Quick—name a type of coffee. (No, we aren’t talking about coffee drinks, like a caramel macchiato).
Ok, let’s be a bit more specific: name a species of coffee plant.
If you guessed “Arabica” or “Robusta”, you’d be correct. Coffea arabica and coffea canephora, more commonly known as Arabica and Robusta, are the two most commonly produced coffee plants in the world. Arabica constitutes about 60% of the world’s coffee and Robusta is just shy of 40%.
But those aren’t the only two coffee species around. In fact, it’s estimated that there are approximately 120 species of the coffee genus; Arabica and Robusta just happen to be the two most commercially important species.
However, there’s another species that’s worth taking a closer look at: Coffea liberica or, simply, Liberica.
What are Liberica Coffee Beans?
Like Arabica and Robusta, Liberica is another species of coffee plant. Unlike Arabica or Robusta, Liberica coffee beans don’t enjoy the same worldwide popularity and make up just 1.5% of global coffee production. Essentially all Liberica production comes from Southeast Asia, specifically the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Liberica first originated in Liberia—hence the name—and found its way to Southeast Asia by way of European colonists in the late 19th century. At the time, the coffee world was experiencing one of the worst pandemics of coffee leaf rust, affecting nearly 90% of all Arabica as well as a significant portion of Robusta. Coffee leaf rust is a devastating blight with the potential to wipe out an entire farm’s worth of coffee plants.
Liberica, however, demonstrated remarkably resistant properties. Farmers all throughout the Philippines, Malaysia and parts of Indonesia quickly switched over. Although Liberica would also eventually succumb to rust—though not quite to the same extent—the practice of cultivating Liberica survived. Today, Liberica is the most common type of coffee grown in the Philippines and Malaysia, making up over 70% and 90% of all coffee produced there respectively.
Liberica vs Arabica and Robusta
Although they’re all coffee plants, there are stark differences between Liberica, Arabica and Robusta. Here’s how to tell them apart:
Arabica Coffee Beans
Prized for their breadth of sweet and complex flavors that constitute an overall pleasant cup profile. Depending on the variety, where it’s grown, and how it’s processed and roasted, Arabica can exhibit a wide range of flavors. Everything from floral, citrus, and stone fruit notes, to nutty, chocolatey, toffee notes, to delicate tea-like flavors—and everything in between.
Robusta Coffee Beans
Robusta, on the other hand, has a distinct lack of both sweetness and complexity. It’s rather notorious for a harsh, bitter and intense flavor profile that many would describe as similar to burnt rubber.
There are a few more notable differences between Arabica and Robusta, which you can read about here.
Liberica Coffee Beans
Liberica coffee beans are very easily distinguished from Arabica and Robusta due to their large size (nearly twice as large!) and irregular, teardrop shape. The plants themselves are also impressively tall, growing up to 20 feet on average, compared to 10-15 feet for Arabica or Robusta plants.
As previously mentioned, Liberica has disease and pest-resistant attributes similar to Robusta. Additionally, its deep root systems and tough, leathery leaves makes it a hardier plant than Arabica which requires very precise conditions to thrive.
The biggest difference, and arguably the most important, comes down to taste.
Liberica’s flavor profile falls somewhere in between the two. Because of its large cherry size, the Liberica coffee bean comes into contact with more fruit sugars, which results in a markedly sweet, fruity and floral profile. This is even more pronounced when Liberica beans are naturally processed. In fact, Liberica is often said to be even sweeter than Arabica.
At the same time, Liberica also has a very noticeable smoky, woody and vegetal flavor similar to Robusta that can be off-putting. This flavor is intensified with darker roasts.
Why Liberica Isn't as Popular
It comes down to three factors: flavor, caffeine content and price. Arabica continues to win on all fronts when it comes to flavor. And while Robusta is generally considered to not taste as great, it does have one thing going for it: it makes an exceptionally strong brew. Robusta has nearly 50% more caffeine than Arabica, making it a popular blending choice for large commercial operations where flavor isn’t the main concern. Liberica, however, has about 25% less caffeine than Arabica: 1.23g of caffeine per 100g of coffee beans versus 1.61g. Given its divisive flavor profile and lack of utility as a caffeine delivery vehicle, it hasn’t quite found a market.
Of course, for coffee drinkers who prefer their coffee with less of a kick, Liberica could be a good alternative—that is, if you’re able to reliably get your hands on some. Outside of where it's grown, Liberica is rare and can be expensive, costing roughly twice as much as specialty Arabica.
Even though it’s not as popular as its counterparts, Liberica is an important part of our coffee heritage and should be preserved. In fact, there is some interesting research looking into cultivating consistently better tasting Liberica since it does have the potential to taste just as good as Arabica. And because it’s much more resilient, it could play an important role in the coffee growing world as climate change continues to make growing coffee more and more difficult. It’s possible you’ll even see Liberica popping up on coffee menus sometime in the future. But in the meantime, if you’re looking for healthy low caffeine options without compromising flavor, give our natural Swiss Water process decaf a try!