Kapeng Barako coffee has a strong smell and distinctive flavor. It’s been a cultural staple in the Philippines for over two hundred years. Today, it’s struggling to find a place in the hearts and cups of the younger generation. Some locals are even asking if there’s room for it in the third wave.
Read on to discover what it tastes like, why it’s important to the Filipino identity, and what third wave cafés think about serving it.
Lee este arículo en español ¿Kapeng Barako Puede Pertenecer al Movimiento de la Tercera Ola?
Barako Coffee, a part of the Philippines’ culture. Credit: Kristiatequila
What is Kapeng Barako?
Kapeng Barako is a variation of the Liberica species which big cherries and unusual flavour. It’s tall and can reach up to 17 meters in height, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. It’s also a rare species: estimates vary, but even the most generous state that it accounts for less than two percent of commercially produced coffee worldwide.
As for barako, you’ll find it in small quantities in the Philippines, as well as other Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia. It’s recognisable by its aroma of aniseed.
For Filipinos, barako coffee is a symbol of their country. It takes its name from the Tagalog word for a male stud bull or wild boar, reflecting the fact that it’s a strong coffee. Traditionally it’s served black or sweetened with muscovado sugar. For most locals, the drink invokes memories of their parents sipping it while the roosters crow at 5am, preparing for another day under the sun.
The slow death of supply
The island nation’s relationship with Barako dates back 200 years to when it was first planted in Lipa City. During the 1800s, the Philippines was the fourth-largest producer of coffee in the world.
Yet this golden age was short-lived: in 1889, coffee leaf rust hit, decimating production. Farmers abandoned their trees to focus on other crops. Production picked up again in the middle of the twentieth century, with demand returning from the popularity of instant coffee. Yet Barako production did not: it was both not in demand and too much of a risk.
The President of the Philippine Coffee Board, Pacita Juan, tells me, “There was a death of supply. Many farmers cut down their Barako trees and replaced them with Robusta because Barako trees take up more land space due to the size and breadth of its branches.” Robusta trees require less maintenance and are more disease resistant, meaning an easier, more assured income for farmers.
Barako cherries. Credit: cuptrails PH
A lack of consumption
The recent rise in the number of local shops and international chains has helped Filipino coffee production to grow. Arabica and Robusta farming is up, according to The Philippine Coffee Board.
But can Barako also have a place in the evolving coffee industry? That depends on demand.
Barako is available locally, although consumption still remains low, in café chains such as Figaro Coffee and Café de Lipa. Figaro Coffee is so invested in the revival of Barako it created the “Save the Barako” campaign, which includes includes awareness programs, new plantings, research, and targeted marketing.
However, these cafés are the exception. Barako has not been adopted into many of the urban third wave coffee houses. And Earl Queron, Head Barista at Manila’s Coffee Empire, tells us, “It was only really popular with the older generation, as that was all that was available back then. They liked that strong, bold taste.”
Earl pours us a V60 while he shares his viewpoint. Credit: Zen Kape
Kapeng Barako abroad
Perhaps the solution to Barako’s unpopularity lies abroad. A number of cafés owned by second and third generation Filipinos are proudly showcasing the drink. For them, it’s a piece of their heritage.
Jovan and Omar operate Barako Bean, a London-based roastery dedicated to sourcing and roasting single origin Filipino coffees – including Barako. They are an example of how traditional drinks and the third wave don’t have to remain separate.
Rowena Romulo recently opened a branch of Romulo Café in London, where she stocks Barako Bean’s coffee. When we ask her about Barako, she says, “We were offered this [drink] when we visited places like Batangas and Cavite. It reminds me of the hospitality Filipinos are known for.”
Ryan Andres, owner of the café Barako Kávéház in Budapest, Hungary, offers both Filipino Arabica and Barako. He tells us he has earned a huge following with locals and tourists alike.
Yet while he’s championing Barako as a world-class coffee, he struggles to convince everyone. “The younger generation is extremely brand conscious,” he says. “They have a mindset that Barako is inferior and nothing more than cheap market coffee.”
Rowena Romulo has a similar experience. She tells us that she thinks the issue lies in a proliferation of international brands and local chains aspiring to a Western image.
Barako Kávéház in Budapest serves Barako and Filipino Arabica. Credit: Barako Kávéház
The future of Kapeng Barako
There is no consensus on Barako. Some see it as a bean of the past, whereas others wish to honor their heritage and bring its story back to life.
Earl Queron of Coffee Empire believes Manila’s specialty coffee scene is evolving so fast Barako could find a place, if third wave cafés were willing to experiment with it in their offerings.
With the popularity of coffee at a peak, producing countries are struggling to keep up with demand. Could Barako be part of the answer?
With thanks to Earl Queron, Head Barista at Coffee Empire in Manila; Pacita Juan of the Philippine Coffee Board; Rowena Romulo, Founder of Romulo Cafe; Jovan Masilugan, owner of Barako Bean Ltd in the UK; and Ryan Andres, Founder of Kafe Haz in Hungary.
Perfect Daily Grind is not affiliated with any of the individuals or bodies mentioned in this article, and cannot directly endorse them.
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