Climate change is putting a hefty strain on the world’s favourite coffee species – Arabica. Can a mostly forgotten species be the very future of the way we consume our brews?
It would be absurd to say that specialty coffee hasn’t taken the world by storm in recent years. The average consumer now expects a whole lot more from their daily coffee and everyone appears to be a self proclaimed coffee buff these days – perhaps you’ve even spotted your mum scrolling through v60s on Amazon. A recent Allegra Strategies report looked into the “Future of Coffee” and the speciality coffee industry alone is forecasted to make a 13% year-on-year growth, which outperforms the 10% growth expected for the whole UK coffee market.
Most specialty coffee lovers will probably be aware of the two key coffee species that dominate the global market – Arabica and Robusta. These two coffee types offer the most palatable drinking experience and are fairly easy to produce in large quantities throughout various specific regions in the world. Arabica is the world’s favorite however, and this is what you’ll find in most western coffee shops including commercial chains like Starbucks and Costa Coffee.
With the worrying rise in global temperatures, mostly relying on one coffee species for all our coffee consumption is starting to look a little silly. Conditions for growing coffee beans well have to be extremely precise, especially when it comes to specialty coffee. Arabica coffee plants usually grow at high altitudes due to slightly cooler temperatures (between 18 and 21 degrees celsius) and optimum moisture levels. These specific growing conditions leave some coffee farms vulnerable to minute changes in climate, with cooler or dryer seasons affecting yield dramatically.
Warmer global temperatures have already had an adverse effect on coffee production throughout Brazil – the globe’s prime producer of coffee. Within the last two years, production has struggled and failed to meet the growing demand. As the global population grows and general drinking habits develop, veering towards better tasting ‘specialty grade’ coffee, it’s unknown whether we’ll be able to sustain the increased need for our champion bean species, Arabica. According to recent studies by Dr Aaron Davis, of London’s Kew Gardens, a global rise in temperature by 2 degrees celsius, will affect 75% of the world’s supply of Arabica coffee.
This is why a forgotten player in the coffee game has now been thrust back into the limelight. Liberica – a lesser known species native to Central and Western Africa has entered the chat! But can this hardy, unusual bean really be the future of sustainable coffee production?
For starters, Liberica is a far more resilient species than Arabica. It’s able to grow and flourish in conditions that would otherwise be regarded as unfavourable. So we’ve hit the jackpot right? Not necessarily – there’s a reason why it remained in the shadow of both Arabica and Robusta for all these years. It grows fruits that are considerably larger, which makes processing the coffee a much more difficult, lengthy process. Its knobbly, inconsistent shape also means that the beans are more prone to being over or under dried as well as unevenly roasted. Because of these crucial faults, researchers are now focusing on an exciting sub-species of Liberica called Excelsa.
This variety is thankfully much closer in size to that of Arabica with a far more balanced flavour profile than what’s normally expected from Liberica. It’s mostly known for its strong, bitter and unusual taste – but modern roasting techniques, mastered within the specialty coffee industry, might just be the answer to Liberica’s future. Delicate and lighter roasting methods can help bring out new characteristics from these beans, balancing out the profiles and making them more palatable. Farmers in Uganda and Ethiopia have also been experimenting with Excelsa, using specialty growing techniques which have enabled them to yield a more consistent, better tasting bean. This is all great news and the outcome of this could be a new coffee taking over in the not so distant future!
Of course it’s hard to predict exactly what the future will look like in regards to coffee, but one thing is certain, growers, middle-men, coffee traders and retailers are struggling to meet the overwhelming demand. It may be that species such as Liberica will be consumed and traded as a necessity or as a safety net, crucial for the industry to continue as it is.