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The full story behind Laurina coffee beans

What coffee could be so rare and precious that, when Starbucks sold just one harvest at select locations in the US earlier this year, it cost $16 per half pound and sold out in fewer than twenty-four hours?

Laurina may not be a household name, probably because it almost disappeared off the face of the earth over a century ago. But Laurina is now making a very selective, very expensive comeback around the world.

So what’s so special about Laurina? To find out, we delve into the coffee bean’s complicated history.

Réunion and revival

The yield sold by Starbucks—a mere 750lbs in weight—was from a farmer in Nicaragua, Central America, but the coffee actually has its origins near the African continent. It originates from Réunion, previously known as Île Bourbon, an island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar. Laurina is sometimes also known as Bourbon Pointu, named after the island and the way the beans themselves taper to a point.

Laurina was discovered in the 18th century and soon spread eastwards. In the 19th century, however, its popularity steeply declined, in part because cane sugar became popular. It was more difficult to grow than other plants because its low caffeine content meant that it lacked natural insecticide, making it vulnerable and low-yielding.

It was revived in 2002 by the Doka Estate in Costa Rica, following the discovery of a lone Laurina tree by an agronomy undergraduate, Edgardo Alpizar, a member of the family who owned the estate.

Since then, other farmers have been producing small yields. These include a co-operative that opened in the south of Réunion Island, at an estate called the Maison du Laurina, that produces one and a half tonnes of coffee every year. This estate also features a small museum celebrating the plant and its history.

Growing Laurina

Laurina, or Bourbon Pointu, is grown at an altitude of 1400ft (in Réunion, at least—this varies from place to place, and the quality of the coffee does with it). It's then hand-picked, pulped, and slowly dried.

As in the 18th and 19th centuries, Laurina is still a very sensitive plant, and yields remain low, which is why it's so rare. The Maison du Laurina's yield is expensive, selling for up to €18 for 125g on the island, and €600 per kilo abroad: pricing that is fairly typical for Laurina wherever it comes from.

Laurina is a light, transparent coffee that in some ways seems more akin to tea. Its caffeine percentage is between 0.4-0.75% (usually around 0.6%), compared to 1.2-1.6% in most other arabica coffees. Laurina is very sweet, with a fruity, floral aroma and is hugely popular across Europe, particularly France.

Historical circumstance has certainly lent Laurina a romantic sense of rediscovery, but its recent resurgence in popularity has more to do with being so difficult to grow, along with the fact that it tastes quite unlike most other coffees. 

In other words, it's unique.