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From bean to brew: A conversation with SGD Coffee

It is a no brainer to say that the enticing aroma of freshly brewed coffee sends an invigorating sensation to those who deem the drink a staple in their daily routines.

Over the past few centuries, coffee has indeed become more than just an incontestable staple. It has grown to be very important in many a social gathering, spurring change in people’s routines and customs. Coming from lush green fields, it is amazing how a little bean transforms before settling in people’s cups. The rise of the coffeehouse subculture is also one of the most stellar examples of the impact of coffee.


The first cup

Rich Watanabe (BSMTH, ‘93), the “Coffee Specialist” at the SGD Coffee Bodega in Teacher’s Village, Quezon City, was only six years old when he first ate coffee grounds directly from the jar. This rather humorous incident started his love affair with the drink. He continued this love affair—now consuming coffee in its liquid form—through his adult life, so when it came to choosing a career, he did not hesitate pursuing something he loved. “Coffee came as a very easy choice for me,” Rich says. 

Meanwhile, Fernando Papio, one of the co-founders of SGD Coffee, discovered coffee during his college years. However, he noticed that the only coffee available to him was either the 3-in-1 instant coffee or that from the new coffee shop at the time, Starbucks. He wanted to create a new place to enjoy his favorite beverage, “My dream was to build a small coffee shop.” 

Little did he know, a chance encounter would help make his dream a reality. 

Heart and soul 

The duo met in the mid 2000s, both having the same aspirations for locally produced coffee. Though Rich had a head start in coffee trading, he lacked the resources needed to produce coffee. It was only when he met Fernando that they started their business. They scoured through the different regions of the country to find the perfect place to start planting coffee seeds until they found a farming community located in the mountain province of Sagada, a 14-hour drive from Metro Manila. After having a taste of Sagada coffee, they knew they were in the right place. 

Rich and Fernando spent time there getting to know the people and their ways; and in the process, they began to understand that for the farmers, coffee is not just a commodity—it is a way of life. The duo’s involvement with the farmers quickly transcended business transactions, and they began looking into ways they could help the farmers. They have since been providing the farmers with free technical assistance: soil sampling, pest eradication, and providing compost materials and seedlings. They also host an annual tree planting event in the farm—with more and more volunteers eagerly signing up every year. The event became their way of showing to people—especially those young and abled—the difficult life of a coffee farmer. “After my first experience, I couldn’t not finish my coffee,” Fernando recalls. The depth of the connection between the two and the farmers is felt in every cup of SGD coffee and in the certainty that every bean is lovingly picked by people who are a part of a storied legacy.


From farm to cup 

In the cafe, Rich is particular when it comes to preparing the coffee beans for service. Aware that the slightest change in weather, soil, or environment can completely alter the crop, he is committed to making sure that every cup served in his cafe represents the best qualities of any bean—at any given season.  Even after harvesting, the work is only halfway done—the challenge is preserving the rich original flavor as the beans go through the tricky process of roasting and brewing—and any misstep could mean erasing all the quality that farmers cultivated in the bean. 

A daily challenge for Rich lies in the differences inherent in every field, which means that the preparation process is different every day in the cafe. Even the water used for brewing has to be constantly adjusted according to what kind of yield arrives at the cafe that day—the two always note the farmer’s insight on that particular batch of beans and calibrate the process accordingly.  In SGD Coffee, the day always starts with a riddle in the form of a fresh brew to be tasted—and the team always solves it with a flourish. 

It was this rigorous process and the committed relationship with the farmers that won them first place at the 3rd International Contest of Coffees Roasted in their Countries of Origin in 2017. Rich says that it wasn’t an overnight success: it was the culmination of seven years of trials and experiments since the beginning of SGD coffee. 

From choosing the best soil to refining the final selection of beans, Rich declares, “It’s really [the] Philippines’ coffee that won the competition.” He adds that the international coffee community now recognizes the Philippines as one of the best sources for coffee.



Bitter but sweet

Even before receiving international praise, the Philippines and coffee have always had a passionate relationship. Rich says that coffee is so integral in our culture, we almost take it for granted. A cup of coffee offered upon entering a home denotes warmth and hospitality; countless love stories have started with coffee dates. Even desolate times are marked with caffeine: it is a staple at funerals and stressful all-nighters. At one time or another, we have all found ourselves yearning for the warmth of coffee. 

When coming up with business ideas, Fernando adds that choosing coffee was easy knowing that Filipino coffee drinkers commit to the beverage every day. In fact, the two credit the vibrant coffee consumer population in the country for keeping the coffee business thriving. Despite newer trends such as milk tea, Rich believes that coffee has stood the test of time—and shows no signs of stopping soon. As long as the beverage is loved by Filipinos and we remember to thank and compensate the hardworking farmers who make that cup of coffee possible, you best believe that Rich, Fernando, and the rest of the team at SGD Coffee are along for the ride.

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