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Don't Forget the Libericas: An Interview with Coffee Producer Elaine Barrios

Don't Forget the Libericas: An Interview with Coffee Producer Elaine Barrios

Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora, better known as Arabica and Robusta, are two household names when it comes to coffee species. A distant third is Coffea Liberica, accounting for less than 2% of commercially-grown coffee worldwide.

Indigenous to West Africa, Liberica was brought over to Southeast Asia in the 1890s to replace Arabica plants that were plagued with coffee rust disease. Liberica proved to be resistant to disease, pests, drought, and climate change. Today, it is still cultivated in some parts of Malaysia and the Philippines.

Despite its rarity, Liberica has a bad rap for its flavour profile. This can be attributed to inferior processing and roasting in the countries that cultivate it, as well as the relatively cheap price it's sold at. In the Philippines, Coffea Liberica is known as "Barako Coffee", which roughly translates to "Manly Coffee", due to its strong and bitter taste.

However, there exists a movement to change this perception. A new generation of coffee producers is determined to put Liberica on the Specialty Coffee map, and leading the change in the Philippines is Elaine Agoncillo Barrios of Plantacion Agoncillo. We had a virtual sit-down with Elaine to chat about coffee producer life, thriving through calamity, and her efforts to elevate this underappreciated species.

Jon: Hey Elaine! Tell us a little bit about your background with coffee and
Plantacion Agoncillo.

Elaine: My fondness with coffee began when I was in college. But it was only back in 2012, when I resigned from my job as a biochemist extracting stuff out of dried ground plants, that I thought of researching on how to make the perfect cup of coffee. I started looking into how to brew the proper way, and how to change its [the coffee’s] taste.

My research led me to exploring different kinds of beans and eventually into roasting. I took a crash course where I met people who hooked me up with locally-sourced green coffee beans that I first pan-roasted. I used a small Teflon pan and simulated a drum by using a pot cover then shaking it around every few seconds or so.

I then got more interested in learning about green coffee, and I realized that it all boils down to the cropwhile the perfect cup of coffee is rather subjective, you can’t make a good cup if you have bad beans. Since I was out of a job and my family was looking into other things, I asked if I could try to plant coffee. I got their support and so, Plantacion Agoncillo was born in 2014, and I just continued to dig deeper into the rabbit hole of the coffee world.

J: How big is the plantation and what other coffee varieties or plants do you grow, if any?

E: The coffee plantation is 1.5 hectares with about 970 trees. We only planted Libericas since the land is located in Batangas. (Writer’s note: A low-elevation province in the Philippines.)

J: What do you do differently at the farm that sets your Libericas apart?

E: When we began our little farm, I had the idea of processing the Libericas somewhat like how the specialty arabicas are processed to see how it will affect taste. Until now, that’s what we do since we liked how it initially turned out. Raised drying beds, semi washed method, etc.

J: What about your Liberica’s flavour profile are you most proud of? Any signature or unique taste characteristics?

E: I think the attribute I am proudest of is that the strong jackfruit smell usually associated with Libericas isn’t there. Well, it depends. I noticed that if you roast it a certain way, it comes out but not as strong as the “normal” Barako. Also, I think it has a unique citrus rind acidity and a certain “whiskey-ness” to it.

J: We agree! When we roasted and served your coffee in the past, we called the dominant flavour note “Old Fashioned”, like the classic cocktail. Definitely a coffee to remember!

E: And thank you Jon, for seeing its potential and giving our Libericas a chance!

Elaine checking out her Libericas at Exchange
Alley Coffee House in Manila (Photo from 2018)

J: I want to talk about where we first met you. It was at a local coffee auction two years ago, where your Libericas were featured alongside some amazing local Arabicas. And they set record-breaking prices for the species! Can you talk to us about that experience?

E: That was surreal and exciting for me. I was hopeful and scared at the same time. I didn’t know how the people in the specialty coffee industry would accept the Libericas considering their bad rap especially when you compare them with the other varieties that everyone is used to. I was lucky to be surrounded by very supportive coffee friends who gave me the extra push to just do it.

J: How is the farm doing at present? The first quarter of this year has seen a volcano eruption a few kilometers from your estate, followed by country-wide lockdowns due to COVID-19. Has this impacted the coffee production in your area?

E: At first, I thought it didn’t affect our trees since not that much ash fell on the trees, but even a thin layer [of the ash] affected most of our cherries. Also, there was a shortage of water due to the eruption so we couldn’t water the trees properly. We had a few kilos of cherries harvested and dried, but mold grew on them due to improper handling. We couldn’t find people to help us work the farm and do post-processing due to the lockdown. Unfortunately, we lost our 2019-2020 crop year coffee.

J: I’m so sorry to hear that. How are you guys coping for the next crop year?

E: We just continued our routine maintenance in the farm. Most of the trees have green cherries already, so we are hoping for the best. Though there are quite a few trees that have nothing on them, which boggles me until now. I guess that’s the main challenge of farming, especially as a first-timer. It’s really trial and error, and you only know what the results will be after a year.

J: We’re happy your team is fighting for it! And I hope there is another opportunity to serve your coffee in the future. Which begs the questionwhere do you wish to see Plantacion Agoncillo and Philippine Liberica in the next few years?

E: I would love to have an increase in production without using too much fertilizers in our farm in the coming years. I would also love to see the Philippine Liberica being appreciated by both the local and international market.

J: What do you consider the biggest barriers to achieving this goal?

E: It is a challenge for our farm to find good help and a constant water supply. So those two are huge barriers for us now. As for the export of the Philippine Liberica, I tried sending some coffee out to interested foreign buyers, but I was asked for a lot of paperwork that, well, small farmers/producers don’t normally have. If there was a way to make it easier for us smaller players to send out our products, that would be a big help.

J: With Philippine Coffee getting a bigger spotlight year after year, I am hoping your Libericas gain even bigger prominence soon! My last questionif you were allowed to give Liberica a new local nickname other than simply “Barako”, what would it be?

E: I never thought of this, but I heard someone say before that it's "not your Lolo's Barako" or something like that *laughs*. I kind of like that. (Writer’s note: “Lolo” is Filipino for Grandfather.)

J: I like it, too! And we look forward to hearing and tasting more! Thank you for your time and for sharing your insights and experiences, Elaine! Anything else you want to share before we end the interview?

E: I’m glad more people were able to taste our coffee because of EACH! We still have some 2018-2019 harvest available for those who still want to try it. We kept a batch to age in parchment and hulled it a few months after to see the difference. I hope more people will be open and interested to try the “new” Libericas available in the market—not just ours, but other locally-farmed and processed coffees as well.

Words by Jon Choi @theheadbean
Header Photo by Asser Christensen

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