Understanding Specialty Coffee in The Philippines
The Philippines is a coffee-producing country. The nation’s varied topography and range of climates make it suitable for growing not just Robusta, but also Arabica, Liberica, and Excelsa.
But in recent years, the nation has not produced enough to support its own consumption. Extreme weather and rapid urbanization have impacted the coffee industry.
However, things are changing. With increased collaboration and improvements in infrastructure, the coffee industry is being revitalized and specialty coffee is becoming more familiar. Let’s take a closer look at coffee in the Philippines.
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Silvester Dan Samonte, the 2016 and 2017 Philippine National Barista Champion, competes at the World Barista Championships in Seoul, South Korea. Credit: Jake Olson for World Barista Championships
A Brief History of Philippine Coffee
The Philippines has been a coffee-producing country since the middle of the 18th century. When coffee rust hit Brazil, parts of Africa, and Java in the 1880s, the nation became the top producing country in the world. But coffee rust later reached the Philippines and production never fully recovered to these levels.
In 1960, a government act was introduced to prohibit coffee importation. Aided by this, the Philippines produced enough coffee for domestic consumption and export until the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989.
New trade regimes later removed quotas for import, and the nation now relies on coffee from Vietnam and Indonesia, which can provide it more cheaply than local producers.
Coffee cools after roasting in the Philippines. Credit: Neil Soque
The Philippines is made up of over 7,000 islands. Within this archipelago, microclimates and conditions vary wildly. This makes the country suitable for growing a range of coffee varieties and provides ample opportunity for specialty coffee.
But the islands are increasingly hit by strong typhoons, including in the traditional coffee areas of Cordillera Administrative Region and Calabarzon. The combined forces of global economics and climate change are barriers to producing coffee in the Philippines.
A coffee tree with cherries. Credit: Joefel Manlod
A Reliance on Imported Coffee
These factors help explain why the emerging specialty scene depends on imported beans. For the last three years, coffees from Latin America helped the winners at the Philippine National Barista Championship (PNBC) at the World Barista Championships.
2018 was the first year the Philippines crowned a Brewers Cup Champion – Jaycee Galera. She used natural processed heirloom beans from Ethiopia’s Rocko Mountain Reserve.
But maybe it won’t always be this way. There are obstacles for growing and processing specialty coffee in the Philippines, but the industry is developing despite them.
Philippine natural processed coffee dries on raised beds at Balutakay Coffee Farmers Association. Credit: Joefel Manlod
Obstacles For Specialty Coffee in The Philippines
The low cost of imported coffee from Vietnam and Indonesia is one of the biggest barriers to overall coffee industry growth in the Philippines.
Silvester Dan Samonte is the two-time Philippines National Barista Champion and Director of Coffee at El Union Coffee, a roastery in La Union. He tells me that “the price of local coffee is overpriced compared with other global coffee growing regions, where foreign investment and scale have made it more efficient to produce quality coffee.”
But quality is also a factor. Silvester says that a lot of Philippine coffee is defective and has low traceability.
“Imported coffee is usually cheaper, more reliable, and tastier than local coffee. Philippine coffee takes commitment and most small coffee roasters don’t have the business model to do so,” he says.
Joefel Manlod multitasks while roasting. Credit: Purge Coffee Roaster
A Need For Better Infrastructure
Although there are producers with good farming infrastructure and access to information, the general quality of locally produced coffee is directly affected by access to resources.
Thomas Sproten is the owner of Coffee Culture Roastery in Bacolod. He tells me that “unlike many other coffee producing countries, the Philippines lacks coffee processing, warehouse, and trading infrastructure. Farmers are left on their own.”
Joefel Manlod is a seasoned coffee competitor and the owner of Purge Coffee Roaster in Davao City. He tells me that Filipino coffee roasters choose to work with beans from Ethiopia, Columbia, and Panama and generally disregard local beans.
“Local coffee is criticized as below specialty due to poor handling at farm level and processing, and the grading system,” he says.
Thomas Sproten makes coffee at Coffee Culture Roastery. Credit: Coffee Culture Roastery
Silvester tells me that there is no real incentive for farmers to improve quality. “Quality or a high cupping score doesn’t end up in more benefits for the farmers,” he says. ”Farmers already can demand US$5–10 per kilo for green coffee. Why work harder?”
“Essentially a farmer must pay for their coffee to be evaluated. If the coffee is defect-free and has some notable qualities, it can score a specialty grade,” he says.
A public cupping takes place in a café in Philippines. Credit: Neil Soque
But it’s not all negative. Silvester also tells me that he has sampled good local beans and that the issue is maintaining consistency in production quality.
“The highest cup quality I’ve tasted is from some well-sorted beans from Bukidnon from Ephemera traders. Generally, they produce some of the most thoughtful and tasty coffees.
“But there is a low ability to create scale and to repeat quality due to the inconsistency of the coffee trees and communities they work with. It’s a challenge to create sustainable coffee systems in the most remote parts of the country.”
A coffee tree in Kapatagan, Davao del Sur. Photo: Gladys Baylon
A Revitalized Coffee Industry
But things are slowly changing. In March 2017, the Philippine Coffee Industry Roadmap 2017-2022 was introduced with the goal of boosting the country’s domestic coffee output.
“Recent campaigns championing the quality of local green coffees are on the rise,” Joefel says.
“NGOs, government agencies, and local micro-roasters are focused on addressing [quality] issues.”
An important first step is making coffee farming a financially appealing venture for Filipinos in the context of cheap imported coffee. One venture working towards doing this is the Kape’t Buhay project, which is a partnership of government agencies and private organizations. It provides mentorship to farmers and encourages them to become entrepreneurs.
Similarly, the Philippine Coffee Board (PCB) is a private institution that offers technical assistance and credit for coffee farmers. It promotes coffee through coffee shop seminars, trade shows, farm tours, and an annual Coffee Origins festival.
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Participants in an intensive training session on coffee for farmers in Mt. Matutum, Mindanao. Photo: Purge Coffee Roaster
How To Improve The Philippine Coffee Industry
Joefel tells me he sees room for improvement in collaboration and communication. “Local roasters should showcase and produce competitive quality roasted coffee, justifying the hard work of local farmers,” he says.
“Local roasters must work directly, hand-in-hand with the farmers, by sharing new information and trends in improving the quality of the harvesting and processing sector.”
A coffee tree with fruit in Kapatagan, Davao del Sur. Credit: Gladys Baylon
Silvester lists what he thinks needs to happen for the success of specialty coffee in the Philippines.
“[We need] collaboration across the industry to pay the real value of the coffee that farmers grow,” he says.
“[We need to] create processing centers for farmers to use or sell to. To discover the best varieties to match the different microclimates across the archipelago. And dedicated stewards of progress to keep pushing the industry beyond the commercial coffee and easy coffee game.”
Silvester Dan Samonte pours milk at the World Barista Championships in Seoul, South Korea in 2017. Credit: Jake Olson for World Barista Championships
The Rise of Specialty Coffee in the Philippines
Despite all the barriers, specialty coffee is being produced in the Philippines. Thomas tells me that he has cupped some impressive local specialty beans.
“Some resemble the flavor profiles of East African coffees, while the majority have an undeniable ‘Asian’ cup profile,” he says.
“Perhaps this is why we do not find too many Philippine coffees in competitions. Just like in international events, where competitors must use Geishas to impress judges and to stand a chance to win, the Philippine coffee scene also seems to follow this trend.”
An espresso-based drink at a café in Cebu City. Credit: Neil Soque
Silvester tells me that “Filipinos love the taste of our own coffee. It’s in our blood.”
But he also says that “Specialty coffee will struggle with most Filipinos living in the country because we seek bold flavors over the subtlety of specialty coffee. But Filipinos make some of the best coffee professionals with their smile and drive to succeed.”
Coffee trees in Kapatagan, Davao del Sur. Credit: Gladys Baylon
Specialty Roasters & Coffee Shops
Yolk – Coffee and Breakfast opened in Cebu City in 2015. The specialty café originally sourced beans from Dutch Colony Coffee Co. in Singapore. But now it mostly uses beans from a local roastery. It regularly hosts cuppings to encourage customers to learn about specialty coffee and try new profiles.
Joefel’s Purge Coffee Roaster has been open since 2017. Thomas’s Coffee Culture Roastery dates back to 2016. Both roasters seek out high-grade local beans to work with.
These are just small examples of third-wave coffee in the Philippines. But they indicate that the Filipino population is increasingly open to trying specialty coffee and the economics can work for local roasters.
Thomas leads a public cupping at Yolk – Coffee and Breakfast in Cebu City. Credit: Kevin Israel Fortu
Producing & Processing Specialty Coffee
Kalsada is a Manila-based roastery that champions Philippine specialty coffee. They support Filipino coffee producers and help them bring their coffee to the market. They have partnered with Yave, a blockchain platform provider, to track the traceability of their coffee.
The company currently sells washed, honey, and natural processed coffees produced in Belis, in the Cordillera mountain range. Through building two micromills here, they have enabled locals to process the Typica and Bourbon coffees they grow to specialty tastes.
Filipino coffee producers may not be able to undercut the cheap imports from Indonesia and Vietnam. But the right investment in infrastructure is allowing some to make the most of their unique environment and produce specialty grade coffee that they can sell at a premium.
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Brewing coffee using a Kalita Wave at a café in the Philippines. Credit: Neil Soque
The Future of Coffee in The Philippines
So what does all of this mean for the coffee industry in the Philippines?
The specialty coffee scene here is young and far from its potential. For Filipino professionals to consider using locally grown and roasted beans in competitions, a lot needs to change.
Infrastructure and quality have room for improvement and the nation’s farms are at risk from the impacts of climate change. But there are clear signs that the industry is evolving with support from dedicated organizations and the efforts of specialty entrepreneurs.
Philippine honey processed coffee dries on raised beds at Balutakay Coffee Farmers Association. Credit: Joefel Manlod
Joefel says “Philippine coffee is like a ticking time bomb, waiting for its perfect time and moment with the correct group of individuals to work hand in hand.”
Silvester tells me that “The Philippines is one of the last frontiers for specialty coffee farming, producing and serving. We have just started our story as a specialty coffee powerhouse.”
So keep your eyes on the World Barista Championship and other competitions. Maybe we’ll see Filipino contestants compete with locally grown and roasted beans.
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Feature photo: A coffee farm in Mindanao. Credit: Lanz Mirondo
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