Coffee Story: Arabica, Robusta, Liberica & Excelsa Beans in Southeast Asia
There are generally 4 varietals of coffee beans that are cultivated commercially in the world, namely Arabica, Robusta, Liberica and Excelsa, out of over 120 coffee species.
Among the 4 varietals, the Arabica and Robusta beans are more common and takes up about 95% of the world's production of coffee beans. Both the Liberica and Excelsa beans are rarer and are grown mostly in Southeast Asia. Due to their low production levels and non-availability in many places, they are often being overlooked.
For over a century, Excelsa was regarded as a coffee genus of its own, but in 2006, it was re-classified as the same specie as Liberica, yet both types of coffee beans have very different characteristics and tastes. The reclassification creates confusions as a result of their names being used interchangeably.
The 4 types of coffee beans are characteristically different in many ways and have different taste profiles.
Arabica has more refined aroma and tastes smoother and sweeter with flavour notes of chocolate, fruit and berries. It is more acidic but is the least bitter among the 4 varietals. Nearly all specialty coffee beans in the market are Arabica beans.
Robusta's taste profile is often described as harsh, earthly, dark chocolaty and, sometimes, with caramel flavour after roasting. It has more bitterness but is the least acidic, which is why it does not have any fruity notes.
Taste profile of Liberica is pretty close to Robusta with earthly, smoky, woody or nutty flavours. It is more balanced with less bitterness than Robusta and less acidity than Arabica.
Excelsa has a taste profile that differs considerably from Liberica. It has berry-like and fruity flavours and has a unique aroma that is hard to describe. Like Liberica, it has earthly or woody notes too. Excelsa is mostly used to blend with other coffee varieties due to its strong, floral aroma that adds complexity.
Level of Caffeine
Caffeine exists naturally in all types of coffee beans but the amount varies across different species. Notwithstanding that, same specie of coffee plant grown in different regions (not single origin) may have different caffeine levels too.
One of the primary factors affecting caffeine level of coffee beans is the cultivation altitude. At lower altitudes, there are more insects attacking the coffee cherries, and as a result, coffee plants produce more caffeine as insect repellent in the fruits to fence off the insects. Vice versa, coffee beans cultivated at higher altitudes, with fewer insect invasions, will have lesser caffeine.
Furthermore, high levels of caffeine also increases the bitterness in the beans, but it is not the only contributor to the bitter taste of coffee — decaffeinated coffee still tastes bitter after more than 97% of the caffeine was removed.
The cultivation altitudes of the 4 types of coffee beans are illustrated as follows:
Notice that Robusta are cultivated at much lower altitudes as compared to Arabica beans. As such, Robusta beans have higher caffeine levels and thus more bitterness. Caffeine levels in Liberica beans vary widely depending on the cultivation altitudes. Excelsa beans have lower caffeine than Liberica beans.
Arabica beans, cultivated at higher altitudes, require more attention and care from farmers and are usually higher in demand due to their wide range of flavours and less bitterness. Thus, they are priced higher.
Robusta beans, cultivated at lower altitudes and has high resistant to diseases and insects, require lesser care from farmers. With higher caffeine level and more bitter taste, they are usually priced lower than Arabica.
Prices of Liberica and Excelsa beans are more dependent on demands. Being easier to cultivate and yet rarer in terms of availability, their prices may vary across different regions. However, due to lower production quantities, they are not widely available around the world.
Excelsa beans are cultivated mainly in Southeast Asia and India.
The Coffee Belt
Most coffee plants are found in the Equatorial zone called the "Coffee Belt" or "Bean Belt". They are located between latitudes 25 degrees North and 30 degrees South, where climatic and elevation conditions are more suitable for coffee plants to thrive. There are some exceptions, such as in Australia or Hawaii, having the right conditions to grow coffee.
Southeast Asia is in the coffee belt.
Coffee Production In Southeast Asia
In Indonesia, Arabica, Robusta, Liberica and Excelsa beans are grown in five major coffee production regions. One of the most expensive coffee beans, kopi luwak (beans digested by civet cat) is also produced here. A cup of kopi luwak may cost around US$50 in the American continents but the raw coffee beans can be purchased at much lower price in Indonesia.
In Thailand, Arabica beans are widely cultivated in the northern regions while Robusta beans are grown to the south. Another most expensive coffee beans, known as Black Ivory (beans digested by elephants), is produced here. It used to be available in 5-star hotels only but is now available for sales online.
In Laos, both Arabica (25%) and Robusta (75%) beans are cultivated. Robusta beans are usually used in making local coffees and the high-quality Arabica beans are exported for use in making espresso.
In Vietnam, Robusta occupies 95% of the country's total coffee production while the rest are Arabica and some Liberica.
In the Philippines, all 4 types of coffee varietal can be found but Robusta beans take up 90% of the country's coffee production. Liberica in the Philippines is known as Barako.
In Malaysia, coffee production is small and is mainly the Liberica and Excelsa varietals (95%) with the rest being Arabica and Robusta. Most of Malaysia's traditional coffees are roasted using Robusta beans (mostly imported) but Liberica beans are more commonly used in Johor. Liberica beans are also known as "elephant beans" to the locals due to its larger size.
Myanmar and Cambodia also produces coffee, mostly Robusta beans, but exports are limited. Timor-Leste, having more mountainous terrains, produces Arabica beans and its specialty coffees are considered few of the world's best coffees. Surprisingly, Brunei do produce a small amount of Arabica beans other than oil.
Singapore is the only nation that does not produce coffee beans. However, we do have easy access to all the 4 types of coffee beans from our neighbours. It is very easy to buy Arabica and Robusta beans in Singapore or from nearby Malaysia or Indonesia. For Liberica and Excelsa beans, cross the border to Johor in West Malaysia, where most of the Liberica and Excelsa plantations are found, and acquire them from coffee factories (or shops and cafes operated by them).
Liberica beans can be purchased from:
Mister Coffee in Johor Bahru
Kopi 434 Cafe in Muar
Kluang Coffee Powder Factory in Kluang
(check related links below)
Excelsa beans can be purchased from:
Rengit Coffee / Dagan Cafes in Batu Pahat
Of course, the easier way will be to source for the desired beans and order online without having to travel but pay higher prices for the products.
Knowing where to get wonderful coffee beans is just a start, you may want to brew your own coffees.