I was recently introduced to a type of Arabica coffee I’d never heard of before. We won’t find this coffee on the shelves of our grocery store. And we probably won’t even find it in the majority of specialty coffee shops. It’s called Maragogipe, and it’s the rarest coffee I’ve personally had the good fortune to taste (to date, anyway). Exactly what is Maragogipe coffee, and why is it so rare? Read on to learn the story of this unique coffee bean.
A Mention of Maragogipe
I first learned about Maragogipe (also spelled Maragogype) coffee from the knowledgeable and gracious owners of Red Oak Roasters in Rickman, Tennessee. My husband and I had stopped in on a Saturday so I could buy some of their freshly-roasted coffee beans — truly some of the best coffee I’ve ever enjoyed.
I’m sure it will surprise no one that, as we sampled their offerings of light to dark roasts, we were all soon chatting away about our favorite brew.
Mr. and Mrs. McCurdy, the owners and roasters at Red Oak Roasters, are super-friendly people who don’t hesitate to share their love for and expertise about coffee. Talking with them was, honestly, a little bit heavenly for me. They took the time to tell us all about their business and their coffee.
Coffee with a Personal Touch
Red Oak Roasters imports their beans from Matagalpa, Nicaragua, a place they have lived and to which they frequently return. The beans they bring to their roastery in Tennessee have been shade grown, hand-picked, and naturally processed by friends and family they know personally. According to their website, their Arabica beans are most often of the Caturra or Bourbon variety.
But as Mrs. McCurdy treated me to an aromatic visit to their roasting room, she mentioned the limited quantity of Maragogipe beans they had recently imported. She told me that not many coffee farmers in Nicaragua grow Maragogipe plants. So having any at all in their shop is quite the rarity.
She graciously offered me a small sample packet of roasted, ground Maragogipe coffee to take home to try.
Then she opened up one of the large burlap bags near the roaster and showed me what whole Maragogipe beans look like.
The Elephant in the Bag
The most immediate and notable difference between a Maragogipe coffee bean and the majority of other Arabica coffee beans is the size. Maragogipe beans are much larger. As in almost double the size.
Which is why Maragogipe coffee beans have earned the nickname Elephant Beans.
Now one would think a much-larger coffee bean would be a great thing. One might presume that a double-the-size coffee bean would produce twice the coffee for the same amount of picking and processing as smaller beans.
But then one might remember that this is coffee we’re talking about.
In the weird, wacky, wonderful world of coffee, few things are ever as straight-forward as one might expect. And the large- yet-rarely-cultivated Maragogipe coffee bean is just another example of this. Let’s take a closer look at why.
Maragogipe Coffee Plants
The Maragogipe coffee plant is named after the place it was first discovered late in the 19th century: Maragogipe, Bahia, Brazil.
The Maragogipe coffee plant seems to have come about by spontaneous mutation of other Arabica coffee plants growing in the region. No one can really explain why this happened, only that it did. But it did create a coffee plant with some unique properties that sets it apart from its Arabica cousins.
The Maragogipe coffee plant is larger and grows taller than many of the more commonly cultivated Arabicas. It can also thrive at lower elevations and in colder temperatures than many other coffee plants.
All of which, again, would seem to make Maragogipe a prime candidate for mass cultivation.
But the Maragogipe coffee plant has a fatal flaw: low productivity.
While the coffee beans of the Maragogipe plant may be twice the size of their Arabica counterparts, significantly fewer of them are produced per plant. Meaning, of course, that the farmer has less coffee to sell overall, and must demand a higher price for his limited offering.
Which would be quite a boon for the farmer, provided coffee drinkers found Maragogipe worth a premium price. But, typically, that is not that case. A closer look at the characteristics of the Maragogipe coffee bean will explain why.
Maragogipe Coffee Beans
As noted, Maragogipe coffee beans are much larger than nearly all their Arabica counterparts (Pacamara beans, a Maragogipe hybrid, is the most well-known among a small handful of exceptions). Coffee processing equipment, however, is designed to accommodate the more-commonly-cultivated smaller Arabica coffee beans. Which means that, when keeping in mind the overall lower plant yields, Maragogipe coffee farmers must work harder to process fewer beans to get them ready for market.
What’s more, Maragogipe beans are also much more porous than their smaller, denser Arabica counterparts. Which basically means they can be a real pain to roast. Maragogipe beans require a diligent roaster with real finesse to extract the best the beans have to offer without turning them into a scorched mess.
The Real Problem
If we’ve learned anything here at A Thing for Coffee, though, it’s that coffee drinkers are a pretty devoted lot. If a coffee bean produces a great experience in the cup, demand will be high. Coffee aficionados as a whole won’t quibble over paying a higher price per pound to cover the costs of more-involved processing or temperamental roasting…as long as the coffee is exceptional.
And therein lies the real issue with Maragogipe coffee beans: they tend to produce a mediocre cup of coffee.
Besides the “fatal flaw” of low productivity, the bean of Maragogipe coffee plant is also highly susceptible to variations of flavor based on the quality of the soil in which its grown. Too often the result in the cup is flat, thin, and relatively flavorless.
And those are the kinder descriptions.
Exceptions to the Rule
That’s not to say that there’s no such thing as an exceptional cup of Maragogipe coffee. As recently as November 2018, in fact, Coffee Review devoted a cupping (tasting) to “big bean” coffees exclusively, and a Guatemalan Maragogipe landed in their top nine.
For the most part, however, it appears Maragogipe beans are simply too fickle and troublesome for the majority of farmers and roasters to bother with. The demand does not support the added cost and effort it takes to grow, process, and roast Maragogipe coffee beans, so they remain rare.
Which, as I’m sure you can imagine, only made me all the more excited to be able to taste Maragogipe coffee for myself!
My Maragogipe Experience
Once roasted and ground, the Maragogipe “Elephant Beans” look the same as any other roasted and ground coffee. Richness of color will depend on the level of roast. The particle size will depend on the grind.
The Maragogipe I received to sample came out of the bag looking like this:
The aroma of the just-opened package of Maragogipe coffee was the first thing to set it apart from the Arabica coffees I normally purchase.
Coffee-drinkers reading this know what “that coffee smell” is all about. And that familiar scent was present in the Maragogipe. But there was also something more.
I like to experiment, so I buy a lot of different types of coffee. In most of them I pick up aromatic notes that can be described as “nutty,” “chocolaty,” or “citrusy” depending on the coffee’s origin and level of roast.
The Maragogipe, however, I would describe as more “woodsy” with a faint, underlying pungency. In the days after I opened the bag, that pungency gradually became more sour.
So let’s just say the Maragogipe I sampled did not really entice me with its scent.
Taste and Feel
Thankfully once the Maragogipe was brewed, however, it tasted much better than the slightly off-putting aroma led me to believe it would.
While I did find it to be a rather thin-bodied cup, it was also smooth and light with no discernible aftertaste.
It did not really appeal to me as my morning coffee, however. The brewed Maragogipe lacked the bold richness I desire when I’m starting my day. Instead I discovered that it made a pleasing post-lunch coffee that gave me a bit of an energy boost for the afternoon.
What I found most interesting, though, was that the Maragogipe was the first coffee I have ever enjoyed drinking black. I don’t use sweeteners, but normally I like the richness a bit of added cream gives my coffee. The Maragogipe was just smooth enough and sweet enough on its own, however, that I didn’t fell the need to bother with my usual dollop of dairy.
Kind of a Big Deal in my little coffee world!
It was great fun tasting one of the harder-to-find coffees of the world. I heartily thank Red Oak Roasters for not only enlightening me about Maragogipe coffee but also for providing me a sample to try.
So the big question is: will I buy more Maragogipe?
In all honesty, probably not immediately.
Because of the peculiarities of growing, processing, and roasting the beans that we’ve covered in this article, the cost per pound of Maragogipe is higher than it is for a lot of other fine Arabica coffees. I’m not sure my limited “afternoon only” enjoyment of it justifies the expense for me.
For the time being, I will continue to focus on trying different coffees from different regions so I can expand my knowledge and share what I learn with all of you here at A Thing for Coffee.
Somewhere down the line, though, I anticipate I’ll pick up another Maragogipe, given the chance.
Do I recommend you try Maragogipe if you find it?
If for no other reason than to say that you, too, have tasted one of the rarer Arabica coffees in the world.
I would caution, however, that you only purchase Maragogipe from a reputable, trusted source. Because a poor-quality Maragogipe that isn’t properly roasted is definitely not going to create a positive and pleasurable coffee-drinking experience.
But a high-quality Maragogipe? That might become your new favorite.
With coffee, you just never know.
Have you ever had Maragogipe coffee? If not, would you like to try it? Let me know in the comments section below!