But in skillful hands, Liberica can be a real discovery. In 2016, Davis visited several coffee farmers in Uganda and tasted an infusion made from their local beans. The taste surprised him. It was sweet, smooth and had notes of jackfruit. He began bringing the beans back to the UK and sharing them with coffee importers. They, too, were impressed and saw the potential for high-yielding, tasty beans that could be grown in a relatively wide range of locations. “We are talking about people who do it for profit, not for passion. If it’s not a sales pitch, they won’t be interested,” Davis says, sipping a coffee made from a variety of Liberal beans called excelsa.
In south London, Nigel Motley is one of the very few coffee shop owners in the UK who also extol the virtues of the Liberica bean. Liberica coffee is widely grown in the Philippines, where Motley’s mother is from, and is called there baraco, which roughly translates to “carnation” and has strong associations with masculinity. “This terribly strong coffee is said to give you a boost of energy for the whole day,” says Motley. One reason for the pungent taste is that Liberica beans tend to be oddly shaped with pointed tips that can easily burn during roasting.
But delicate, lighter roasts can bring out the other side of the beans, Motley says. “If it’s processed in different ways, and not just as one-dimensional coffee, it can be really exciting for the store and for the customer to try,” he says. He orders the beans from a manufacturer in the Philippines and roasts them in a 3kg roaster in London. Many of his clients are surprised when they try Liberica for the first time. Properly prepared, he can make a much more refined cup than his story suggests. “It shows a different side of the Liberica bean that the older generation is not used to,” says Motley.
Davies is especially enthusiastic about the excellent Liberica variety. It has smaller, more manageable fruits that are easier to handle than regular chunky Liberica beans. The coffee bean is actually the seed of a small cherry-like fruit that grows on coffee plants. The less pulp that surrounds this seed, the easier it is to harvest and process these fruits. Liberica plants, including excelsa, are also more resistant to warming. “We look at excelsa and liberica as something to grow when you just can’t grow arabica,” says Davies.
Having more types of coffee to choose from isn’t just nice to have – it can prove to be a vital way to save the livelihoods of the people who grow coffee for a living. For example, coffee accounts for a quarter of Ethiopia’s total exports, and between 39 and 59 percent of its current crop area could become unsuitable for growing coffee as the climate warms. As other coffee-growing regions get hotter, the need for plants that are more tolerant of higher temperatures becomes even more pressing. History is also littered with examples where overdependence on one culture ended in disaster. Until the 1950s, most of the bananas exported were of a larger and sweeter variety than those we have today, called Gros Michel, which was destroyed fungal infection. As temperatures rise, more coffee-growing regions could become susceptible to the virus. leaf rust disease– an infection that caused the rise of Liberica more than a century ago.
The situation with coffee factories may not be so dire. Within the two main types of coffee, there are hundreds of varieties with distinct flavors and qualities of their own. There are other types, for example Stenophylla coffee, which can also be grown in areas that are no longer suitable for Arabica. “You have to be able to produce coffee in a warming and changing climate,” says Davis. And if the history of coffee teaches us anything, it’s that things only really change when the alternative is no coffee at all. Maybe just liberica is a bean whose time has come.