The tiny island of Réunion1 is little more than a dot in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar and southwest of Mauritius. For nearly 200 years that dot was the foundation of a singular exclamation point in coffee history. A peculiar varietal was cultivated at Réunion — a low-growing, long-bean mutation of Red Bourbon that came to be known as Bourbon Pointu, or simply, Leroy — and was said to be favored in turn by France’s King Louis XV, and satirist Honoré de Balzac.
Bourbon Pointu thrived on Réunion until the 1950s, when twin calamities of coffee rust (a disease of the coffee plant) and fire ants invaded the island’s plantations.2 The plantations were abandoned… and the island’s unique varietal was thought to be lost forever.
Perhaps it would be, if not for the efforts of Yoshiaki Kawashima. A life-long coffee man and the son of a coffee roaster, for 30 years Kawashima worked to develop coffee plantations in Jamaica, Sumatra, and on Hawaii’s Kona coast. Kawashima first heard of Réunion’s coffee varietal while researching coffee in El Salvador, though at the time the coffee experts he worked with believed the varietal had died out long before…
” In 1999, he went to East Africa on business and got a chance to visit Reunion. He set foot on the island hoping to find one of the legendary coffee plants. He left the island disappointed. “Nobody knew anything about Bourbon Pointu. The islanders didn’t even know that Reunion was once a coffee producer. A local took me to a supermarket and said, ‘Here, you have coffee.’ ”
“Undaunted, Kawashima continued the quest. He interviewed local farmers and town officials. Two years later, he got his big break–a local veterinarian had found 30 coffee plants growing in the wild.”
“The discovery kicked off an ambitious five-year project that would culminate in the revival of a coffee industry thought long lost on Reunion.”
This year marked the first commercial harvest of Réunion’s Bourbon Pointu in 50 years. It sold out “almost immediately” upon arrival in Japan despite it’s high-flying price — nearly US $70 for a quarter pound.
No doubt King Louis would be proud.