THE CONSCIOUS CUP
How do we make Philippine coffee more sustainable to withstand a rapidly approaching global shortage? Experts like MICHAEL HARRIS CONLIN agree that we must be willing to pay a premium for our own
The Philippines was once one of the top exports of coffee in the world. In fact, we’ve been producing our beans since the middle of the 18th century. But when Philippine coffee trees got affected by La Roya or Coffee Rust Disease, many of them died, killing the chances of local farmers continuing exportation.
Today, we have recovered from La Roya, but we have become dependent on imported coffee. From 1990 to 2017, the country spent $4.5 billion on imports mainly coming from Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore. This is ironic, considering we have the ideal climate to grow and cultivate coffee.
“To me, this is really sad. It’s almost like we are not treasuring nature’s gift to us,” says Michael Harris Conlin.
The social entrepreneur and 2019 National Barista winner has been in the coffee industry for half his life. Despite the inclination of coffee-consuming Filipinos to foreign beans, Conlin is optimistic that there can be a shift in people’s mindsets prompted by the presence of foreign coffee spots arriving in the Philippines.
Backintheearly2000s,coffeewasn’taconversational topic says Conlin, although foreign brands have started penetrating the market.
“It’s not like now, when you’re hanging out with your friends, you’re talking about coffee,” he says, adding that people didn’t even know the species of coffee let alone their varieties.
“It’s been a huge change,” Conlin says. “I've been very lucky to have witnessed the change. So the coffee culture of the Philippines is really interesting, since we are one of the lucky countries that grow it We are within that belt, that coffee belt, where coffee is able to grow and we are a coffee-consuming country.”
Still, he says, the majority of the coffee is imported and a lot of the coffee being consumed is instant.
In Makati, Starbucks opened its first Philippine branch in 1997, followed by Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in 2003. With chain cafes opening up county-wide, brewed coffee started gaining popularity amongst three-in-one coffee-loving Filipinos.
“In terms of influencing consumer behavior, foreign brands are such a big deal,” Conlin says. “It became cool to be seen in a coffee shop. Freshly brewed coffee became a big thing as well.” Nowadays, cafes aren’t just places to get yourself a caffeine fix, but also a social gathering scene.
Conlin sees no problem in drinking and buying foreign brands. But, checking on their carbon footprint, he says, is worth doing. “Or even recycling and ensuring we are doing something that will lower carbon emissions,” he explains.
He shares that there are coffee shops abroad that refuse to serve you in paper cups. “You bring your own cup or no coffee,” he explains. “But adopting those ideas would be something, also giving people a discount for bringing their own cups.”
They do this in their shop, he says. “We encourage people to bring their own reusable cups. And we serve in ceramic cups as much as possible. And we encourage customers to help the earth,” he explains.
“Weareone ofthetop consumers ofcoffee, butwe’renot efficientat producingit”
“Thecoffee cultureofthe Philippines isreally interesting sinceweare oneofthelucky countriesthat growit”
When the country went into lockdown in March 2020, many of us decided to make our own cups of joe. Trends such as Dalgona Coffee emerged, popularized from the quick streaming app TikTok. Also called whipped coffee, Dalgona is essentially a glass of milk topped with a mixture of instant coffee, sugar, and water whipped together.
As for other coffee recipes and discovering your preferred home-brewing methods, Conlin shares that it’s all about trial and error, “in terms of recipe and ratio of coffee to water, it’s up to your taste. If you want it strong, mild, or depending on the flavors, you’re looking for. It’s the fun part.”
There are so many more methods people can do at home, Conlin adds, including French press which he says is one of the easiest methods. “But the most important with brewing at home is ensuring you have an even extraction of the coffee. So having a good grinder is important,” he says.
Having the right kind of water—since coffee is 98 percent water—is also important. Luckily, the water quality in Manila is good for coffee. “It has the right minerals,” Conlin explains. “Ideally you would let it sit for a while so the chlorine would subside.”
SUSTAINING HOME GROWN
Conlin says that education is a factor why our coffee production isn’t as strong as it should be.
The Philippines has the soil and climate to produce varieties such as Arabica, Liberica (Barako), Excelsa, and Robusta. “The potential for making coffee flavorful is there. It’s about teaching coffee farmers how to grow them properly,” he explains.
With farmers not making enough income from cultivating coffee, they seem to have lost the drive to actively look after their coffee trees.
“We are one of the top consumers of coffee, but we’re not efficient at producing it,” Conlin shares. “I go to the farms often and what I’ve discovered is that many coffee farmers started the trade just because they have coffee lying around. For generations, it has been there. But farmers have not been putting in the work.”
Conlin pledges to use more locally sourced coffee for his brand, Henry and Sons, to uplift farmers. Currently, 50 percent of Henry and Sons’ coffee offerings are from local farmers.
THE FUTURE OF COFFEE
With their coffee brewing skills, some baristas ventured out and created street coffee carts for passersby. In Cebu, Paul Anzano opened The Coffee Mobile while in Cagayan De Oro, Ruggierro Rubio works from a reconstructed bicycle after losing his job as a hotel barista.
Conlin advocates for these talented brewers to keep sharing and selling. “Some of them just bring their bikes out with a mobile coffee bar and serve people—P30, P40, P50 for a cup of coffee,” he says. “And they were successful, been featured a lot on TV. There’s so many of them.”
He has been pushing for them to get their business licenses, and a few of these baristas have gotten permits and became entrepreneurs.
“What makes me happy is how their income is in their own hands. They don't need to depend on anyone but themselves,” Conlin shares. “And I think that's a beautiful thing that has come out of this pandemic disaster.”