This is a transcript of Episode 01: “Where Does Philippine Coffee Grow?” (Click the episode link for the audio!)
Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens! I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.
Today on the show, I want to welcome everyone to the first episode of Exploring Filipino Kitchens. We’re looking forward to getting this podcast ready and sharing these interviews with everyone. Today we’re going to talk to three people in the Philippine coffee industry.
00:31 Neil Binayao of Hineleban Coffee
First person we’re talking to is Neil Binayao. He’s the farm manager at Tuminugan Farms where Hineleban coffee is grown. When I learned that their particular coffee, Hineleban, had this thing there you could trace on Google Maps where your tree was planted, I thought this was a fantastic idea to apply the Philippine coffee. So when I decided to go to Mindanao, I made it a point to visit.
Here’s some clips from the morning I spent at Tuminugan Farms, which I can’t imagine having done any other way.
[Sound of dried coffee beans] That’s the sound that gets me. Every time I hear that clip, I’m immediately transported back into the foothills of Mount Kitanglad in Bukidnon, in the interior of Mindanao. It does that to me because I remember just hearing those dried beans as you ran your fingers across them.
One thing that I really found interesting with this visit was how Neil was explaining their concept for a transformational business partnership between the company and the farmers who grow the coffee.
“The term we coin for that is transformational business partnership. It’s not a buyer-grower relationship where, if your crops fail, I’ll look for another source. [Rather] It’s a partnership, and it’s based on transparency. The farmers know what’s going on, the costs involved, and from field preparation down to harvest, nandun yung mga technicians namin in the field [we have technicians present at the field]. Our technicians are all IPs (indigenous persons). They know the dialect, so they’re not strangers, actually.”
That’s an important thing to note. Generally, economic growth has been a bit hard for locals to adapt to because there’s a lot else going on in their communities. As we’ll hear from Neil, having a technician in the field who is a recognized IP or indigenous person, really builds the trust needed between farmers and the company that’s helping them gron and distribute their coffee.
But before I jump too far ahead, let’s go back a little bit. Where am I? I’m in the foothills of Mount Dulang-Dulang in Bukidnon, a province of Mindanao. The farm itself is located past a big field of pineapples. I woke up in the morning, opened the windows, and saw this beautiful mountain range with rows and rows of pineapples as far as the eye could see. It’s such a fantastic place and such a fantastic way to begin this story and this exploration into what the relationship is between the food that’s grown on the land and the people who live on that land.
So, Neil picks me up from the place where I’m staying. We hop on his jeep and drive through the plantation of pineapples. Things were a bit dry, there’s definitely a drought in the region. It hasn’t rained for four, five months at that point.
You can still see there’s a lot of life, and the coffee farm itself was pretty nondescript. You go into a gated area and you got trees growing along both sides of the road there.
NB: “What we have here on my right is the varietal trial area for Arabica coffee. Ideally, Arabica – for the best quality – should be grown in areas 1,000 meters and up, above sea level. [For] new plantings, we’ve restricted our plantings to areas 1,200 meters and up. We figured it’s not worth the effort to invest or expand in lower elevations because coffee reports have shown that it’s only 1,200 and up that really bring up the superior qualities of this Arabica variety.”
NA: “Where we at now?”
NB: “We are at 840 meters only. It would still grow, it would still bear fruit, but quality, the flavor won’t be there, and we’ve found that there’s a higher incidence of pest and diseases at lower elevations. It’s really a high-elevation crop. Because Hineleban Foundation’s main goal is restoration and protection of the rainforest, this is why this package is one of the livelihood components.”
Neil just mentioned something about the reforestation efforts. The foundation is trying to assist in terms of getting the locals to benefit from the resources of the land and use the land more sustainably. What we’re going to listen to next is his description of why it’s important to help the locals understand the role that they play as caretakers of the land.
“We acknowledge the fact that we cannot go into reforestation if the people are hungry.”
If people have no food on the table, Neil says, it’s hard for them to understand…
“…why we have to protect the forest, why we shouldn’t shoot the Philippine eagle that comes to your house looking for food.”
That bit about the Philippine eagle? That also stuck with me, because later on in my journey, I came across two Danish bird watchers. They were in the Philippines to look for the Philippine eagle, to spot it, and they were just aghast like, “why would anyone shoot such a majestic bird?” I understand where they’re coming from, but hearing it directly from Neil, many families have very limited financial resources. So I see where the desperation to hunt an endangered bird for food comes in. It’s a strange case of food insecurity in an environment, where there are literally acres of land around.
As we’re walking, Neil stoops down and pulls a bulb from the ground, brushes it off a little bit. It’s fresh turmeric. It was such a bright, vibrant orange. The smell was like lemongrass – just the freshest, earthy but also kind of herbal smell. He was talking about how turmeric used to be very much incorporated into the indigenous diet, but these days locals have lost the taste for it, along with the knowledge of preparing a lot of what’s around them too. It really brings home the point that, if we want to continue to have those food traditions passed on in the future, even if we don’t directly have a way of practicing them because we don’t live in that region…there’s no way we can’t tell these stories.
So next we’re talking about how coffee is grown in this particular area – what it used to be back in the 60s and 70s when coffee production was at a high in this region, and what it’s like now.
“Traditional, commercial crop production would maximize every square inch available of the soil, like pineapples, right up to the roadsides. Because the measure there is productivity by unit of land, productivity by hectare. Now that also requires a lot of fertilizers, because…”
… the soil is stressed, depleted of nutrients, and suffers from overcrowding.
“So we spread out the population, we minimized it. The original design was the traditional commercial design of four thousand plants per hectare. So we reduced that by half, and that translates to bigger yield per tree. So the unit now is ‘per tree.’ We found that, with the low maintenance cost, bigger yield per tree…”
…the question about population density gets neutralized…
NB: “And since the coffee as a livelihood component is designed as a family-operated farm, it’s limited to one-fourth hectare per farmer-beneficiary, so that’s 250 plants per beneficiary.”
NA: “Which you found has been manageable, na kaya talaga nila [that they are really able to do it].”
NB: “Yes, manageable.”
As we’re walking through the farm, I noticed that in between the rows of trees, there were these vine-like crawling plants that are planted in between the rows. So I asked Neil what they’re about.
“I mentioned earlier that sustainable technology that we’re introducing to the farmers through the use of this plant right here. As a legume, it’s capable of taking oxygen from the atmosphere, storing it in its plant tissue. At this stage, there’s still nitrogen in the stems and leaves. When it’s about 1.5 meters high from the ground and the shoots are still green, we cut it and place it as mulch. When you do that, the nitrogen would leech back into the soil. That’s your fertilization. This is backed by laboratory analysis. It shows that calliandra is able to support one cropping cycle of coffee.”
Next, we hop back into the jeep and drive a bit more…
“These are Robusta plants on the left. Before, Robusta was very popular in the country. A lot of farmers were growing it, but, I think in the 1980s the prices in the world market went down to ridiculously low prices, so most of the farmers cut down their coffee trees, rented out the land to Del Monte.”
That’s just one of the challenges they faced here. Not being paid enough to grow coffee means that farmers turned to a cash crop that’s guaranteed to have a buyer. In these parts, it’s Del Monte. Next time you pick up a can of pineapples, note that this land is where they’re grown.
I asked Neil about what’s paramount next.
“What the farmers lack is, one: access to the market. Second is quality control, consistency and quality, consistency in volume, process management. Those are things that corporations like our mother company are really good at, modesty aside.”
But as for every kind of challenge, there are benefits to it. At Hineleban…
“We link the Arabica farmer directly with the market. The result is, we pay about 300% higher than what they would normal get for a trader. The trader would buy green beans at about ₱4-6 per kilo. We’re buying it at ₱18.50 per kilo. If quality improves, then the demand will go up, price will go up, and we could give back more to the farmer.”
And isn’t that what we want all along? Under this model of production, the Hineleban Foundation aims to help farming families get the most out of the work they put in, resulting in a better quality of coffee that’s harvested, processed, and packaged for sale.
The jeeps pulls up to a low building, with short concrete structures to its side.
“From the field, you have a window of ten hours, no more.”
That’s ten hours from when the coffee cherries are picked from the trees and sent to the first stage of processing.
“The next stage after it’s sorted by size is sorting for defects, still manual. The defects are taken out.”
Then we take a walk back outside.
“It’s at this stage, that sound it makes, almost ready na ’to [this is almost ready].”
To me it sounds a bit heavier, but frankly at this point, I just want to run my hands over the beans, again and again.
“You noticed, may mga pulp na natitira [there’s still pulp remaining], but since it already went to the mucilage remover, wala na ring mucilage [the mucilage is no longer present]. It doesn’t really affect the color anymore.”
“It goes into storage in this form. Pamilyar ka na siguro [You may already be familiar with this], this is the parchment side, then you have the silver skin. First the machine removes the parchment and then polishes it. Then, you’re left with the green bean.”
What I noticed at this point is that, each of the beds that have green coffee drying on them, has a little white board with some dates, some places written on them. So I asked Neil what those were about.
“This is from Dihian – the name of the place – harvested February 10, processed February 10, 6:00 pm. Depulped the same day. Once through the demucilager for 30 minutes, started, placed near in the racks at 8:00 pm, bed 321D. That’s what we have to go for, per area, per elevation, and once they’re placed in sacks, it’s by area.”
That’s how they can track which tree your coffee came from. With the GPS coordinates that they’ve previously recorded, they can tell you exactly what tree your coffee was grown on.
“Time will come that traceability will be be on a ‘per farmer’ basis. We have really outstanding farmers, with really outstanding coffee.”
So if you get the opportunity to try Hineleban coffee, or any local Philippine coffee, for that matter, please go and try some!
Back inside the building…
NA: “So what are we looking at right here?”
NB: “This is the roasting room. This is the most critical step in the processing. If you make a mistake here, that’s it.”
Finally, we stepped into the storage room.
“If there’s a demand, we’re going to roast. And the next step would be through this machine.”
We hopped back into Neil’s jeep and drive around for a few more minutes, going through the area. The farm really is beautiful and it’s such a perfect morning that day. The sky’s blue with no clouds to be seen, and the sunlight gives you this warm hug that I sorely miss now that it’s winter in Toronto.
We drive around a little bit more and head into the main offices for Hineleban coffee where we sit down for a cup. Neil and I chat about what he’s doing, and what his life’s like at the farm.
“I also work to rehabilitate raptors (and other endangered birds), I did that yesterday. We were going to release it but decided it was not yet that ready.”
Oh and by the way? What I failed to mention was that, when I first met Neil that morning, his entire right arm was covered in bandages. I asked him why, and he says that a couple of days ago, they had to go back out to fight a forest fire. Again, droughts’ been set heavily in this area for a while now. Despite that, he powers through. Apart from being a forest firefighter, he’s also an amazing wildlife photographer. He shows me some shots from his phone.
NB: “This is Mount Dulang-dulang. It’s taken from Kitanglad.”
NA: “It’s a beautiful shot.”
NB: “It’s beautiful, but if you look closely, there are patches being burned out. Actually, it should be old forest.”
NA: “Covered by trees here?”
NB: “And this is where headwaters are, in the middle. So, we have to do something about these slopes. In the same manner that the fire slowly crept up, you could design your planting in such as way that it would march down on its own.”
NB: “Naturally. It’ll take years, but have to do something about it now. If you want to keep having your coffee, then you have to do something about the mountains. No mountain, no rain. No rain, no coffee.”
And if I had to summarize the lessons I learned from my visit to Tuminugan farm that morning, that last sentence from Neil pretty much sums it up. No mountains, no rain. No rain, no coffee. It’s an ecological system that has its own ways and has its own manner, and if we don’t respect it, we lose it. And that is a detriment to Philippine coffee as a whole.
18:09 Pacita “Chit” Juan
The next person we’re talking to is Pacita “Chit” Juan. So how did I first come across Chit? To be honest, not until I got to Toronto. I was in the public library, researching some books about coffee, when I first started getting really interested in this subject a couple of years ago. I came across a book called “Barako: The Big Bean.” It obviously struck a chord with me, because then I wondered, what’s a book about Barako doing in a public library in one of the largest cities in North America?
So I took it out, brought it home with me, read about the Barako bean in a way that I had never even thought twice about before. Which surprised me, because when I was growing up in the Philippines, the only coffees I knew – until I hit about thirteen or fourteen – was the 3-in-1 Nescafé kind that you would find wholesale in groceries or in little sachets at the corner store.
Now that I was in Toronto, I was learning about this particular kind of coffee that excelled really well in the Philippines. So when I decided to do an episode about coffee, I knew I had to talk to Chit.
We’re talking about what’s led her to where she is today as co-chair of the Philippine Coffee Board, an organization that provides technical assistance and credit programs for coffee farmers, and as well as founding the Philippine Chapter of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance.
Chit’s been also instrumental with driving Slow Food Philippines, the local chapter of Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food Movement – based in Italy – that advocates for preserving local foods and food traditions in the spirit of celebrating good, clean, and fair food.
“I’ve always been an entrepreneur. After college, I had the opportunity to do several startups. You call them startups now in the millennial age. [But] During that time, it’s just a business idea, like, my friends and I had a little coffee shop outside campus. After that, we would always do business. I ask my friends what business can we do. You know when you’re young, when you’re in your 20s, you feel like you can work 24×7. Other friends and I set up a coffee chain. We really just started as a café called Figaro in 1993. We grew to about 70 stores.”
That chain was one of the first in Manila to really advocate for the Barako bean, and one of the first times I remember seeing a coffee shop, in a mall of all places, that featured a local Philippine product.
“I’ve always been a sales person. I love looking at what attributes something has for me to sell it. And that brings me to, for example, the Barako. The Barako has always been one of the coffees produced here in the country. However, because the biggest buyer in the country before was Nestlé, Nestlé buys Robusta.”
And that’s an important point in telling the story of Philippine coffee. Who were the buyers, and who were the farmers actually producing this coffee for?
“Barako is probably just 2-3% of total production. Total production of the Philippines is 90% Robusta and the 10% is split among the three other varieties: Arabica, Liberica, and Excelsa. And so, if you are selling – let’s say big volumes – if you add the Barako and Excelsa, people wouldn’t know that it’s not 100% Robusta. Because 90% production is Robusta, when you sell to Nestlé, they won’t be able to tell if there’s .01% Barako in there. Because of that, people just kept selling it in volume with Barako, Excelsa, and Robusta combined.”
Okay, so to back up and give you a little bit of context here…what’s happening is that, because Nestlé purchased Robusta beans from farmers in wholesale volumes, Nestlé has no way to know that all of the beans they were buying were indeed Robusta. And so, farmers who traditionally had grown Barako were now switching over to Robusta so they could have a consistent yield and consistent buyer for their coffee.
The point is, pretty much because demand for Barako beans tanked and nobody was buying them, Barako beans just fell off the map.
“Maybe about 1996 or 97, I did an informal market research where I had an airpot of Barako, and an airpot of Robusta. I talked to the man on the street, and he actually preferred the Barako. Except he can’t find it, because everything is mixed with Robusta, remember?”
“So, I had the flash of an idea, and we launched the ‘Save The Barako Movement.’ It made farmers sort the big bean, which is the Barako, from the Robusta, and we paid them higher for it.”
Again, circling back to the origins of the story and that coffee is really all about the farmers…
“We launched this campaign that this variety may soon die because what farmers were doing was that they were cutting the Barako trees to replace them with Robusta, because nobody was buying the Barako, anyway.”
“So what we needed to do was to inform the farmers that there is a market for Barako. We defined what Barako is. It’s not just a generic name for a brewed coffee, which was what it was coming to be.”
“Barako is a variety. Barako takes the name from the wild boar, according to Batangueños, because they can stand alone. Barako for us means ‘macho,’ in the colloquial language. And so a strong cup of coffee can be drank by somebody who felt macho.”
“Anyway, there’s a lot of legends, there’s a lot of anecdotes. So what we did is we went seriously into saving the Barako. After we did that, we started also tree-planting from 1999, all the way to the time I left Figaro. We were planting Barako every year.”
“So that made people aware: ‘Oh Barako, yes we gotta save it. Oh yeah, this tasted like Barako.’ And there’s this buzz, and we could sell it higher, making the farmers now plant more Barako.”
“To this day, there is that consciousness and the price of Barako that has remained high, almost as high as Arabica.”
And therein lies the power of great research and telling a good story the right way.
“We thought that to really nail the campaign, we should write a book about it. So I co-wrote the book in 2005 with Dr. Mojica. I’m not a scientist, I’m not a farmer, I’m just a coffee lover. So, we wrote it, and with his research, we collected Barakos from all over the country.”
“Now, Barako still has a demand globally. It may have a fruity taste. Some people even say it’s like jackfruit. Barako is best when it’s aged one to two years. It’s fermented and then it’s kept dry at 12% moisture or less in vacuum packs, and it’s not roasted until after it’s aged.”
So obviously I wasn’t a Barako drinker growing up, but I do remember visits to Batangas where the Barako is widely grown, having some, and remembering that it was a really strong, really bold coffee.
“So what else about the Barako? It’s still in high demand. We have a Barako germplasm collection in Cavite State University, so if you come around again, you could drop by and see it. It’s being taken cared of by the National Coffee Research Center, housed in Indang, Cavite.”
“Barako is a different flavor, so there is no grading system for it so far. The only grading system that the Coffee Quality Institute has is for the “Q” or the Arabica, and the Robusta. So for the Barako, I guess it’s either you like it or you don’t. It’s not like it has to score 80 points or something like that. Any Barako I have, somebody will buy it. It’s that good!”
I wish I could get Barako. I’d love it if one of the specialty coffee roasters in Toronto stocked them. There’s so many around. But even in the Philippines…
“I hope you know by now that our consumption is more than our production. This is why there have been imports from Vietnam, especially on Barako. There’s very little we can get, and so even London wants it. I have so many inquiries everyday.”
“You know the market, they always want something new. They want something rare. They’re always looking for a product that they can sell that’s new. I think, to them, Barako is still new.”
“So, as we continue, what we do is, instead of selling the beans, we propagated it faster, so that people have access to the planting material. Because you have a choice, when you pick the fruit – you either make it into another tree, or you just drink it.”
That particular bit there relates to some of Chit’s work with the International Women’s Coffee Alliance. The campaign she was really instrumental with helping start was called ‘Pick Red’.
“When you tell the story about women doing the sorting, women who pick only the ripest cherries because men don’t care to pick what’s red and what’s green, they just harvest. It’s the women who do the detailed tasks, and that’s global.”
“So, we launched a program called ‘Pick Red.’ Visually, you must only pick what’s red and ripe, and that’s what we buy. Secondly, we tell them to wash it because you cannot wash green fruits. You can only wash reds. So, washed coffee means all of them were ripe to begin with.”
“However, in some areas where they don’t have water, we can’t let them wash. So, we gave them another tag. We call them ‘naturals.’ So, it’s a matter of segmenting the market. Each producer actually has a niche in the market.”
It may be simple in its task, instructing farmers to only pick ripe, red cherries, so they can get the most out of each tree and the sorters have generally less work to do. But then we’re reminded that sometimes, even basic access to clean water is a real hindrance for farmers in the Philippines.
On the value of coffee, specifically Barako, as Slow Food…
“Slow Food is really about creating biodiversity, and for you to preserve biodiversity, you have to make sure that the other older crops don’t disappear. The way to do that is to list them in the Ark of Taste, so that the whole world knows that there is this variety that we got to save.”
“Locally, you ask consumers to use it. You ask chefs to use it. So in the coffee chain the parallel would be the chefs are the roasters. So, if the farmers know that there is a market for it, then they will continue to produce it. I always believe that the consumer is a co-producer. The education must be throughout the value chain. That the consumer knows why this is in danger, whether it’s coffee, rice, a breed of cattle or breed of pig. Through the chef, who interprets it. And back to the farmer, who continues to grow it.”
So what else about the Barako?
“Okay, so it’s a different flavor and when I brought it to Italy, to Slow Food, I enrolled it in the Ark of Taste, as an endangered species. I brought along some samples, and people loved it. The Italian chefs, they loved it. The Slow Food organizers told us, ‘you have to bring something that is enrolled in the Ark of Taste,’ and so I brought Barako.”
“Although Benguet Arabica was recently also enrolled in the Ark of Taste, because in Benguet, people are not expanding their plantations. Benguet has a very small land area, and it’s really sloping. The trees are old, like 80 years old and older. So, eventually if there are no new farmers, that’s gonna die.”
Listening to these clips really started to get to me. What can we do to save Philippine coffee?
“Really continue to propagate it, cultivate it. So we’re working with Benguet State University, to preserve a collection of the different Arabicas that grow in the Cordillera. They’ve got a lot of what we call cultivars. They have Bourbon, they have Typica, they have San Ramon. These are all collections, just like with Cavite State University, where they have collections of Barako.”
“Since it’s a government facility, I like it that it will never be sold, it will never disappear – I hope – as long as as we continue to support the school system.”
And this is an interesting aspect to coffee production that I would never have thought about. Chit’s gonna talk about why it’s important to find a home for Philippine coffee trees.
“Dealing with the academe is also important for us, because I had some mishaps when we were doing tree-planting. The next year, the land was sold, so they probably will cut the trees. We had to do another thing. So we did ‘Adopt a Farm.’ But Adopt a Farm only had a five-year lifespan, so again, whoever owns it after five years, may destroy the trees. So, we said, ‘okay, if that didn’t work, what we should do is plant in national reserves, like mountainsides and government property.’ So, that’s the way of telling people how to do tree-planting now.”
And this is the current reality that happens not just in the Philippines, but in many other countries where coffee and other crops are slowly just getting phased out of existence because nobody is there to support them.
Despite all that, I still believe there’s something special about Philippine coffee.
“First of all, we’re in a tropical country. Coffee will only grow in the tropics. So that’s within the Tropic of Cancer and Capricorn, and we happen to be within it. There is in the world what you call a ‘coffee belt,’ and that is Southeast Asia, southern India, Africa, Latin America, and Central America.”
I asked what’s being done to promote Philippine coffee.
“Of course in the coffee industry, we know about Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). We know about CQI…”
That’s the Coffee Quality Institute, the organization that certifies creators for coffee.
“But, it’s expensive to hire them to come here. So what had happened is, there is an organization called ACDI/VOCA. It’s a non-profit composed of – I believe – ex-USDA people who like to do volunteer work and projects around poorer countries. So ACDI/VOCA landed a project called MinPACT. MinPACT centers on three commodities – coffee, cacao, and coconut. Now they feel for a country to better its industries, there has to be almost like an all-knowing group, with regards to coffee standard, etc. So in coffee, they chose the Philippine Coffee Board.”
That’s the organization that Chit is a co-chair of, and whose goals are to provide technical assistance for actually setting up the coffee farms, and providing credit for smallholder coffee farmers.
“We’re a 14-year old non-profit, born out of our desire to keep promoting coffee in the world market even if our production is low, just so people don’t forget us. As a marketer, I feel, even if our production is low, we can sell anything.”
That’s a big thing for promoting Philippine coffee, not just within the Philippines, but in international markets too.
“With the coming of MinPACT, they gave us access to the Coffee Quality Institute’s best teams. We had senior advisor Ted Lingle, visiting trainers, and so we did several classes courtesy of the MinPACT project.”
“We had an introduction to Q trading. We had a pre-Q course, and, as we speak, we now have our first Q grading exams on-going to hopefully produce an army of coppers from different sectors of the coffee value chain. So from producers, to academe, to retailers, to roasters. We want everyone to speak one language, and that is the quality language.”
I asked Chit more about what having a certified Q graders in the Philippines really means for the advancement of the coffee industry.
“We hope to replicate all these classes and all it takes for CQI to send us their certified instructors. Luckily, some people – even before this program – already took Q classes to become Q graders, for whatever personal reason or business reason.”
“We have a handful in the country. It’s safe to say eight or ten. It’s growing by the month, because you can take Q exams now in China, in Singapore, in Chiang Mai, in Indonesia.”
“So CQI has ICPs or In-Country Partners in almost every coffee-producing country. At the source, you have to teach them already so that you get better quality coffee.”
“80 is the passing grade, and you want coffees that score higher up in the 80s, possibly in the 90s. This gives the roaster an idea of the price that he will pay for. Having this rating system truly helps.”
“Of course with a little caveat, like farmers, they just have to know what good coffee taste like. They don’t need to score it, but they have to know what the scorer or cupper is looking for. He’s looking for clean coffee. Coffee that’s free of defects, free of trash or any other debris from the farm.”
“So that’s all farmers knew. But who was grading Arabica? There was nobody grading Arabica. You would have to get the samples, send it to Japan, send it to some other place.”
“Right now that would be the Philippine Coffee Board’s job, so we can also earn for our sustainability. So we can grade coffee samples. Eventually you can teach more Q graders, so that everybody speaks the same… it’s almost teaching really like a foreign language.”
What’s interesting to me about this particular shift where the Philippine Coffee Board is taking the lead on getting more certified Q graders who are Filipino and based in the Philippines, then you’re introducing the idea that it’s going to be consumer-driven, not in the same way it is with Nestlé where it’s one big corporation. But in this sense more distributed amongst people, because, the more I know about the quality of my coffee, it helps me better understand that I want to support and I want to buy this kind of coffee from Benguet because it has this particular flavor, when the graders are able to teach me as a consumer. I feel that gives Philippine coffee, in general, a better profile because you are getting people to interact with it in a different way.
“Now that the farmers know from the farm level that they can get it to a better quality, then it gives them the bigger margin that used to go to the middleman. So it’s more like fair trade and relationship farming, if you will. There’s a direct relationship between the farmer and the roaster, at least.”
38:12 Carmel Laurino of Kalsada Coffee
I heard some really great news today! The next person we’re talking to is Carmel Laurino, co-founder of a coffee company called Kalsada, which currently operates out of the Philippines, but really was born and bred – if you will – on the Pacific Northwest coast of the United States.
Kalsada just reached their funding goal through Kiva, an online platform that allows a borrower – in this case the Kalsada Coffee Company – to crowdfund a loan that can be repaid over time. They reached their target of $25,000 funded by over 700 lenders in under two months, to purchase fair trade coffee from 290 smallholder farmers in the Philippines.
Carmel is an incredibly interesting person to talk to, because her insights on the process of coffee production – as it currently is in the Philippines – really allows us an inside look into what the reality is for a lot of coffee farmers in the Philippines today.
“My name is Carmel Laurino and I’m the founder of Kalsada Coffee Company. We are a startup. We’ve been around for little over three years and we are working from the farm level to roasting and selling in the local Manila and Philippine markets. We export our coffee right now to Seattle, in my home state of Washington, and roast from there as well.”
So where did the name “Kalsada” comes from?
“In essence, it’s place-based. Why not think about a Filipino word, right? I was just thinking about what this could be. (The word) ‘Kalsada’ really resonated in that a ‘broad’ street could mean so many things to different people. I thought about tracing Philippine coffee from farm to cup, with the different roads it takes to get there, then following that journey of the coffee…and of myself returning to the Philippines. It’s the journey of our entire team creating this. It just fit in multiple levels, that we’re still on this journey together. And it’s just not myself.”
“It really takes the farmer, the consumer, our whole set partners, you listening to this and myself. I thought about the value of that name and what it could mean. I had goosebumps the first time, (when) the farmer said it was like, ‘Oh ma’am, I thought you were coming to build us a road.’ Right? It was really cute. I was like, ‘No! I don’t have money to build you a road.’ But, how does a kalsada – a literal road – ‘make or break it’ for farmers? That’s how their products get to market. It’s really important, a lack of roads.”
“That, in essence, Kalsada – I and our team – is that road from some of these people…I was like, ‘Oh my God! This is a really crazy endeavor.’ I didn’t really think it was gonna be this way.”
“In that aspect, we’re still small. But I think we have big dreams and big goals for the coffees here.”
How can you not get excited by that? That’s amazing! I wanted to find out more, so I asked Carmel about how this all started.
“What started the thinking process for the company was this black-and-white photo of a Filipino coffee company in Pike Place Market. I was doing research as an undergrad at the University of Washington in Seattle, studying with one of the foremost scholars of Philippine history.”
“I was researching more on the dichotomy and the differences of how Filipinos ended up in the Pacific Northwest, and how they were perceived in different circles, in different ways. Both as educated and what folks called as ‘savages.’ We existed in both these spheres, and having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I was highly interested in both the background and multiplicities of histories of the various immigrations of Filipinos in that region.”
“For me, in particular, my family moved in the early 90s. I was seven at the time. We’re fairly new in terms of first or second generation Filipinos in the United States, there were the deeply-rooted alaskeros and other folks that have come through as nurses, as doctors, and farm workers as well.”
I get her excitement. The idea of uncovering all these histories is such a fascinating topic for me because it allows you to understand a little bit more about yourself as you learn what life is like for a specific community.
“I was super fascinated and I was doing archival work in one of the libraries. And I came upon that picture which had everything and nothing to do with Kalsada now, but was really the starting point of the curiosity that I had. In one photograph, all these questions arose. It’s like ‘Wow! there’s coffee in the Philippines. What does coffee taste like from there?’ If this company had stayed in Pike Place Market, 60 years after that Starbucks also started in Pike Place, right?”
“So would Starbucks have served Filipino coffee? For me, this photo represented who I was as a Filipino-American, a coffee lover from the state of Washington. It was sort of an inquiry with regard to my parents and my history and heritage back in the Philippines. So, in all aspects it represented who I was, and I wanted to explore it.”
“So what was it about the photo that really grabbed you?” I asked.
“I didn’t really care about who the men were in the photo. I was more curious about the coffee and what it would take to get Philippine coffee to Seattle, with the goal and intentions of making sure the farmers were at the forefront.”
“My background as an undergrad was that I did international studies and political science, I minored in human rights. I’ve done some work in the Philippines and gone back and forth. I guess this photo was sort of an entry point to coming back to the Philippines, or opening a coffee shop that could really be anything.”
But before she moved back to the Philippines, Carmel spent some time building a career in Seattle.
“I worked in a law firm. I thought was going to law school. I worked at the Asian-American Museum and really was more part of the Asian-American social justice stuff going on in Seattle.”
“Then I worked at a design firm and really did a 180 where I was in charge of multiple different accounts and we did a lot of ad campaigns. It was just beautiful in the sense that I got super creative and really thought through different marketing campaigns. It eventually informed how I think about Kalsada and what we’re doing.”
“And really, Kalsada in itself, if you think about it, didn’t start off as a coffee company. It was really this exploratory of seemingly disparate things that turned into creating this company. So I had no intentions, at the start, to be at where I was – where I am now.”
“Fast forward to 2010, I came back here and I was on a Fulbright-Hays Language Program. I was here for, I believe three months, and then I stayed for an additional month. My family in Cavite, on a weekend trip, took me to a farm in Amadeo, and that photo again re-appeared in my mind.”
That excitement about Philippine coffee is what’s so infectious about Carmel, talking about Kalsada’s story. I’ve never been that excited myself over a coffee bean!
“I remember tasting it. I grew up in Seattle, so when I tasted coffee from Cavite, it wasn’t anything I wanted to have again. Not that it was bad, it just wasn’t the flavor profile that I was looking for. I was just like, ‘Oh man!’ But instead of thinking ‘that’s it?’ my thought process was more like, this can’t just be it, there’s got to be more! There’s got to be more places to explore, there’s got to be other ways to find the type of coffee I’m looking for.”
“I didn’t grow up here so I didn’t really have the palate of the Barako or what people say is ‘Philippine coffee.’ For me, there was more to be explored in terms of flavor profiles that, in itself could be Philippine coffee. It shouldn’t be pigeon-holed to one taste or one type of bean. How do we get Philippine coffee back on the international stage where it can compete with other origins and can stand alone? It can have a brand and an image that promotes diplomacy, promotes other things outside of coffee.”
“I really see coffee as a starting point in learning more about rural development, differences, and culture around the country, having other people outside of myself really be interested in our country. It’s more like gastrodiplomacy, if you will. I just saw it as a way to introduce the world to the country.”
On the thing that drives Kalsada…
“I started this blog with a mission and vision for Philippine coffee, inviting folks that are also interested coffee lovers with that same ethos that I gravitated towards.”
And one of those people was Lacy Audry, who lived in Paris at the time.
“From there I met Lacy who now is my co-founder. I was looking for someone who could write about the emerging specialty coffee scene, in Paris. We had a blind Skype call and we hit it off. That was something indicative of Kalsada.”
“A lot of it was luck and serendipity, and now it formulated into something concrete. But in the beginning it was very fluid. We were all collectively on the same vision and mission, but trying to still figure it out along the way.”
“My whole point was that, we would inspire someone living in the Philippines and then we would consult from afar, but it ended up that Lacy and I moved to the Philippines in 2013. The first time we ever met in real life was in Manila, which was crazy!”
“I think being a millennial or at the cusp of that, you really want to know and you really want to understand things. And if you don’t trust the systems that are in place now and the reasons why we can’t have Philippine coffee abroad, there has to be something that’s happening on the ground that isn’t working or that isn’t facilitating for it to happen. And for us to really understand that, we had to be here and really interview the farmers and get to know from the bottom-up and learn the grassroots level of how we fit into the picture.”
“So what’s going on at Kalsada these days?” I asked Carmel.
“We’re sort of in that entry level of rethinking our next steps for Kalsada, and that is to reach more smallholder farmers and increase our impact, as well as have a high demand, both locally,and internationally. And we’re in that kind of sticky spot, like ‘okay we can’t grow unless we have more coffee in.’ It’s interesting to be at this stage now, when around the same time just a year ago when we were raising funds.”
“In terms of flavor profiles that we’ve seen, it’s really interesting because we get lumped into being an Asian coffee, and the Asian coffee that people understand and know in the coffee industry is either from Vietnam or from Indonesia. But the coffee history and how the beans traveled to this region is unique and different because for one, we are an archipelago country. Indonesia is as well, but we were colonized by different parts of the world. So, the varietals and how it got placed into each region is unique and different. And our terroir and where we sit in terms of the coffee belt is different at well.”
“For the regions up north, in Benguet, we have some coffees that can be similar to African coffees with floral notes and a bit of a citrusy note. We’ve seen that also in the Bukidnon coffees. It’s great that we’re at the stage where we’re able to find those notes, but also still create what a Philippine flavor profile will be.”
“We’re still doing a lot more with experimentations and processes used on the farm level this year. And we’ve gotten really great feedback from friends in Seattle. We do tastings with our partners in Manila, understanding what their needs and wants are in terms of flavors, so that we can work further… and perhaps change what’s happening on the ground, in the farms.”
Whew! That’s a lot to take in, but at the same time, I’m incredibly happy to hear all of this. It’s really comforting in a way because then you realize that there are so many people out there who have the same goals of preserving a particular food item, and of really trying to get it a stage or trying to get it to a place where people recognize it for what it is.
Next up, I ask Carmel more about a member of the Kalsada team who she’s mentioned a couple of times.
“Tere, who is now our head roaster in Manila but also is in charge of our community building projects up in Benguet, was someone I had met earlier. She’s friend of my sister’s, who was traveling to Cebu and then we went to Siquijor together.”
“Tere speaks Ilocano fluently and is really into adventure. In the early stages, she was like, ‘Oh yeah! I’m doing a tour of Mountain Province,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! Are you going to Sagada? I really need to go and find coffee.’ So she said ‘Sure! Come along.’ And that’s the story of a lot of folks in Kalsada. It starts off like that, where you’re into coffee and you’re exploring things, and now Tere is still with us three years later, and is Q certified and is roasting in Manila. I’m sure if you asked her that early on, she’s like, ‘I was just supposed to take Carmel to Sagada and translate in Ilocano,’ but you kind of go through this moment and see the connection. Coffee in itself is a really big black hole and there’s so much you can learn and uncover.”
“Tere has been crucial in being able to open a lot of these communities and these interactions, because I myself would not be able to do that. Although I am Filipino, I’m so very much an outsider too to some of these communities. It really needed to be coming from someone that could speak the language they could trust.”
And that’s an important thing to keep in mind when you’re thinking about research – on the ground research, especially when you’re dealing with people’s livelihoods.
“Lacy and I were also aware of where we stand and the privileges we have. Whatever we were building, whatever we were creating, it also needed to come from a local perspective. We have a lot of international knowledge and resources that we’ve seen in the world, outside of this context. We have a duality in perspective, especially myself having ties to the Philippines, but, we knew that having someone – Tere – and some locals involved would really inform us of these cultural nuances and perspectives that we wouldn’t be able to fully understand. And each location, each area is going to be unique and different.”
After all, the Philippines has over 7,000 islands. That’s a lot of places where you can plant different kinds of coffee trees at different altitudes.
“And it’s fun, like I think the curiosity got the best of me and I think now it’s honing down a lot of these things that were thrown at me that I picked up and threw back out. It’s aligning them with a proper business structure, so that we can sustain ourselves and our growing team, and get the coffees to market. Like we have that initial stage where we go ‘Wheee!’ and had a lot of cool things happen. And now, it’s kind of time (to slow down). To grow Kalsada, getting down to business and asking a bunch of folks and Googling things.”
“Even myself, I didn’t have anything to do with coffee prior to moving to the Philippines except that I drank a lot of coffee. Probably, it was both the best and worst idea to jump into this head on. Given this context…we knew we could really build something that may have not existed prior, because we didn’t know what it should be. We didn’t have anything else to refer to.”
So I guess that ending’s kind of reflective of what I was thinking about when I wanted to tackle this topic about Philippine coffee. We covered so much today, from learning about the farmers in the foothills of Bukidnon to what Pacita Juan does on behalf of Philippine farmers in advocating for them and getting roasters certified so that we can raise the status of Filipino graders and the status of the coffee beans produced by farmers in the Philippines. Then moving on to Carmel who’s kind of taken a different approach to achieving the same goal that Neil and Chit and every person who’s involved in Philippine coffee has.
To get it to a really great quality, get it to market, get people talking about it, and most importantly, tasting it.
Theme music for this episode is by David Szestay, Gillicuddy, and Eric and Magill. Please visit exploringfilipinokitchens.com for more information, and subscribe to iTunes or your favorite podcast app.
Thank you sincerely for listening, and I hope to see you again soon!