By Nickky Faustine P. De Guzman,

Brewing a coffee countryDrinking coffee, arguably, has become a national pastime and a favorite addiction. Independent coffee shops, especially in Metro Manila, and notably in areas like Makati and Tomas Morato in Quezon City, have attracted caffeine lovers, young and old. But while we love our coffee — brewed, with whipped cream, or flavored — we cannot be called a coffee country, not just yet.

“Coffee is a universal drink, and a national drink, if you will, because we drink more coffee than tea. Our consumption, in fact, continues to grow because of our burgeoning population, and also because of our call centers,” said Chit Juan, a coffee lover, enthusiast, and the president of Philippine Coffee Board, Inc. (PCBI), a private sector organization established in 2002 as the National Coffee Development Board. PCBI works with local coffee farmers in order to develop and promote our coffee industry through promotions, marketing, education, and export.

The Philippine coffee industry produces Arabica, Excelsa, Liberica (Barako), and Robusta varieties, which are primarily grown in Bukidnon, the Cordillera, and SOCCSKSARGEN region because of these areas’ favorable climate. But the local yield cannot keep up with our need. Our ratio of coffee production to coffee consumption is 35,000 metric tons produced to 120,000 metric tons consumed so we end up importing more coffee than producing our own. According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO) and the Philippine Statistics Authority, Philippine coffee production has been decreasing by 3.9% per year over the past decade vis-a-vis our growing consumption of coffee.

After three quarters of the year, the small green coffee cherries have ripened and matured into red cherries, which are ready for harvest. But the ripening process does not happen simultaneously, which makes it unpredictable, but at the same time, a lovely sight to see both green and red berries together. A cherry usually has two beans in it. After the beans are milled, they are taken to a table for sorting: the perfect versus the damaged, and the hard versus the airy. Sorting coffee beans is an arduous task that requires a farmer’s whole day. Before making it to our favorite coffee shop, the sorted and now polished beans are then brought to cupping houses where the tasters or “cuppers” taste and survey each variety and tell which are good to sell to the market.

If our local coffee farmers persist through their labor and see the beauty of growing good quality coffee on their farms, they could earn as much as P100,000 per hectare in four to five years according to ICO.

No longer are Batangas and Cavite the top coffee producers in the country — that title has been taken by Mindanao. On Oct. 24, Davao City will be hosting the annual National Coffee Summit, now on its 10th year, which serves as an opportunity for coffee farmers, industry leaders, and coffee lovers to exchange ideas on how to boost and upgrade the coffee industry and help Filipino farmers gain more skills and income.

“There is a big market for specialty coffee in Korea and Japan. This is hope for our Arabica farmers who have low production volumes but have exceptional coffee,” said Robert Francisco, executive director of PCBI, of the importance of the coffee summit.

Coffee was first grown in the Philippines after a Spanish Franciscan monk introduced it in 1740 in Lipa, Batangas, according to the PCBI web site. From Lipa, which was then the coffee capital of the Philippines, the idea of growing coffee spread to other parts of Batangas, including in Ibaan, Lemery, San Jose, Taal, and Tanauan. Batangas started to export coffee to the United States in 1860s, and then to Europe when the Suez Canal opened. Seeing how prosperous the coffee industry was in Batangas, its neighboring province, Cavite, soon followed and began growing coffee in 1876. Philippine Liberica (kapeng barako) was five times more expensive than the rest of the Asian coffee beans.

Brewing a coffee countryBy 1880, the Philippines was the fourth largest exporter of coffee beans, but this would only last until 1889. Insect infestations destroyed the once prosperous coffee businesses in the regions, and in two years time, production was reduced to a sixth of the original yield. Farmers soon shifted their attention toward planting other crops, and coffee was seemingly forgotten.

But coffee is too good to pass up, and in the 1950s, through the help of the Americans, the Philippines enjoyed a second wave of coffee enthusiasm after coffee varieties that are more resistant to infestations were brought in. It was also at that time that instant coffees started being commercially produced, which increased the demand for more beans. This favorable market lured more farmers into growing coffee again during the 1960s. But the increase in the number of farmers resulted in a bean surplus, which happened not only here but abroad as well.

In 1980, the Philippines became a member of the International Coffee Organization (ICO), a group of importing and exporting coffee nations. It is ICO that said our coffee production has been decreasing in the past 10 years.

Today, to boost the coffee business while helping local farmers make good money from it, organizations are teaching the farmers to upgrade their crops into world-class products with scores that are universally accepted.

Apparently, coffee, like wagyu and wine, has scores that correspond to quality.

“Our farmers need to know how to get their coffees to a score that is understandable universally. Because when you sell abroad, you cannot just say ‘masarap ang kape ko (my coffee is delicious),’ but people will ask what grade is your coffee. Kung wala kang score (if you have no score), don’t even bother. You’ll end up as a commodity coffee in 3-in-1 sachets,” said Ms. Juan, PCBI president.

Coffees are scored through the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) card by the “cuppers” or tasters. Cuppers could be the cooperatives, traders, and roasters who buy directly from the farmers or cooperatives. The SCAA criteria include audacity (brightness of coffee), body (richness and thickness of coffee), balance (overall taste), flavor, acidity, aroma, and fragrance. A good coffee should get an average score of 80 and up from the “cuppers.”

“Because our yield is small, we want to make [this] up with the quality our local farmers produce. Quality will put premium prices in their tag. We can up the price at 30% more. Sayang naman ‘di ba? (It would be a waste otherwise),” said Ms. Juan.

If Robusta coffee usually sells at P100/kilo, its price can go up to P400/kilo if its scores are at 85 and above. The same goes with Arabica, which can sell for P450/kilo with a high score from P180/kilo.

While on average, local scores are at 80, we can still improve our grades if farmers are taught to be more careful when sorting good and bad beans and to be more tenacious despite it being a tedious process.

Growth in our local coffee industry does not depend on the hands that sort and harvest them alone, but also on the tongues that taste and patronize the product. Meaning, more Filipinos should support the coffee varieties that grow in their own backyards.

One of the staunch supporters of local coffee is Commune Café in Makati, which sells only local coffee varieties. Its owner, Ros Juan, told BusinessWorld that people were unfamiliar with their own coffee.

“When we started in 2013, people would say ‘ay bakit local coffee? Masarap ba yan? (why local coffee? Is it delicious?)’ The business and the interest in Philippine coffee have grown immensely… I was often asked how I feel about the growing interest in local coffee shops — taray ang dami na namin ‘di ba? (There are so many of us now) — of course I’d say I am happy, because part of the goal is to be able to introduce more local coffees to the Filipinos,” she said.

In general, she said Filipinos fancy their coffee sweetened. “Mocha and lattes are popular,” she said, adding and suggesting that if people want to be serious about coffee, “they should try black coffee first and just add milk and sugar after, especially when it is done in manual brewing, the taste is lighter and not bitter.”

Putting up, and keeping up, a small coffee shop that exclusively sells local coffee is viable. “A coffee shop can survive with local coffees alone,” she said.

She said the business is thriving and will continue to serve local coffee in order to alert — not only the senses — but the sensibilities of Filipinos about their own local coffee flavors.