Nowadays, when Filipino millennials think of coffee, chances are they would think of American brands like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts right away. McDonald’s restaurant and Philippine-brand Jollibee would be another popular choice because of their access to a wider segment of the market demographic and lower price point. To ride the trend, companies such as the Japanese brand UCC Coffee (which target more discriminating coffee drinkers and slightly more expensive than Starbucks) and other local café brands such as Bo’s Coffee and The Coffee Project have also set up shop.

Previous to these coffee chains, the Filipino-owned Figaro Cafe was the first to introduce flavored coffee in 1993. Their concept was more European and Italian inspired and combined local coffee with popular Filipino and European pastries and snacks.
The culture of coffee houses and cafes perfectly complement the sociable characteristics of the Filipino people who love to socialize and connect with friends and family. These cafes have become venues to express the Filipino joie de vivre and Filipino fiesta spirit which loves to celebrate special events like birthdays, anniversaries, and homecomings.

A coffee plantation in the Philippines. Image Source: Nikkei Asia

Coffee in the Philippines: Early Years

Little do most Filipinos know that the Philippines used to be a big player and coffee giant during the late 1800s. During the Spanish and early American colonial periods, the Philippines was one of the four big exporters of coffee together with Brazil, Africa, and Java, Indonesia. When these rivals were hit by “the coffee rust”, a coffee fungus that killed coffee plants and destroyed coffee plantations which then brought down coffee empires, the Philippines became the only source of coffee. In those days, Filipino coffee plantations were located mainly in Cavite and Batangas provinces (a little south of Metro Manila).

Unfortunately, the coffee rust caught up with the Philippines which impacted the coffee export business. It would take a while for the Filipino coffee industry to recover and catch up. When the second World War was over, multinational firms like Nescafe paved the way for a different form of coffee to flourish: the “instant coffee.”

Instant coffee in the Philippines. Image Source: Nikkei Asia

Brewed Filipino coffee was perceived as inferior to the imported instant coffee. It was almost forgotten and remained a “provincial” habit of “provincial folk” and the lower classes who boiled the ground roasted beans. The middle class and upper classes took the more modern way of drinking instant coffee. The faster pace of life for everyone both the rich and the working class made instant coffee marketable because it was cheap and easy to prepare and drink to get that burst of energy.

Unlike Europe, Vietnam and Colombia, the Philippines did not develop a coffee culture much earlier during the Spanish colonial period. The Spanish colonizers unlike the French colonizers in Vietnam did not bring with them the café society culture and the roasting process of the beans. The Philippines was merely an exporter of coffee beans where coffee planters shifted to planting more robusta beans to supply to multinational and local coffee companies producing instant coffee.

Four Coffee Variants in the Philippines

Because of its topography and rich soil, the Philippines is able to produce four unique coffee varieties — Excelsa, Liberica, Robusta and Arabica. The more native beans are Excelsa and Liberica.

Liberica popularly known as “kapeng barako” is literally translated as “masculine or macho coffee” because of its strong, robust flavor. The taste may be perceived as too rough for those who prefer the more refined European flavor which is created by the difference in the roasting process and the inherent quality of the beans. To many Filipino coffee drinkers, this “kick” and roughness are precisely what makes “Filipino Kapeng Barako” unique and more appealing.

Coffee beans sourced from a plantation in the Philippines. Image Source: Benguet Arabica Coffee

Excelsa, on the other hand, has a sweet flavor. Only 7% of this variety is grown in the Philippine provinces of Quezon, Bicol and Sorsogon. Robusta coffee plant, which is easier to cultivate even in lowlands, has wider production of around 85%, and is more resilient, cheaper and enjoys high demand globally.

Two coffee variants produced in the Philippines. Image Source: Benguet Arabica Coffee

Arabica beans are the more expensive variety and are favored by top baristas and most coffee connosseurs. Arabica takes its name from Arabia—the source of its origins. The Arabica coffee plant is said to have originated in Ethiopia and spread to the Middle East and Northern African countries like Turkey and Morocco and the rest of Africa. The spread of coffee all over the Middle East and then to Europe coincided with the spread of Islam and the activities of Middle Eastern traders who would conduct business over a cup of coffee in Italy and Europe.

Coffee houses were popular in the Middle East as places where men fraternized, had discussions and exchanged ideas. Because alcohol is prohibited by Islam, coffee was a wonderful and socially acceptable alternative. This coffee house culture later spread to Europe more widely in Italy, France, Great Britain, Germany and Austria. The Middle Eastern way of preparing coffee is quite different from the way coffee is prepared in Europe.  Turkish and Moroccan coffee have a unique taste because it is brewed with cardamom beans. From Europe, coffee spread to its colonies in Latin America and the Philippines.

Coming Back & Looking Ahead

Considering the Philippines’ long history in the production and exportation of coffee, it had to take American coffee and donut chains to reintroduce the Filipino market to the art and pleasure of drinking brewed coffee as opposed to instant coffee. With this renewed consciousness and awareness of this bittersweet brew, Filipino coffee planters, traders and baristas have been inspired to promote Philippine coffee. Despite this, challenges remain in terms of improving roasting techniques and locally producing coffee for local consumption instead of sourcing from nearby Vietnam and Indonesia and making the price more competitive.

The first coffee plant in the Philippines is said to have been brought by a Franciscan friar who brought the plant from Mexico in 1730 and planted it in the province of Lipa, Batangas during the Spanish colonial period.  Today, other areas around the Philippines have also been producing coffee during the past years and decades. These provinces have a higher altitude, cooler temperature, and rich soil which make these areas conducive for the cultivation of coffee.

Special gourmet varieties are planted in the northern part of the Philippines — the Cordilleras, Benguet and Sagada area. The southern area of the Philippines, Mindanao, is also home to many coffee plantations which cater to the commercial production of the robusta beans used for instant coffee by multinationals like Nestle’s Nescafe and local brands like San Miguel, Kopiko, Great Taste and Blend 45. Special gourmet blends are also produced around Mindanao.

Bo’s Coffee, a homegrown brand, in one of their Coffee Cupping events where coffee beans from various regions of the country are introduced to the audience. Image Source: Saichi

To help boost the local coffee industry which has shown signs of growth during these recent years, the Philippine Department of Agriculture and Department of Trade and Industry have spearheaded the creation of the Philippine Coffee Industry Roadmap for 2017 to 2022. These government agencies have been consulting stakeholders in the local coffee industry. All these measures are meant to make sure that the Philippine Coffee Industry moves towards its continuous growth and development in the various areas from coffee farming and production to business and marketing.

These are exciting times for the coffee industry in the Philippines. The Filipino strength, resilience, love of life, love of good food and camaraderie with friends and family are all symbolized in a cup of local coffee. In the midst of the COVID pandemic, the coffee business is flourishing in the Philippines as more and more coffee brands are being marketed online. New coffee farms are being set up and coffee houses are being opened. Indeed, the Philippines is waking up to a bright tomorrow smelling the aroma of good, brewed Filipino coffee.

Main image by: PCQC

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James Redmond Chua

James Redmond Chua

Executive Project Manager, JCE Japan Creative Enterprise