Understanding the Long History and Culture of Philippine Coffee

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The Philippines is one of the few countries that has the perfect all-around growing conditions for any agricultural product. The country has highlands and lowlands that are well-suited to cultivate different varieties of crops and that includes coffee.

The country was also once the top coffee-producing region in the world —even surpassing the likes of Brazil, Java, and Africa. The Philippines had become widely renowned in the global coffee industry for being the only country able to produce not only one major coffee variety but all four of them.

Now, coffee has become part of a Filipino’s day-to-day routine. The long history and culture of coffee consumption never wavered in the present time. That said, the story of how Philippine coffee came to be is quite as rich and aromatic as the drink.

History of Coffee in the Philippines

Coffee is not a native plant in the Philippines. A popular myth describes a Franciscan monk bringing two kilos of Arabica beans in the country and planting them in his garden.

Eventually, the coffee trees overwhelmed his backyard which led him to transplant it to other parts of Central Luzon.

Though there is little historical data about the accurate arrival of the coffee plant in the country, the tracing surmises that it was the Arab traders and Muslim settlers that brought coffee to the Philippines. Arabs frequent the country as part of their trade routes and Muslims would often go here for pilgrimages.

What is sure is that fully-grown coffee trees were formally identified in the early 1800s in Lipa, Batangas and certain areas in Bulacan.

As the Philippines is still a colonial country under the rule of Spain, the friars saw a huge economic potential in cultivating coffee beans. While the rest of the world discovers the delight of coffee, the Philippines is well on its way to producing large quantities of it for export and trading.

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The mass production of coffee in the Philippines began when the Spanish Real Sociedad Economica de Amigos del Pais de Pilipinas offered a prize to anyone who can plant and ripen sixty thousand square feet of coffee. This equates to roughly 6,000 coffee trees. A Spaniard living in Rizal managed to fulfill the demands of the group and seeing his success, other people, mostly Spaniards, started their coffee plantations.

This agricultural practice grew until the Philippines became a competitive player in the coffee industry worldwide. The country is equal among major producers like Brazil and Africa.

When the coffee rust hit the Western countries in 1886, the Philippines became the only source of coffee beans worldwide. The demand skyrocketed and coffee became a major product of the Philippines.

The Philippines’ most remarkable strengths in the coffee value chain relate to its geographic and climate conditions. The lowland to mountain regions makes the country suitable for all the four commercially-viable varieties; Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, and Excelsa. All coffee varieties were highly regarded in the international coffee industry.

However, the Philippines was eventually affected by coffee rust in 1891 while the rest of the world recovers from it. Insect infestation devastated coffee plantations and the majority of the landowners decided to convert their lands to sugarcane, completely abandoning coffee trees.

In just two years, the production of coffee in the Philippines shrunk to 1/6th of its original amount. It wasn’t until the 1960s that farmers picked up the practice again since the growing conditions in the country are highly ideal for coffee.

Now, the Philippines is gradually coming back to reclaim its place as one of the best coffee producers in the world. However, the production can’t still catch up with other top-producing countries. Although the industry managed to flourish at various points in the last century, the Philippines’ footprint in both local and global coffee value chain is relatively small. The country is still facing low production volumes of specialty coffees.

Philippine Growing Condition

Focus The Long History and Culture of Philippine Coffee

With over 7,000 islands, the Philippines is blessed to have widely different microclimates within the archipelago which is ideal for producing different types of coffee.

The terrain variation in the country allows the coffee farmers in the Philippines to cultivate four different coffee types —with each type requiring drastic growing conditions compared to others.

Coffee plantations in the Philippines are diversely located within the archipelago. Some are high up in the mountains while others are in plains and lowlands.

The four major types of coffee that the Philippines produces are:

1. Arabica

The Arabica is considered to be the best quality coffee in the world because of its fully-developed flavor and aroma. The majority of large-scale plantations and coffee producers in the Philippines produce Arabica for domestic and export use. More so, the majority of local coffee brands enjoyed by Filipinos use a blend of Arabica.

Arabica coffee is challenging to grow in the Philippines due to its low optimate temperature requirements. Also, it can only be planted in high elevation sites about 900 to 1,800 meters above sea level.

The majority of Arabica coffee plantations in the Philippines are located in mountainous regions of Southern Tagalog, Cordillera, and Northern Mindanao.

2. Robusta

Robusta is another top coffee variety that is produced in the Philippines. This is a more resilient plant as it can withstand hot temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius, which makes it ideal for lowlands in the country.

This plant also doesn’t need high elevation to prosper. Robusta coffee can be planted from sea levels to 900 meters above.

3. Liberica

Liberica coffee is more known as Kapeng Barako to the locals, referring to its indescribable strong taste compared to other coffee types.

While Kapeng Barako is common in the Philippines due to the growing and specialized industry in certain provinces of the country, the Liberica coffee is not actually that known to the international scene especially when compared with other coffee counterparts.

That’s because Libera is considered to be one of the world’s lost coffee species that were greatly affected during the worldwide coffee rust and infestation back in the late 1800s. Now, Liberica is considered to be the world’s rarest coffee as there are only a few countries that can cultivate this type of coffee.

4. Excelsa

Excelsa coffee is somewhat similar to Liberica coffee in terms of the flavor profile. This species is widely cultivated in many parts of Asia, especially in the Philippines because of its high resiliency and productivity rate —something that is well-needed after the coffee rust.

Although Excelsa coffee has a unique flavor profile, there is little information in the process of cultivation, brewing, and trading of it in the global market.

That’s because those who usually produce Excelsa coffee are small-scale coffee farmers that don’t normally produce large quantities to be considered “commercially significant” in the bigger marketing perspective.

More so, it didn’t help that Excelsa and Liberica are sometimes labeled together in the international coffee scene. But in the Philippines, the stringent notice for Liberica, as it is a Philippine coffee specialty, dissuades coffee producers to do the same.

Philippine Coffee Processing Methods

Focus The Long History and Culture of Philippine Coffee

The variants of Philippine coffee still follow the same processing methods that other countries use when producing their coffee.

It is the discretion of the coffee farmers and producers to choose where the post-harvest processing will follow the wet, semi-washed, or mixed methods.

Perhaps one common practice in Philippine agriculture that is also used in coffee processing that can be attributed to the country is the natural method.

The natural method is the oldest way of processing coffee that is still widely practiced by coffee farmers today. Natural processing is simple yet labor-extensive. After picking the coffee cherries from the trees, farmers would manually spread them out in thin layers to dry in the sun.

Depending on the location and capacity of the plantation, some will have sunbeds to dry their coffee. Others, especially in provinces, will have it placed on a sheet of tarpaulin on the road and left out to dry in the sun for about 3-6 weeks.

Experiencing the Taste & Flavor Notes

The Philippine coffee types of Arabica and Robusta have fairly similar flavors compared to the same beans cultivated in other countries.

Arabica coffee in the Philippines has floral and caramel notes while Robusta coffee is famous for its floral and dark chocolate flavors.

Moreover, the flavor profile of Excelsa is more unique. And a well-roasted Excelsa bean has both the profile of the light and dark roasted coffee. It’s tart and fruity, while still keeping the dark tones the stronger coffee contains.

The real deal of Philippine coffee is Liberica. A middle-range Barako Coffee can be compared to a high-grade Arabica that is specially produced in other countries.

The flavor of Liberica is strong, bitter, and slightly acidic. But at the same time, it has delicate notes of berries, chocolates, and spices. The highly complex flavor of Liberica is akin to a fusion of Arabica and Robusta beans. Many locals and tourists travel to the provinces of Batangas just to try the special Barako Coffee.

Behind a Locally-Produced Coffee in the Philippines

Coffee is as valuable as gold. For the people of a local community in Itogon, Benguet, this is what they believe.

The local coffee in Itogon and nearby areas has an upland climate that produces the country’s top-coffee blend. The distinct taste and quality of a particular coffee depend on various conditions. The farms, particularly in the province of Benguet, are only concentrated in producing high-quality Arabica beans.

Because the best Arabica coffee in the Philippines is grown in the highlands with a suitable climate, the Benguet Arabica Coffee is now a leading coffee brand in the market.

I interviewed Manang Elma Serna, the president of Saddle Hartwell Lumbag Coffee Growers Association (SHALCOGA), and here is the story behind the award-winning local coffee in Itogon.

It all started when Super typhoon “Ompong” devastated the locality of Itogon in the Cordillera region in 2018, which caused the lives of more than 80 residents and the stoppage of small-scale mining. Small-scale mining has been the primary source of income in Itogon, particularly in Sitio Hartwell in Barangay Ampucao. Thus, its prohibition has caused despair to the people and challenged the resiliency of the locality.

Entering the Picture in Perfect Timing!

Henry and Sons, the country’s leading manufacturer of freshly roasted coffee beans, visited Itogon to deliver relief goods. Michael Harris Conlin, the president and CEO of Henry & Sons, met with Itogon Mayor Victorio T. Palangdan and asked if he can help the community.

Mayor Palangdan introduced the Municipal Agriculturist Prudencio Pedro to them, and it was him who referred the local coffee growers of Sitio Hartwell, SHALCOGA.

Coffee growing is not new to Hartwell’s locality as the people have grown and harvested coffee for decades. Besides, the coffee industry of Benguet had always received vigorous support from government agencies like the Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Training Institute, Benguet State University, Department of Trade and Industry, Department of Agrarian Reform and PhilMech. 

Thru their support-programs on certified seedling production, organic farming, improved post-harvest facilities and marketing promotion, the region’s coffee industry manages to fast- track the growing market of the Benguet Arabica Coffee. 

However, it was not valued so much, not knowing that it can be as precious as the gold ore that they are mining.

Upon knowing that a small sitio from Itogon grows coffee, Henry and Sons contacted Manang Elma and told her that they wanted to interview the coffee farmers. On their first arrival in Sitio Hartwell, they brought materials and equipment essential for coffee processing, including drying beds, depulper, and dehuller. They also bought coffee berries from the farmers for 100 pesos per kilo, intending to help them in their financial situation.

At that instant, a ray of hope opened for the people, and they formed a unique partnership. Henry and Sons have been a great help to the people of Hartwell. They did not only provide materials and gears for them to nurture their coffee farms, but they also supported them in their training and plans to nourish their knowledge in coffee farming. It was also through Conlin and his team who helped in the exposure of the local coffee.

The coffee cherries they bought from the farmers were processed, packaged, and introduced to the market. Grand Hyatt Manila, a five-star luxury hotel in Taguig City, hosted the coffee-cupping event led by Henry & Sons. There, six local coffee growers, Manang Elma included, traveled all the way from Hartwell to attend such a meaningful event.

Furthermore, this ethically sourced specialty coffee can be bought in coffee shops and online stores where a part of the payment will be given to support the farmers’ training.

Hartwell coffee that was once unknown has been featured on different platforms. It was highlighted by NEXT ABSCBN News and also published in various articles online.

Philippine’s Locally-Sourced Coffee in an International Coffee Scene

Using a locally-sourced coffee is said to be a risky move in barista competitions. But in the past few years, international and local coffee experts have seen the significant potential for locally-produced coffees in the country. In 2019, several locally-produced coffees created history as they marked the beginning of a new era for Philippine specialty coffee.

It was in April 2019 that the local coffee of Hartwell was recognized in an international barista competition. Conlin represented the Philippines and brought the local beans sourced from Itogon, Benguet to the World Barista Championship stage held at the Specialty Coffee Expo in Boston. He emerged in the top 15 and awarded as the 2019 Philippine National Barista Champion. Michael brought glory not only to the country but also to the local coffee growers of Itogon.

Its greatness was also showcased in various countries like Las Vegas, London, South Korea, and Dubai. Grabbing the trophy of victory, Conlin proudly showed it to the Hartwellian local coffee growers, showing them how great and valuable their coffee products are.

This year, Itogon coffee’s greatness was once again proven as this locally-produced coffee won the 2020 Philippine National Barista Championship (PNBC) presented by the Philippine National Coffee Competition last March. 

The 2017’s Philippine National Latte Art Champion, Adrian Vocalan, who also works in a social enterprise program created by Henry & Sons manages to obtain the Barista Championship title using the Typica variety came from a lot produced by Elma Serna.

A cup of Hartwellian coffee tastes dark chocolate and cherries, but who would have thought that this would save the source of living of the people from Itogon? Henry and Sons’ arrival is the right timing. It is a big financial help for the people of Hartwell and a hope to the coffee growers like Manang Elma.

High quality. This is Hartwell’s local coffee that was discovered through the help of Henry and Sons. It is because of their desire to help showcase the cup of Hartwellian coffee to the world.

Indeed, this is not just a local coffee. This can become a lucrative source of income among farmers in the province.

Consumption Between Instant Coffee Vs. Regular Coffee

Focus The Long History and Culture of Philippine Coffee

Coffee holds the title of being a beverage staple in a Filipino’s home. Over the years, the country saw a high steep in demand for coffee —this materialized with coffee shops becoming so popular and even dollar-cent coffee vending machines being available everywhere.

That said, the coffee consumption of Filipinos revolves around an instant coffee, especially the 3-in-1 varieties where you only need to add water and it’s ready to drink. This instant coffee culture is sustained over the years as it is the cheapest option to consume coffee.

In comparison, standard coffee chains sell a cup of coffee for nearly $4 (P200) while instant coffee can go even lower at $0.10 (P5) per serving.

For the majority of the Filipino masses, instant coffee is regular coffee. Thanks to the abundance of high-quality coffee plantations in the country, local instant coffees can be as good as freshly produced beans.

Not to mention that international coffee producers like Nescafe source their coffee beans from their plantations in the Philippines.

FAQs About Philippine Coffee

1. What is Kapeng Barako?

Kapeng Barako is the local term for Liberica coffee. Specifically, the Liberica coffee is grown and produced in the province of Batangas.

Barako coffee is regarded to be the forefront and the image of Philippine coffee —strong and bitter yet with tones of sweetness and unique flavors.

2. How is Barako Best Prepared?

If you go to Batangas to locally try Kapeng Barako, it is traditionally served black with just a little bit of sugar to balance the acidity. The process doesn’t require a coffee machine since it’s not seen as necessary equipment in the majority of Filipino homes.

To prepare Barako coffee, simply boil some water and add a little bit of sugar. Add the Barako coffee beans and let them brew for at least five minutes. Once done, strain the coffee and serve.

Wrapping it up!

The Philippine archipelago boasts the ideal agricultural setting to produce a wide variety of products.

Coffee used to be the bread and butter of the country, but the current coffee scene in the Philippines is slowly starting to come back. After all, the Philippines is the only country that produces all coffee varieties in the market.

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