Introducing Itogon coffee to the world

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MICHAEL HARRIS CONLIN of Henry & Sons introduced Itogon coffee to the world at the World Barista Championship.

MICHAEL Harris Conlin, the 2019 Philippine National Barista Champion, has done his country proud. Mr. Conlin was able to place in the semifinals of the World Barista Championship (WBC) in Boston, USA, and finished 15th out of 50 candidates from all over the world. More than his show of technical ability, he was also able to showcase Filipino coffee, showing in a cup the hard work of farmers in Itogon, Benguet.

His attachment to Itogon comes from an advocacy. Last year, a typhoon ravaged Benguet, and as part of his work for his company’s foundation, the Foundation for Sustainable Coffee Excellence, they donated water and food to farmers in the region, not knowing that they grew coffee there.

“Itogon’s elevation is not as high as other places,” he recalled during an interview with BusinessWorld on May 3 in the Institute for Coffee Excellence. The educational facility is part of Mr. Conlin’s company, Henry & Sons, which roasts coffee for retail and for industry purposes. Another component of Henry & Sons is The Giving Café, their retail outlet.

“What’s nice about Itogon is most of the coffee that grows there are wildlings… that means these coffees have already adapted to the terroir.”

In the coffee business since 2001, he has seen all aspects of the coffee industry, from the growing of the beans to the final products made under the expert eye of a barista. “This journey has inspired me to create a space to nurture the baristas and our Filipino coffee farmers,” he was quoted as saying in a press release. That space is the Institute of Coffee Excellence which works with both farmers and baristas. “The transformation of a community begins with education,” he was quoted as saying. “In the case of our coffee community, I believe we would have to start by empowering our farmers and baristas with the knowledge, values, and passion to work towards a beautiful coffee future.”

For his competition entry to the WBC last April, Mr. Conlins presented locally sourced honey and strawberries from Benguet, lactic acid from coconut meat infused with sampaguita aroma, and cold brew coffee from Itogon. The concoction, he said, tasted like rootbeer; one of his favorites. “For me, I wanted to turn ordinary items into something extraordinary, I think that’s what really made an impact on the judges,” he told BusinessWorld.

“I feel pretty good,” he said about placing 15th. “I was happy with it. I had fun. I think that’s the most important thing — I was able to deliver our message and our dream on the world stage, I’m a fan. That’s the thing.” He recalled crying on stage, and someone interviewing him tried to console him, but he told that person that his tears were of joy.

As for how the win spells changes in the coffee community in the Philippines, he notes: “People are more mindful and nationalistic… they’re going to museums again.”

Mr. Conlins gave this interview while wearing a Barong Tagalog bought off the rack, and wearing a lapel pin depicting the Philippine flag.

“They’re loving local products again. I really feel that in the next five to 10 years, the world will have their eyes on us.” — JLG