Madagascar Coffee Beans: Facts, Guide, Flavours
Madagascar hasn’t made a huge impact on the global coffee scene. But that’s not due to a lack of coffee production. It’s because it’s an island of coffee lovers. Most coffee produced in Madagascar is consumed in the country.
This guide will teach you everything you need to know about Madagascar coffee, from the farm to the cup.
A Complete Guide to Madagascar Coffee Production
Though no longer at the historical peak of its coffee production, Madagascar grows approximately 66 million pounds each year. It’s the 23rd largest coffee producer worldwide. Unusually, the majority of this coffee is consumed domestically, so you’ll have a hard time sampling it without an expensive plane ticket.
A History of Madagascar Coffee
Commercial coffee trees were brought to Madagascar via Bourbon Island – which lends its name to the famous Bourbon coffee varietal – in the mid-19th century. But coffee didn’t become important until French colonists arrived in 1895 and took over the industry. By encouraging local farmers to grow coffee, which was more lucrative than other crops, the French colonists had made coffee a vital part of the island’s economy by the 1930s.
Madagascar gained independence from France in 1960 but maintained a close trading relationship that allowed the coffee sector to flourish. By 1980, Madagascar was the world’s 8th-largest producer.
The coffee price crash of the 1990s had a massive impact on Malagasy coffee production, which already struggled with poor infrastructure to support the industry. Many Malagasy farmers turned to farming rice instead, which promised more stable prices. Today, Madagascar produces roughly half as many coffee beans as it did at its peak.
Most of the coffee currently grown in Madagascar is organic, though this is due to necessity rather than an environmental ethos.
Farmers simply lack the education and resources to acquire fertilizers. Regardless of the reason, however, the results are the same – improved soil and increased biodiversity.
A Pressing Need for Education and Investment
There is little government support for coffee farmers in Madagascar, which will be crucial if the country hopes to be a more significant player on the global market. Many of the country’s coffee farmers are growing coffee for their families or are selling coffee locally from farm stands. There is limited infrastructure to support proper processing and coffee exports.
Deforestation is a significant issue. Many farmers rely on “slash and burn” farming methods without awareness of the consequences. Deforestation increases soil erosion and destroys the habit of local animals that benefit coffee plants. Increased education around long-term industry sustainability is needed, but it is challenging as many farmers only speak Malagasy.
Varieties and Flavours of Madagascar Coffee
Madagascar houses an incredible diversity of coffee plants, more than nearly any other country on Earth. There are 65 documented wild Coffea plants on the island, six of which were only discovered in the past few years.
Commercial Varieties: Arabica and Robusta
The only commercially viable coffee varietals are Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is the higher-value crop. It is more challenging to grow and requires more demanding conditions – cooler climates, higher altitudes – but offers sweeter and more complex flavours. Robusta coffee has stronger, harsher flavours but thrives in many conditions and is more resistant to pests and diseases.
Over 90% of the coffee grown commercially in Madagascar is Robusta. Robusta coffee beans are grown at lower elevations, between 100 to 300 meters above sea level. The main growing regions are on the east coast, including Vatovavy, Fitovivany, Antalaha, and Tamatave. There are also some farms in the tropical regions of the northwest near Lake Alaotra.
Madagascar Robusta is known for its high quality. It is generally regarded as smoother and less harsh than typical Robusta.
The few Arabica farms are located in the central highlands. While Arabica coffee production is still minor, Madagascar holds the potential to become a specialty coffee producer. Crops like Madagascar Vanilla provide a model for growing and exporting premium products. And local farmers, like Jacques Ramarlah, are optimistic about the quality of their Arabica coffee beans (1).
Q graders tasted and evaluated our coffee from the 2019/20 harvest and scored it between 83 and 84. The cup was clean and full-bodied.
He is hopeful that higher cupping scores will come with time, education, and proper economic incentives.
Almost all coffee production in Madagascar relies on natural processing because the island lacks water resources for washed processing. Naturally processed coffees are sun-dried with the coffee beans still in the coffee fruit. This can enhance a coffee’s inherent sweetness, but it is less consistent and more prone to “off” flavours than washed processing.
Wild Coffea Plants
Madagascar claims nearly half the world’s wild Coffea plants. They grow around the country in a surprising range of growing environments. While none have commercial value, they provide a fascinating look at the diversity of the species. The coffee cherries are all shapes and sizes; some are even naturally devoid of caffeine!
Unfortunately, many of these species are threatened by habitat loss, climate change, pests, and diseases, according to sustainable coffee advocate and coffee development specialist Nicole Motteux (2).
Madagascar is exceptional, having the highest number of threatened species, with the majority of the 65 species under extinction threat.
Recent research reports that 60% of the world’s wild coffee is at risk of extinction, and in Madagascar, that number is 72%.
Malagasy Coffee Culture
Given that most coffee grown in Madagascar is consumed domestically, it is no surprise that the island has a lively coffee culture. While there are few Western-style specialty cafes, street vendors around the nation offer andao hisotro kafe. This ultra-strong coffee, usually served with a dollop of condensed milk, is enjoyed by Malagasy throughout the day.
Andao hisotro kafe is usually brewed with the local Robusta beans, so it is very high in caffeine. If you plan to sample some on a visit to Madagascar, be prepared for a serious energy boost!
How can I try Madagascar coffee?
It is very difficult to sample Madagascar coffee without visiting the country. Most coffee from Madagascar is consumed domestically. The few exports tend to be commodity Robusta destined for cheap blends and instant coffee – hardly the ideal way to experience an origin.
If you can visit Madagascar, it is a coffee lover’s paradise. Hike through the jungle and discover wild Madagascar coffee varieties found nowhere else on earth. Buy green coffee beans at local markets to roast yourself. Or enjoy a superb Malagasy coffee from any of the simple wooden kiosks dotted around the country.
If you want to try coffee beans grown in Africa without buying a plane ticket, coffees from more established growing regions are readily available. For example, read more about coffee production in Ethiopia, the Kenyan coffee industry, Ivory Coast coffee, and Burundi coffee.
The Madagascar coffee industry holds tremendous potential. They have the climate and geography to grow Robusta and Arabica successfully, and the wild coffee varieties hidden in the jungle are an untapped source of genetic diversity.
Could coffee production in Madagascar be home to the next big coffee breakthrough? It will take increased education and funding to find out, but the ingredients for success are there.
The best coffee in the world is a subjective designation. A general guideline is to seek out good-quality Arabica beans grown at high elevations, processed by skilled coffee producers, roasted with knowledge and experience, and sold fresh. Check our list of the world’s top-rated coffee beans for suggestions.
Specialty coffee doesn’t have a strict definition. Many experts use a coffee’s Q score, which must be over 80 (out of 100) to be considered specialty. But the Special Coffee Association uses a more holistic definition that includes the farmer, buyer, roaster, barista, and consumer (3).
Madagascar vanilla is so good because it contains a higher proportion of vanillin, the compound responsible for much of vanilla’s flavour. The success of Madagascar’s vanilla industry is considered a possible roadmap for the success of specialty coffee.
- Gakuo, P. (2021, September 21). A guide to coffee production in Madagascar. Retrieved from https://perfectdailygrind.com/2021/09/a-guide-to-coffee-production-in-madagascar/
- Motteux, N. (2019, June 7). Coffee Culture in Madagascar. Retrieved from https://www.bradtguides.com/coffee-culture-in-madagascar/
- Specialty Coffee Association. (2022). What is Specialty Coffee? Retrieved from https://sca.coffee/research/what-is-specialty-coffee