the liberica tree grows equally larger leaves and cherries. The trees feature large and leathery foliage with elliptical and leaves with a wrinkled texture. During the flowering season, they produce tubular and star-shaped white blossoms that grow in clusters near the branch tips.
Like most coffee varieties, liberica coffee trees develop from little seedlings to full trees in 5 years. Further, they produce the coffee crop for about 5 to 50 years. But, they are at their peak with optimal crop production for the first 30 years.
Liberica Coffee Consumption and Growth Today
Accounting for just 1.5% of the total global production, liberica has been commonly used as a commodity for instant coffee. It is usually mixed with robusta coffee to create soluble instant coffee. In fact, it has even been used by giant food manufacturers, such as Nestle for their instant coffee.
But, with growing popularity, liberica coffee is slowly earning its place in the coffee industry, well beyond being just an ingredient for instant coffee. In some Asian countries, producers are pushing for more liberica coffee consumption as a more budget-friendly alternative to higher cost and imported Arabica and robusta.
Growing liberica coffee as specialty coffee is a great way to elevate its popularity and status among coffee consumers. However, this comes with a price. To produce liberica coffee that appeals to more drinkers, cross-planting to produce hybrids may be essential.
After all, to boost the likelihood of the coffee scoring the 80 to 100 specialty coffee qualifying points, it is best to grow it at higher altitudes with more care and attention. This comes with the price of pure liberica trees becoming even more rare and ultimately, extinct.
So, while we enjoy more specialty liberica cultivars, we will miss out on experiencing its authentic flavors. Further, other producers can also explore other avenues to extract the best flavors from the beans, including processing.
Today, many experts participate in conservation efforts for liberica trees, particularly in Asia, to reduce their risks of extinction. In Asia alone, many farms have started to replace pure wild liberica coffee trees with shorter and more convenient hybrid cultivars. Even less effort is done to produce, promote, or improve liberica coffee production in Africa!
It’s important to note that in addition to its unique flavors, pure liberica coffee is also a sustainable crop, apart from its lower yield. Its resistance to diseases, pests, and extreme climates, makes it a great crop option. Plus, in its pure form, farmers can diversify what they grow and boost their earnings while producing organic and sustainable coffee.
Due to its survival at lower elevations, liberica can even be grown among fruit trees and legumes, taking advantage of the companionship this combination offers. For instance, legumes, such as beans or nuts fix oxygen in the soil to boost nutrient availability.
In addition to these safer, sustainable, and "cleaner" growing practices, liberica coffee can help farmers reduce the impact of climate change. Since liberica coffee survives better at lower elevations (therefore, a wide area), they can complement the affected Arabica coffee which sees its ideal land deemed unusable each day.