THE SARAWAK LIBERICA ENDURED A BAD RAP for a long time, bearing the burden of the misunderstood step-child in a roster shared with the more popular Canephora (Robusta) and Arabica.
While considered the rarest species on a global context (1% of overall production), the average coffeedrinking Malaysian is already well acclimatised to it since it grows in the region and is standard kopitiam fare.
But the benchmark could always be raised.
Dr Kenny Lee Wee Ting brewed himself a name in the local coffee culture after experiencing his first moka pot coffee.
“I started buying and roasting coffee, and reading up on coffee. I bought roasting equipment and beans online,” he said.
Coffee roasting is extremely addictive, and the high eventually drove him to kickstart a coffee culture in Kuching together with like-minded bean junkies.
Several years and many coffee qualifications later, he finds himself leading the Malaysia Coffeology Collective (MCC), the group that is spearheading the first Borneo Coffee Symposium, scheduled for April 2019.
Apart from bringing in coffee experts, agricultural specialists, and academics, the Symposium has another mission: to elevate the status of the misunderstood Sarawak Liberica and escort it to its rightful place at the table.
After all, Kenny himself initially believed what the other coffee experts said and what he tasted for himself. As a licensed coffee grader and trainer, his knowledge hinged upon the global specialty coffee standard.
But what’s defective to foreign-trained palates is normal to kopitiam regulars.
“Most farmers didn’t understand that the Liberica has thicker skin and higher sugar content. You cannot process it same way as Canephora (Robusta) and Arabica because that will overferment the coffee and develop a rotten flavour.”
In 2017, Coffee Consulate founder Dr Steffen Schwarz told Kenny to take look at coffee species closer to home, mentioning that Canephora and Liberica have every potential to be as good as the highly-lauded Arabica. While not convinced, Kenny was up for the challenge the next time he met with Schwarz in Bangkok, Thailand. He rounded up as much Liberica as his Kuching contact could find, had it shipped over, and prepared it as per Schwarz’s instructions.
“Turned out the coffee was really good. It has the complete spectrum you can find in the flavour wheel – fruitiness, chocolate, spices, all kind of complex flavours.”
Upon his return to Kuching, Kenny started work on the Liberica – collecting, categorising, a DNA test. It then went with him to the 2018 Stuttgart Coffee Summit, the biggest coffee event in Germany, with experts from around the world.
Variations of the Sarawak Liberica went through a cupping test. It gain so much love at Stuttgart that the Liberica took home the Kaldi Award for Green Coffee Findings, a recognition that gets handed out once every two years.
“This was proof that Liberica was not so bad. That’s how I was convinced, and we started looking into the history,” Kenny said.
While future of the Sarawak Liberica looked rosy, the past came knocking via another well known slice of local heritage – The Brooke Family.
“We actually do have a long history with coffee,” said Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus lecturer Dr Bertha Chin.
Her PhD, which came from the field of media and cultural studies, admittedly had nothing to do with coffee. Her work with the Brooke Trust brought her in contact with heritage and its role in forming cultural identity. This too had nothing to do with coffee, until her PhD student Raine Melissa Riman found mentions of coffee plantations in Sarawak’s history.
They are now working on a Sarawak Coffee Culture research together.
Bertha explained that in 1866, Charles Brooke had a piece of land in Matang which was a coffee plantation, but because they didn’t know what they were doing, the first batch failed.
“It took a lot of reading in the Brooke archives and the Sarawak Gazette before we found that they planted Arabica,” she said, adding that the Matang plantation fell short of the minimum 600 meters elevation required by the Arabica.
While the 1866 attempt failed, it still made Sarawak the first among the future members of the Malaysian Federation to have a coffee plantation, and an example to its neighbours: Malaya made note of this failure and wrote Arabica off as a potential crop.
In the 1870s, Liberica arrived from Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka).
“There were letters in 1870 between Charles and someone based in Ceylon, saying they were going to carry the seedlings over. It didn’t say what seedlings, but the other data we found suggests that it was Liberica,” Bertha said.
Subsequently, the Matang plantation enjoyed brief success until the early 1900s, producing a fair amount of Liberica cherries that were traded locally. But Charles was travelling frequently and unable to supervise the plantation, so it succumbed to mismanagement.
Both Bertha and Raine are hoping that the Brooke Trust, led by its director Jason Brooke, will be able to uncover more information, particularly documentation from Charles Brooke’s wife, Ranee Margaret.
“The Ranee was an avid photographer and stayed in the villa near the plantation so there might be photos,” Bertha said, adding that there were descriptions of coffee being planted together with roses, vanilla and cinnamon.
Farmers in India are currently planting their coffee alongside other spices, something that the MCC wants to replicate in Malaysia so that local farmers can diversify their crop and create a sustainable future.
As for the symposium in April, the collective aims to show the world that Borneo, smack in the central region of the coffee belt, has something to offer to the global coffee industry.
“We’re also holding the world’s first Liberica roasting competition at the symposium,” said Kenny, underscoring the fact that coffee specialists are making room at the table for this oncesidelined species.
As someone once said: Once you wake up and smell the coffee, it’s hard to go back to sleep.
Georgette Tan recently left The Borneo Post, the largest English daily in Borneo, after nearly 14 years there as a feature writer and reporter. She is currently saying “yes” to all the things she had to say “no” to, but also saying “no” enough times to make time to find the magic in life, and in herself.