Réunion Island is located in the Indian Ocean, just east of Madagascar, and is defined as an overseas region of France. As such, the island is one of only two Eurozone regions in the Southern Hemisphere, the other one being Mayotte, on the northwest side of Madagascar.
While there are only a few hectares to produce and export a large amount of coffee, Réunion Island offers an exceptionally rare varietal that is naturally low in caffeine. Its offerings saw an initial boom in its burgeoning coffee cultivation, along with a sharp decline in the 19th century, before levelling out into the niche connoisseur market that Réunion serves today.
Réunion Coffee Growing History
Coffee in Réunion Island can be traced as far back as the 16th century, when the island was named île Bourbon, after the French dynasty that ruled during this time. In fact, the island underwent several name changes between Bourbon, Réunion, Bonaparte, Bourbon (again), and then finally back to Réunion in 1848, in reflection of both royal ownership and revolutionary cooperation.
As early as the end of the 17th century, The French commercial company ‘La companies des Indes’, wanted to develop the island of Bourbon. A minister of the king of France ordered vessels to collect coffee trees from Mocha in Yemen and plant them on the island. Most of the crops failed, but enough survived to spark enthusiasm for coffee farming, kick-starting cultivation on the island.
Réunion Island has always harboured a native coffee crop on its soil; the indigenous C. mauritiana, which used to grow wild in the island’s forests, but has since become an endangered species. Back in the 17th century though, while there was some awareness of C. mauritiana on Réunion Island, favour for this crop soon shifted to the imported Bourbon due to the former’s much stronger bitterness. Popularity of the coffee grew, leading to a prosperous industry for the island that, in the year 1727, saw over 113,000 kg of coffee beans yielded.
It was likely during this time that the mutation occurred in the Bourbon, resulting in the coffee varietal that is so well known today; Arabica laurina. Coffee became a noble drink at the court of Louis XV, making it a highly esteemed beverage for a period of time.
This was not to last, however, as cultivation declined from the latter half of the 18th century onwards. Indeed, coffee farming was forgotten entirely after 1767, when the monopoly on supplies to the French kingdom was cancelled. There was also growing competition from Martinique on the French market, resulting in a decline in coffee production on the island. To make matters worse, by the early 19th century all plantations were destroyed by multiple cyclones and subsequent droughts. The gap in Réunion’s exports was instead filled by sugar cane, which was considered a more lucrative money crop.
Only in the last few decades has coffee from Réunion Island experienced a renaissance, partially because of interest from Yoshiaki Kawashima, the research director of Ueshima Coffee Company in Japan.
To match the unique qualities of its coffee, Réunion Island has developed its own method of brewing. The coffee is traditionally prepared with a metal coffee pot called the Grègue. Ground coffee goes into the upper part of the pot, which is divided from the bottom by a metal sieve. Boiling water is then poured over the grounds, with the brew collected in the base of the pot, ready to be served.
Réunion Coffee Farming
Réunion Island has a tropical climate with a hot, humid season from December to March, and a cool season from June to September. Strong winds from the southeast bring rainfall to the eastern slopes, where a lot of the coffee farms are located at around 800 - 1500 m.a.s.l. The rainiest month is in February, occurring at the end of Réunion’s harvest season, making the soil fertile again for the next growing cycle.
A good example of a Réunion Island farm is Sliti farm, which has been active since 2005. Its farmers use organic farming practices on a plot of around 5 hectares of land, where they grow fruits and vegetables alongside their coffee. About 1 hectare is used for coffee production on this farm.
Located 1000 m.a.s.l, coffee from this farm has been ranked ‘high-end premium’ by Japan and has now become the only certified organic coffee grown in the EU. All coffee processing steps occur on-site, from harvesting the cherries to bagging the green beans ready for roasting, and even modern fermentation methods.
Réunion Coffee Production Regions
Most coffee on Réunion Island is grown on the volcanic slopes of the Piton des Neiges, a volcano that stands at just over 3000 m.a.s.l. Temperatures here are mild in the summer and cooler during winter, which is the typical harvesting period. This along with high precipitation during the growing season results in an ideal climate for the Arabica laurina varietal to thrive.
Coffee Types and Varietals
What makes coffee from Réunion Island so special and rare is the specific varietal that is cultivated on its land: Arabica laurina, or as it’s more commonly known, Bourbon Pointu, or Bourbon Rond.
Compared to common Bourbon plants, Bourbon Pointu are dwarf crops, with a characteristic ‘Christmas tree’ shape that itself is drought-resistant. Since its cherries also ripen slower than usual, they can develop a higher sugar content, making the beans slightly sweeter than usual.
This pairs nicely with the varietal’s naturally low caffeine content, which lies between 0.4 and 0.6%, around 1% lower than your typical Arabica.
The history and the true origin of the varietal’s appearance on this island is varied and contested. It is likely that the varietal appeared as a mutation. The specific mutation, appearing as a semi-dwarfism in the crop, has been named Laurina, which eventually went on to make up the taxonomic name of the varietal.
While all of this offers a very unique cultivated coffee, the small size and high density of its beans means that more energy is required for roasting.
Réunion Coffee Flavour Profile
Coffee from Réunion Island offers an interesting flavour profile, with the typical notes of citrus and a light acidity common to African coffees. In addition to this, a cup can offer sweet aromas of shortbread and hazelnut, along with flavours of red fruits, lychee and even orchids.
Overall, Réunion Island coffee provides a light-bodied cup with smooth sweetness and light fruit acidity.
Réunion Coffee Harvest Date
The coffee is ready to harvest from October and the harvesting season usually ends by February.
Réunion Coffee Annual Production
Coffee from Réunion Island is selectively hand-picked at optimum maturity, it is then wet-processed before being dried in the sun.
As coffee from Réunion is so rare, only a few 100kg of green coffee is produced per annum. Production is also affected by high labour costs.
Réunion Coffee Annual Export Volume
Because of its rarity and low production rates, it’s difficult to get solid figures on how much coffee is exported from Réunion island. The number is simply too small.
With more investment and awareness, production could increase, which would have a roll on effect on the exportation numbers. From 2001 onwards, there has been support from organisations such as Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) and the National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD). Together they have encouraged trials of increased cultivation of coffee across Réunion Island.
One such trial in 2006 had 200kg of coffee made available for export, and was sold out of this supply within a single week. With support from CIRAD and IRD, coffee from Réunion Island could potentially become a valuable export for its people.
Recent interest by companies such as Ueshima Coffee Company in Japan and the support of organisations such as CIRAD and IRD gives a glimpse of a promising future for Réunion Island coffee. This offers potential investors and supporters the chance to get involved with a distinctive coffee industry.
For those seeking exceptional, unique, and rare coffee, Réunion Island offers one of the best options. Owing to its royal history, the mutated Bourbon varietal Arabica laurina gives coffee enthusiasts a product that should not be overlooked.