New Take on an Old Brew: A Glimpse Into the Philippines’ Coffee Heritage

Sep 12, 2019

With just basic farming knowledge but a lot of love, photojournalist Lester V. Ledesma started a coffee farm—which was really just an elaborate excuse to dive into the little-known world of the Philippines’ rich coffee heritage.

THEY CALL IT THE SECOND CRACK, the last of two audible micro-explosions that occur when a superheated coffee bean expands and changes its chemical composition. To coffee professionals it is an alarm of sorts, an indicator that the roasting process is nearing its end. Soon enough, this ingredient would be used to fire up the senses with a dose of caffeine.

Plucking beans.

At 18 Days Coffee Roaster, a processing facility near Manila, that second crack came in quick succession, the popping sound filling the room as a load of freshly cooked coffee beans emerged from a roasting machine. The smoldering contents tumbled onto a basin where they cooled down. I picked up a handful and noted their familiar aroma, slightly oily sheen and beautiful brown color. As a coffee enthusiast I’ve roasted many types of beans throughout the years, but this batch was special. This was coffee that my wife and I had planted at our farm.

It was exciting to see our efforts in a fragrant pile of whole coffee beans. With little more than basic knowledge of coffee farming—and some help from our resident farmer, Leonido—we managed a decent crop of some 80 kilos of coffee. This was the first of hopefully many years of a viable harvest, an undertaking that Joanne and I started five years ago. To be frank, we were totally unprepared for this—she is an IT professional and I am a photojournalist— but our love of coffee inspired us to plant a small orchard in the highlands of Cavite, in our native Philippines.

From day one we knew exactly what kind of beans we wanted to cultivate. Most farmers grow robusta—the most common type of coffee—while others favor arabica which is used for gourmet coffee and espresso-based drinks. Instead, we planted coffea liberica, a breed so rare that it is practically unknown outside the country, though variations do exist in Bali, Malaysia and India.

Known locally as kapeng barako or simply barako, liberica is a drink that has deep cultural and historical roots. It was first planted by Spanish colonists here in 1740, which made these islands a major coffee exporter for more than 100 years. Although liberica’s heyday ended at the turn of the 20th century—when a coffee blight decimated crops, and farmers shifted to the hardier but lower-grade robusta—its reputation has remained etched in the Filipino psyche.

“This coffee’s name refers to the native barako, or wild boar, which is said to eat ripe liberica cherries,” says Brian Tenorio who runs KapeTayo Coffee, in Quezon City. “I think Filipinos like barako for its bold taste and tapang—its manly caffeine kick.” When someone needs to stay awake, they drink barako more than regular coffee.

Cooking coffea in a wok.

The blue-collar connection is something I have seen in my travels throughout the Philippines. While high-end arabicas from Kenya, Ethiopia or Java are the stars of Western-style espresso bars, local barako— sun-dried on the front porch, milled by hand and roasted on a wok—is often the humble beverage served in the homes of common folk. In fact, I’ve learned to love its full-bodied, caramel taste and surprisingly fruity notes.

Despite its long history in the Philippines, coffea liberica remains largely neglected by major players in the local industry. But Vie Reyes of the Philippine Coffee Alliance aims to spread the word. “It’s unfortunate that the coffee drinking public isn’t fully aware of how good our liberica can be,” she says. “We are still in the stage of ‘rediscovering’ Philippine liberica, both for the farmers and drinkers.”

Liberica seedlings at the writer’s farm.

There’s hope for the future. Barely a decade ago it was difficult to find a consistent supply of good liberica coffee, but these days they’re a standard offering in a precious handful of spots around Manila. Among these are Café de Lipa and 18 Days Coffee, as well as KapeTayo Coffee, which boasts a “delightfully not subtle” barako laced with coffee liqueur, alongside a more traditional pour-over version. Further south in the town of Amadeo there’s also Kaffe Belardo, which serves its tasty, medium dark-roasted kapeng barako not far from my farm.

As for my own contribution to the local coffee scene, I left the roasting facility with an amusing problem: without any buyers or outlets, what was I to do with our initial supply of freshly roasted coffea liberica? Well, I ended up doing what any net-savvy seller would do in this day and age: try to sell it on Facebook. I posted on my wall and on online forums, and I e-mailed friends. To my surprise, people responded. In spite, or perhaps because, of the proliferation of cafés both high-brow and mom-and-pop serving the usual lattes, Filipinos still hankered for the taste of old-school kapeng barako. I sold all of it in a week.

Kaffe Belardo in Amadeo.

Where to Try Kapeng Barako

Café de Lipa GF, Market! Market! Mall, McKinley Parkway, Taguig; 63-43/756-1716; cafedelipa.ph/.

18 Days Coffee Solenad 3 Ayala Malls, Nuvali Boulevard; Sta. Rosa, Laguna 4026; 63- 917/882-7672; https://botecentral.com.

Kaffe Belardo Amadeo- Loma Boundary, Crisanto M. De Los Reyes Avenue, Amadeo, 4119 Cavite; 63-46/483-0670.

KapeTayo Coffee 2F, U.P. Town Center, Katipunan Ave, Diliman, Quezon City; 63-2/949-0212; kapetayo.com.

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