Imagine resting near the pool of a beautiful waterfall, enjoying a serene lagoon or lounging under the shade of palm trees on your favorite beach. The only thing missing is a delicious specialty coffee.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. While nearly every specialty coffee guide to the Philippines focuses on Manila, the nation’s capital, other islands and cities are also making a bold attempt to grow specialty in and around their local market. Let’s take a look at their blossoming specialty coffee culture.
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Yolk – Coffee and Breakfast, one of Cebu’s third wave coffee shops. Credit: Pepin Ordona
A Slow-Growing Specialty Coffee Culture
With thousands of islands and hundreds of languages and dialects, the Philippines is no stranger to slow progress. It can take years for advances in Manila to reach the rest of the archipelago. Physical, linguistic, and cultural barriers are always obstacles. And specialty coffee is no exception to this rule: its adoption takes time.
Yet, slowly but surely, it is becoming more popular.
Head away from Manila to the central cluster of islands and you’ll find the Visayas, with their regional capital of Cebu City, which is fondly known as the Queen City of the South. Cebu is ideally situated for a specialty coffee culture. It hosts the second-busiest international airport in the Philippines, primarily used as a jump-off point to explore the other, more exotic islands around the country. Because of increasing traffic congestion in Manila, many tourists now prefer to catch local flights in and out of Cebu, Bacolod, Cagayan de Oro, and Davao. This increases the possibility of influence from travelers thirsty for the same specialty coffee they drink in other countries.
And in the city, coffee shop owners are also working to nurture a local third wave scene. After seven years in Singapore, Chef Pepin Ordona opened Yolk – Coffee and Breakfast in Cebu City in January of 2015. He serves a variety of brewing methods, originally sourced from Dutch Colony Coffee Co. in Singapore but now mostly from a local roastery.
“Specialty coffee in Cebu is growing,” Chef Pepin tells me. “More are now aware of how good specialty coffee is compared to coffee from commercial coffee shops and there are many cafés here in Cebu, but only a few are into specialty coffee. There is now a growing demand for specialty coffee beans but it’s not as easily accessible.”
He hosts coffee events, such as public cuppings, a few times a year to increase consumer interest in specialty coffee. And he also encourages his staff to compete in most local coffee competitions and throwdowns.
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Four brewing methods at Yolk – Coffee and Breakfast. Credit: Pepin Ordona
Key to the growth of specialty coffee, however, is converting consumers’ palates.
Ralph Dale Alfonso opened Coffee Madness (CM) on the outskirts of Cebu City in 2012, transforming part of a family lot into an open-air café. He sources his coffee from roasteries all over the Philippines and has also started to roast his own beans. What’s more, he has a Sensory certification from what was then the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) and has attended a Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) roasting class as well.
“My prospective market here in the north of Cebu is still accustomed to a bitter, sweet and milky kind of coffee,” Ralph tells me. “Acidity in coffee, on the other hand, is new to them. Nonetheless, proper introduction, information and explanation of why it tastes so different is needed as some do appreciate the taste of specialty coffee.”
Ralph Alfonso of Coffee Madness talks coffee with Commonman Coffee Roasters’ (SG) Head Barista Trainer, Lucky Salvador. Credit: Nathaniel Soque
Thomas Sproten of Coffee Culture Roastery has had a similar experience. Originally from Germany, he opened Coffee Culture Roastery in Bacolod City on the island of Negros. He’s been roasting coffee since 2016 and, along with sourcing high-grade local offerings, he also serves imported specialty green beans from Magellan Coffee.
“[Our first challenge] is getting customers accustomed to the entire range of taste profiles that we aim to unlock in specialty coffees, through proper roasting and brewing techniques,” he tells me. “Natural sweetness and acidity should gradually replace sugar and the notion that coffee should be always bitter and strong has to make way to a more refined palate. Second, there is a reluctance to spend for specialty coffee. This is true in the provinces where many traditional coffee shops offer a cup of brewed coffee for the equivalent of 30 US cents.”
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A typical day at Coffee Culture Roastery and Sensory Cafe. Credit: Thomas Sproten
Thomas is not the only one to find pricing an issue. Mark Lacuesta and partners initially opened Pane e Dolci in Cagayan De Oro as a dessert and cake shop back in 2012. In 2015, they ventured into coffee, originally serving civet coffee, but then in 2016, they were introduced to specialty. Pane e Dolci has sourced coffee beans from Gold Box Dubai, but now more regularly from EDSA Beverage Design Group and Jack and The First Crack Coffee Roasters.
Mark tells me, “The biggest challenge we faced in getting our market to appreciate specialty coffee is the conversion of the bigger (commercial coffee) market to try quality at this level and to appreciate it. Another challenge is the unreceptiveness of other coffee shops and café owners to specialty coffee for reasons such as ‘specialty coffee is expensive,’ because their preference is more on profitability over quality.”
Brewing coffee on a Chemex at Pane e Dolci, Cagayan de Oro. Credit: Mark Lacuesta
Sourcing Locally: A Challenge or an Advantage?
And there are more difficulties to be faced than simply converting drinkers of cheap 3-in-1 instant coffee sachets or bitter, burnt roasts to the third wave. One major obstacle is the supply of specialty grade green and roasted coffee. It just isn’t as available on the smaller islands as it is in the capital.
Yet let’s not forget that the Philippines is also a coffee-producing country. New roasteries all over Visayas and Mindanao (or VisMin, as the region is referred to locally) are taking matters into their own hands by sourcing coffee from their own supply chains.
While this sounds like a challenge, it may be good news for the specialty coffee industry here. When imported coffee supplies become a bigger headache than sourcing local Philippine coffee – which is already starting to happen – we might see a big push for more local farms to improve their crop quality. This won’t just benefit local roasteries, either. If we can consistently produce higher quality coffee, we may be able to create more overseas interest in our local harvests.
Purge Coffee Roaster in Davao City, Mindanao. Credit: Joefel Manlod
A Future Full of Potential
While improving production will take time, and there are still many consumers skeptical about specialty coffee, there are also reasons to be optimistic.
After eight years in the high-paced Singapore specialty coffee scene, Joefel Manlod recently opened the doors to his own shop, Purge Coffee Roaster, in Davao City, Mindanao. For the last two and a half years, he’s also been roasting specialty coffee. He tells me, “The future for specialty coffee is bright and big as we are also a coffee-producing region.
“It’s not just the consumer who needs to be informed about the quality, but the whole industry chain. Farmers should focus on producing high-value crops, while green traders, on the other hand, should support maintenance and pay the fair value of crops based on quality. New farming techniques, exciting varietals and processing methods are continuously being introduced to farmers and farm owners. Consumers will eventually value the importance of quality and a wide flavor spectrum of coffee.”
Mindanao has many great farms at high elevations, some rich with volcanic soil, and so it’s no wonder many Filipino coffee buyers have their eyes on this island. Specialty coffee started early here, because of exposure to commodity coffee, especially in cities like Davao City and Cagayan de Oro.
In the coming years, no doubt more people, organizations, and farmers will look to improve the local coffee production quality in this region. Of course, that’s easier said than done and building momentum will take a lot of support from passionate coffee industry leaders. Yet there are reasons to be optimistic.
And the growing interest in third wave coffee from consumers will only help further this movement – just as better-quality local beans will help to make customers curious about their coffee.
Purge Coffee Roaster in Davao City. Credit: Joefel Manlod
It’s true: outside of Manila, specialty coffee is a newcomer. Entrepreneurs are attempting to bring it to consumers, setting up coffee shops, sourcing the best beans they can, opening roasteries, offering cuppings, and more. Their work isn’t easy, yet slowly but surely their growing pains are giving way to success.
Everyone I spoke to has had similar experiences of bringing the third wave to their local city. And one thing they all believe in is the incredible potential for the future of specialty coffee in the Philippines. Across our 7,641 beautiful islands, there lies the possibility of a shared appreciation for a well-crafted, well-produced, specialty coffee.
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