The remote village of Long Banga is emerging from the shadows thanks to local coffee farmers striving to put Malaysian Liberica beans on the world map of coffee growing regions
Seated in a George Town café, I glance at a menu filled with names of imported coffee beans from as far as Honduras and Ethiopia. I’m about to order an espresso when an unusual item sparks my curiosity: Liberica coffee beans cultivated in Malaysia? I had frankly never heard of it but a quick Google search tells me the Liberica bean originates from West Africa. My interest is piqued.
When my cuppa finally arrives, the very first sip confounds my expectations. My tastebuds are more attuned to the sweeter flavours and chocolatey aromatics of Arabica beans. Liberica’s almond-shaped beans, on the other hand, have a slightly smoky flavour and a unique floral aroma. As I continue sipping and getting acquainted with this new bittersweet aftertaste, I recall a conversation from awhile back.
“You should check out what the local coffee farmers are doing in Long Banga,” Alasdair Clayre had told me. He is a personal friend and an anthropology Ph.D candidate at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) whose ongoing dissertation is on the identity politics of the Sa’ban orang asal (an umbrella term for the 60-something native ethnic groups of Sarawak and Sabah). We last met at Miri’s Borneo Jazz Festival in June 2022.
The village he is referring to lies in a remote area on the upper reaches of Sarawak’s Baram River, and even though it’s quite sprawling, it only has about 300 permanent residents. Clayre isn’t merely invested from an academic standpoint – the connection with this remote community is a deeply personal one. Clayre’s British missionary parents raised him in Long Banga until he was three years old, and since then, Clayre has returned to visit time and time again, earning the respect and acceptance of the village’s Sa’ban and Kenyah Lepo Keh communities.
Taking Clayre up on his offer, I decide to plan my trip to this scenic region known for its rugged, mountainous terrain and cosy homestays with orang asal families. Long Banga is also becoming an increasingly vital part of Sarawak’s coffee industry, and its orang asal farmers were likely responsible for cultivating the beans that went into my aromatic cup of Liberica.
Like the ugly duckling of the coffee world, Liberica roughly accounts for only 2% of global coffee production and is best appreciated among niche speciality coffee connoisseurs – mainly because compared to the average 20% cherry-to-bean yield of the staple Arabica and Canephora or Robusta plants, Liberica’s crops only produce 7%.
But because Liberica can grow below 800m of altitude, the plant adapts very well to lowland tropical Southeast Asia countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, where farmers have experimented with this brew for the past half-century. Yet it was only in October 2021 that Malaysian Liberica started getting more recognition, after beans from Johor-based coffee grower My Liberica won third place at the World Barista Championship in Italy.
The easiest route to remote Long Banga starts on the tarmac of Miri’s airport. Long Banga’s far-flung corner of northeastern Sarawak rubs borders with Indonesian Kalimantan and is best approached using one of three weekly flights operated by MAS Wings.
Using a small, unpressurised Twin Otter aircraft, the 55-minute flight to Long Banga feels like the start of an incredible Borneo adventure. We cruise at low altitude above broccoli-headed plains where the endless bends of the cappuccino-coloured Baram River unfurl like a shimmering golden snake. Soon enough, we almost touch the tip of the pristine 1880m-high crests of the Tama Abu Range before descending amidst the rolling hills that flank Long Banga’s airstrip, one of the shortest in Malaysia.
Clayre, who has agreed to act as my guide through Long Banga, is already waiting outside the only hall of this tiny airport. Our first stop is just across the airstrip – Billeng Lemdin Homestay, run by Ludia Apoi and her family. Their spacious wooden and concrete home is hemmed by verdant green fields, where they grow various crops, including Liberica plants. For entrepreneurial farmers like Ludia and her brother Madang Bilong, the success of their Liberica crops means less risk of losing produce – coffee beans aren’t easily perishable, doesn’t expire for over a year and are lighter to transport out of a mountainous region than other produce, such as pineapples or palm fruit.
Ludia greets me with a fresh cup of Liberica brew that she hand-dried and roasted. The taste is homey and full-bodied, and I relished every last drop. From there, we set out on a tour of a nearby farm operated by another Long Banga coffee farmer, Tomy Pangot and his wife, Anne. We walk through lush land dotted by fruit trees and man-sized coffee plants laden with red and plump Liberica cherries.
“Liberica coffee is now produced in Serian, Kapit, Limbang, Miri, as well as the villages of Long Banga, and Uma Bawang in the Ulu Baram area,” says Dr. Kenny Lee, a globe-trotting coffee specialist and co-founder of Earthlings, a Kuching-based café, wholesaler and coffee academy.
During my visit, Dr. Lee is in Long Banga to check on the health of the coffee plantations that Earthlings had set up together with the local farmers. As part of their Sarawak Liberica Refinement project, Dr Lee and his team collaborate with several grassroots orang asal communities across the state to observe and improve farming methods.
Lee was also one of the co-organisers for the inaugural Borneo Coffee Symposium held in Kuching in 2019, which brought together coffee experts from across the world to discuss how to uplift Sarawak’s local coffee production.
The event’s positive reception inspired deputy chief minister Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah to propose Sarawak as a potential major regional coffee producer of the Liberica variety, and soon after, the Department of Agriculture Sarawak donated a thousand coffee seedlings to entrepreneurial farmer families in Long Banga and other coffee-inclined villages across the state.
Lee believes that Long Banga’s farmers are capable of producing premium Liberica beans that can be sold at competitive prices to speciality coffee markets worldwide.
“I’ll buy up to 3,000kg of beans directly from Long Banga’s farmers at a higher price every year so that they will understand that if they produce good-quality Liberica beans with no visible defects and a good taste, they can sell to us at a minimum of RM35 and above per kilogram, which is double what the Fairtrade International organisation offers,” says Lee.
In between enjoying charming coffee-focused homestays and learning about Sarawak highlands’ indigenous culture, I spend my days exploring the rest of Long Banga. Clayre takes me to the nearby village of Long Puak, where other indigenous farmers have started following the lead of their neighbours by planting coffee trees amidst their other crops. “We were all giving up on coffee growing as we could not sell our beans,” said Gerald Bissam, the first farmer to revive coffee planting in Long Puak. “Earthlings and Alasdair showed us how to grow and process coffee for the specialty market, which pays much better.”
I also spend a morning hiking through dense forest and farmland to Long Lamai, the area’s most important Penan settlement, before looping back to Long Banga by hopping on a chartered long-tail boat along the rushing Balong river.From Long Banga, it’s possible to trek for about two hours to the sloshing Arol Ano waterfall and a cluster of rocks that archaeologists believe to be ancient burial sites. Guests can also walk to Long Banga’s semi-abandoned old wooden Kenyah longhouse, where a handful of families keep up the waning communal living traditions. Felicia Muller of Supang Café and Homestay can organise rental vehicles and guided trips for places farther away, such as the popular village of Bario.
On the day I am set to leave Long Banga on a long overland four-wheel-drive journey back to Miri to catch my return flight, I feel like I am leaving family behind in Long Banga – not least because the Earthlings associates, Dr Lee and I were officially “adopted” as honorary members of the village by the local penghulu (village chief) Robin Udau at a farewell dinner for us at his house the previous evening.
As we drive away towards the faraway coast, I watch the tin-roofed homes of Long Banga become smaller and smaller behind us, convinced that if the local farmers keep working hard, their floral-scented Liberica brews can grow to become one of the most sought-after coffees in the world. And then, this jewel of a village won’t remain under the world’s radar for much longer.