In a world of Robusta and Arabica coffee, Liberica coffee is like a unicorn. Touted as the sweetest coffee species, it’s so rare that it’s even been called endangered, with various sources claiming it occupies less than 1% of the globe’s coffee production.
But for a farm in Johor, Liberica coffee is its way of life.
Specialising in a “seed-to-cup” concept, the aptly named My Liberica Coffee isn’t just a café but a company that has its own farm, processor, and roastery.
Established in 2009, it boasts over a decade of experience as well as ups and downs, having been a pioneer of speciality coffee in Malaysia.
It watched as third-wave coffee swept across the nation, then as bubble tea became the more prominent speciality beverage. It’s still watching now, as local espresso coffee chains such as ZUS Coffee and Gigi Coffee rapidly expand their foothold in Malaysia.
But My Liberica Coffee’s founder, Jason Liew, isn’t as concerned about the new wave of coffee brands. Rather, what he’s concerned about is something different—the survival and proliferation of Liberica beans.
A legacy of agriculture
Jason grew up seeing his dad cultivating crops like peppers and bananas as well as rearing chickens and ducks.
“Since my ah gong migrated to Malaysia, we’ve always been in farming,” Jason explained.
Eventually, to support his children’s education, Jason’s dad started to plant limau kasturi (calamansi). Over a decade later, however, the plants became diseased, so he turned to planting lemons. But as a profitable fruit, the lemons ended up being stolen.
So, the farmer decided to plant something he believed wouldn’t be stolen—coffee.
Up until that point, Jason had been a self-professed milo-drinker, having been around 16 or 17 years old. In fact, he didn’t drink coffee up until his university days in Taiwan where he pursued agriculture.
As part of his course, he attended coffee tasting classes, learnt how to roast beans, and also picked up barista skills.
“The reason why I started roasting my own coffee is pretty simple,” Jason said. “To save money.”
According to him, coffee beans in Taiwan were fairly affordable, plus all the equipment to roast the coffee was available on campus.
As time went on, he grew a sincere passion for coffee. He would experiment with flavours and ask for critiques from his teachers during lunch breaks.
After graduation, Jason worked briefly in Taiwan, then was sent to Indonesia for two years, before he ultimately decided to come home.
“I studied agriculture,” he explained. “I wanted to come back to help my dad.”
Finding his calling
When he came back, Jason started growing papayas, vegetables, and of course, coffee.
As a coffee enthusiast, he yearned to experiment with different roasting machines and techniques, but doing so at home had its limitations.
“So the fastest solution was to open my own coffee shop,” Jason said. “This way, I can buy industrial and more advanced machines.”
Calling it luck, Jason’s business, My Liberica Coffee, quickly gained attention for its unique positioning, as most coffee shops back then were still focused on traditional coffee. By its sixth month, Jason said they were no longer just breaking even, but turning a profit.
However, they encountered a new issue—a shortage of coffee beans.
“Ten years ago, growing coffee in Malaysia was not easy,” he said. “A big part of the industry was in the hands of traditional roasters and established manufacturers, as importing the beans requires a permit.”
But because local coffee factories were in dire need of beans, Jason decided to work with them to easily acquire a permit. He would supply them with the beans and buy the processed and milled beans back to roast them himself.
However, because these factories prioritised efficiency, there wasn’t any room to create tailored flavour profiles. While Jason could insert his own input in the roasting process, he shared that the processing plays a bigger role in affecting the bean’s taste.
Thus, Jason decided to open his own coffee processing plant in 2013 to gain more control, which granted My Liberica Coffee the catchphrase of “from seed to cup”.
“To be honest, for many years, the coffee processing plant was not profitable,” he said. “I finally understood why traditional processors do things the way they do. If they don’t do it their way, it’s hard to stay afloat.”
Championing Liberica coffee
After some smooth-sailing years, My Liberica Coffee ran into a big problem—the pandemic.
A few years before the pandemic, the team started its agrotourism efforts and even closed partnerships with tourism agencies.
However, due to the COVID-19 restrictions, the team was unable to continue with the tours.
The lockdowns in place also ended up closing My Liberica Coffee’s KL outlet, a devastating blow for the business as it’s mostly reliant on its retail front.
Yet, like a light at the end of the tunnel, the World Barista Championship (WBC) appeared as a saving grace.
The WBC is a platform where baristas all over the globe will explore and experiment with different coffee beans. Looking for something more unique, there began to be a focus on coffees that strayed away from the typical Arabica or Robusta types.
With this, a barista in Australia found out about My Liberica Coffee’s products and recommended its beans to his mentee, Danny Wilson, who managed to place third on the WBC 2021. This brought in orders from other baristas across the globe for competitive-level beans.
Like all coffee species, Liberica originated from Africa, but the Malaysian variety is differentiated due to the terroir (ecosystem). Thanks to My Liberica Coffee’s focus on speciality coffee, it has also made a name for itself amongst coffee lovers.
“Because of this, we really started seeing some hope,” he said. “Suddenly, we were able to tell the world about our existence.”
Today, Jason is seeking to rebuild his team.
“A lot of times, it’s not as easy as we think,” Jason mused. “Just because you want to hire someone doesn’t mean you’ll actually be able to hire them. A lot of times, it depends on fate.”
The future of Liberica
My Liberica Coffee is not the only Liberica coffee player in Malaysia. Another Johor-based brand that we’ve featured, Sai Kee Kopi or Kopi 434, also specialises in Liberica coffee, which they call elephant bean coffee.
This is as compared to Robusta and Arabica coffee, Liberica coffee is a more viable option in Malaysia due to weather and altitude limitations.
With that said, Liberica in Malaysia is typically used for the manufacturing of instant coffee or “traditional coffee” rather than speciality coffee, such as with Sai Kee Kopi.
Yet, Liberica’s sweetness works well in speciality coffee as it pairs well with milk. But beyond taste, Jason believes speciality drinks is the way forward for the industry’s survival.
“When you drive by highways, have you ever seen coffee trees?” he asked rhetorically. “No, right? That’s because coffee farming in Malaysia is a sunset business.”
For cost-saving reasons, coffee manufacturers in Malaysia may source coffee from countries where labour is cheaper, forcing local growers to decrease their own prices. Plus, Liberica plants have three times less yield compared to Arabica and Robusta coffee plants.
“That’s why it’s so difficult to see coffee plantations in Malaysia,” Jason reasoned. “Most of the ones you see are ones that were planted a long time ago by older uncles. Virtually, no one wants to plant coffees anymore.”
“But if we don’t continue to cultivate these farms, we might not have coffee in the future,” Jason warned. “The only coffee trees you’ll see might be in museums and parks.”
This is an issue that he realised early on. In order to keep Liberica relevant, he believes he needs to approach it from a different angle. That’s why he decided he must focus on speciality coffee rather than the traditional kind.
“Because speciality coffee is about flavours first, then money second,” he said. “You must create good flavours for customers to pay a high price for them. This is the aim I have with my processing plant.”
In the bigger picture, a higher price will attract more people to the industry as well, which will help sustain the existence of Liberica coffee.
Although he’s already made some headway through the WBC, he believes the next step is to find a way to commercialise the bean.
“You’ve entered the market, but how are you going to grow the market down the road? How are you going to innovate within the industry, to the point where one day, while driving down the highway, you’ll see a coffee plantation instead of just oil palms?” he wondered. “To me, that would be success.”
But Jason alone cannot bring about this change. This will take a national effort complete with governmental support.
“And perhaps I will be the match that ignites this movement,” Jason decided.
Arabica coffee itself has been constantly improving and evolving over the years, with players in the industry experimenting with the roasting, milling, and extraction processes. Thanks to all of that, Arabica has been able to establish itself as such a popular option.
Likewise, Liberica itself will need to undergo all of these experiments before it can attain the same status. That’s why partnering up with competitive baristas will help do just that for Liberica beans.
As Jason puts it, Liberica’s journey in speciality coffee has “only just begun”, and perhaps My Liberica Coffee will be at the helm of its proliferation.
- Learn more about My Liberica Coffee here.
- Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.