- Coffea eugenioides burst onto the international scene at the 2021 World Barista Championships
- Its market price has quadrupled in just four years as demand far outstrips supply
- Growing Eugenioides coffee remains a risky investment for those without the resources to cushion any setbacks
DURING THE 2021 World Barista Championship final, you could hear the excitement in Diego Campos’ voice as he described his winning coffee to the judges: “It is by far the most surprising and fascinating coffee I have ever tasted,” he said.
The coffee in question was coffea eugenioides – a little-known species marked out for its sweetness, low acidity, and smooth and silky mouthfeel.
Despite having made its first appearance on the world stage six years before, it seemed as though 2021 was to be the year when it really took off: in addition to Campos, Natalia Kwiatkowska of Poland and Andrea Allen of the US had both presented with a Eugenioides coffee from the same region of Colombia.
And indeed, after Campos’ victory, Eugenioides soon became the talk of the industry, with roasters, coffee shops, and consumers all scrambling to get their hands on a cup.
A handful of roasters, including Allen’s Onyx Coffee Lab in Arkansas, offered small quantities, with those lucky enough to try it providing resoundingly positive feedback. Some compared it to Geisha, which thanks to its distinctive characteristics, soared to popularity in 2004 and has commanded strong market high prices ever since.
Yet while Geisha is now produced widely across Latin America, Eugenioides is in more or less the same place it was at the World Barista Championship. And continuing limited availability means very few can buy samples. For those who can, prices are beyond proportion.
“I spoke to a friend today who roasts coffee for competitions,” says Andrew Tolley, director of Tolley Coffee and Tea in Geneva. “He said he paid €200 per kilo for Eugenioides two years ago. He was recently quoted €800 per kilo.”
So why, given all the hype, haven’t coffee producers embraced the species with as much fervour as anticipated?
A risky bet
Unlike arabica and robusta varieties, growing a “new” species like Eugenioides coffee is a risky bet for producers. According to Dr Sarada Krishnan, a coffee scientist and director of programs at Crop Trust, part of the reason is that it hasn’t had time to adapt for widespread production.
“Coffea eugenioides has still not undergone domestication,” she explains. “Hence productivity and yields remain too low to be affordable for a coffee farmer to grow this species. The beans are also small, making them challenging to roast.”
The yield from each Eugenioides plant is thought to be as low as 150g of green coffee – less than half the average yield for an arabica species. Farmers also have to be careful when picking ripe cherries as they are highly sensitive to touch. Rain, light winds, or a gentle brush from an arm is enough to knock them from the branch, meaning trees cannot be densely planted. This further limits its yield potential.
“The risk of exploring any new species is that your timeframe is three to five years,” Andrew explains. “So you’re counting on decent yield and quality, and on the market still being interested in acquiring it once it’s ready. So it’s a gamble you have to be willing to take.”
Producing Eugenioides, therefore, requires a high investment of both time and money – something most coffee farmers rarely have in abundance. Once inflation and climate risks have been accounted for, this limits the pool of producers to just a few. Even then, they need to assess whether it will be worth the investment and the cost of potential failure.
“Farmers who can pull this off have reasonable-sized farms with space to experiment,” Andrew explains. “They’re technically proficient and savvy with farm management and agronomy, know the market and have the capacity to travel to international events to gather intel and promote.”
Is there a future for Eugenioides coffee?
When Eugenioides burst onto the scene two years ago, it carried a novelty factor that drew intrigue from several corners of the specialty coffee sector.
Although it has become difficult to obtain on the mainstream market, prices show that this spike in interest remains. However, in the grand scheme of things, demand is small. Until more unusual coffees like Eugenioides become the preference among more people, Dr Sarada says it is likely to stay that way.
“As a society, we have a certain perception of what our coffee should taste like,” she says. “The taste of Eugenioides and some of the other wild species deviate from the norm and hence a lot of education needs to happen. As it stands, it only serves a niche market.”
Therefore, jumping headlong into Eugenioides production may only be a sensible investment for producers who have solid commercial production and trade flows in place to cushion the risks.
Inmaculada Farms, the Colombian producer that launched the species in 2021, is a perfect case in point. When they first invested in Eugenioides, it was a visionary move. They had to experiment, fail and learn before finally succeeding. Five years later, the gamble paid off and they have now positioned themselves as the leading supplier of a rare, highly sought-after coffee.
“For now, the industry is about focusing on yield for profitability,” Andrew says. “But if you can capture ten times the price, then exploring other species and options makes financial sense.”
For climate resilience and overall competitiveness, he advises that the best rule-of-thumb for producers is to maximise farm profitability by increasing revenue and reducing costs, factoring in resources, microclimate, and size.
“If you can do that and produce Eugenioides coffee, it could be the right avenue,” he says, “but it’s a riskier way to produce coffee.”
Domesticating a wild species takes time, effort and education. The commercialisation of Eugenioides coffee will not happen overnight, and for many producers, it just isn’t a viable option. However, it could be a golden opportunity for the lucky few who have the resources and know-how to take a gamble.
Whether consumers will be able to taste the species’ “fascinating” characteristics for themselves remains a distant prospect. For now, consumers will just have to take Diego Campos’ word for it.
Photo credit: Header image courtesy of the Specialty Coffee Association