August 3, 2020

The Success Of Locally-Produced Coffee In The Philippines

Philippine farmers have grown coffee for hundreds of years. The country has produced commercial robusta for decades, with specialty arabica production making up a tiny percentage of the local coffee industry. 

A number of factors have kept Philippine specialty coffee from reaching a wider audience. Natural disasters, environmental issues, and unstable economic conditions have hampered production in recent years. Demand is also considerably higher than local supply: in 2018, the Philippines consumed 170,000 metric tons of coffee, but produced only 35,000.

While 2020 brought further challenges – including the Covid-19 pandemic and the Taal Volcano eruption – it could also mark the beginning of a new era for Philippine specialty coffee. For the first time in history, a locally-produced coffee won the 2020 Philippine National Barista Championship (PNBC). Read on to learn about why this success is so important for the future of Philippine coffee production.

Lee este artículo en español El Éxito En Filipinas Del Café Producido Localmente

Philippine Coffee Production 

Spanish monks first brought coffee to the Philippines in 1740 in Lipa, which soon became the country’s coffee capital. Production soon spread across the country and by the 1800s, coffee was being exported to the USA via San Francisco and Europe via the Suez Canal. 

By the late 1800s, the Philippines was the world’s fourth-largest coffee exporter. At one point in the 19th century, it was the only source of coffee in the entire world when coffee rust destroyed crops in Africa, Java, and Brazil.

However, when coffee rust eventually reached the Philippines in the early 1900s, it devastated the country’s coffee production. It destroyed almost all of the country’s coffee plants, leading many producers to abandon the crop altogether. Production slowly recovered throughout the 20th century, and in the 1950s, the Philippine government introduced a disease-resistant variety into the country.

However, production is still far behind local demand. According to the Department of Agriculture, the country imports between 75,000 and 100,000 metric tons a year from Vietnam and Indonesia alone.

JC Martinez is the President of BrewsCo, a Philippine coffee brand. He explains that in 2019, most of the coffee produced in the country was robusta, followed by arabica (with only a small percentage at specialty grade), excelsia, and liberica. It’s only in the past three to five years farmers have focused on increasing specialty arabica production. 

To make matters worse, 2020 has brought a completely new set of challenges for Philippine coffee farmers. When the Taal Volcano erupted in January 2020, more than 450,000 residents were urged to leave their homes and farms. Damage to farmland, crops, and livestock was estimated to cost around 577 million Philippine pesos (around US $11 million) with more than 5,000 metric tons of coffee damaged. 

And just weeks after the eruption, in mid-March, the government declared a lockdown across most of the country. This has only further impacted the Philippine coffee sector; co-chair and president of Philippine Coffee Board (PCBI), Pacita U. Juan, said that major local roasters have “suffered a drop of about 80% in demand”.

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The 2020 PNCC

From 2013 to 2019, the licensed body for World Coffee Events (WCE) in the Philippines was the Phillipine National Barista Championship (PNBC). 

However, in 2020, a new WCE-sanctioned body, the Philippine National Coffee Competition (PNCC), took over the event, with the aim of improving global visibility for the Philippine coffee industry. The PNCC presented the 2020 National Barista Championship, Philippine Latte Art Championship, and Brewer’s Cup over a three-day event in early March. 

The National Barista Champion was Adrian Vocalan, who was also 2017’s Philippine National Latte Art Champion. Unlike previous winners, however, Adrian won using a local coffee – an experimentally-processed Typica from Itogon, Benguet. 

Adrian prepared an espresso, milk beverage, and signature beverage, highlighting the coffee’s more nuanced flavour notes with each preparation method. The espresso highlighted orange, cherry, and cocoa tasting notes, while the milk beverage had notes of vanilla, butterscotch, and caramel. PNCC organiser Nina Guinto described the signature beverage as tasting floral and juicy, with pineapple, honey, and sweet tamarind notes.

Unlike previous competition winners, Adrian picked the coffee himself and oversaw its processing and roasting. By doing so, he was able to share its production and processing details with judges, connecting them with the people producing it. 

The Typica came from a lot produced by Elma Serna, a producer from Sitio Hartwell with a farm 1,300 to 1,500 metres above sea level. Sitio Hartwell is in the Cordillera region, which is known for producing specialty arabica. 

Michael Harris Conlin, the 2019 Philippine National Barista Champion, was part of the team that sourced Adrian’s winning coffee. He says: “Elma is a backyard farmer whose family’s livelihood before getting into coffee was mining. After mining was banned by the local municipality, she shifted to coffee production.

“Adrian’s coffee was processed in a very special way. He used carbonic maceration as well a piece of yeast from kombucha grown in a lab. This gave the coffee a nice, effervescent mouthfeel that is not typical of Philippine coffee.” 

When I asked Michael what made this coffee special, he said: “I think the most special thing about that is the way it was processed, but Adrian was involved from start to finish. He picked the coffee himself, processed it and was involved in the roasting. The only thing he missed was planting it.”

The fact that a Philippine coffee won the 2020 PNBC is testament to the fact that local specialty coffees are improving in quality. Sly Samonte won the PNBC in 2016 and 2017, and he says that six years ago, he looked for locally-produced competition-grade coffees, but couldn’t find any. 

Raoul De Peralta roasted Adrian’s competition-winning coffee. He says: “[A few years ago], the quality of coffee production, in terms of the soil processing and harvesting practices, was not properly refined. Philippine coffee was only ready [for competitions] when more independent coffee producers started to be more hands-on. In maybe 2016 or 2017, you started to see a shift in local coffees.”

Many people who enter barista competitions use coffees that are already well-known and recognised for their quality. Adrian acknowledges that, in the Philippines, using a local coffee is risky. However, he explains that he “wants to break that mindset”.

“We are proud to have this coffee. And using our skills, we needed to prove that our coffee and our ability can win in a competition like this.”

The Future Of Philippine-Produced Specialty Coffee

Coffee professionals in the Philippines hope that a local coffee winning 2020’s PNCC will help bring attention to locally-produced specialty coffee. Rosario Juan is the owner of Commune and part of the PNCC’s leadership. She says: “At the most basic level, this gets people talking about Philippine coffee. 

“The buzz will give it more attention and will interest many. There is a small but steadily growing push for Philippine specialty coffee. The fact that we can start talking about quality shows that the work that has been put in over two decades is finally starting to bear fruit.”

Sly agrees: “There’s a lot of intrigue. There’s a lot of desire to improve Philippine coffee and another win is going to add some fire to that. I think that, yes, people would fly to the Philippines for coffee. I believe that some unique varietals have cropped up in the last few years.”

This win will also encourage local producers to keep growing specialty coffee. Lloyd Eric Lim is the PNCC head of finance and CFO of Conlins Coffee, a Philippine coffee roaster. 

He says: “I do feel this is a much-needed boost to the morale of our coffee farmers. I think having the coffee take on such positive national attention is the first step to bringing awareness and growing interest in specialty coffee.”

For the first time in competition history, a Philippine coffee has won a barista competition. This is clear proof that interest in Philippine specialty coffee is only growing. The next test will be competing on an international level; displaying a Philippine coffee origin on a global stage would surely only grow local and international demand even further. 

Enjoyed this? Then Read Beyond Manila: Drinking Specialty Coffee Across The Philippines

Photo credits: Michael Harris Conlin, Raoul De Peralta

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