Coffee Session, an online panel discussion on the Philippine coffee industry, was held last May 18, featuring a diverse cast with a common passion for coffee. Reflecting the collaborative nature of the coffee industry, several coffee experts were in attendance—Tere Domine, country director for local coffee brand Kalsada Coffee; Nathaniel Ongchuan, an award-winning barista; Mich Sy, a decorated coffee taster; and Dr. Emmanuel Garcia, an assistant professor from DLSU’s Chemistry Department and the La Salle Food and Water Institute. Intended as a supplement to budding coffee enthusiast and host Leonard Lim’s fundraising project for coffee farmers in Atok, Benguet, the forum highlighted the growing curiosity for local coffee, the future of the Philippine coffee industry, and the importance of coffee to both producers and consumers.
A curiosity for coffee
Through the interactions of the panelists with each other, it became clear how close-knit the coffee community is. Here they exchanged opinions with a friendly air and directed specific queries to one another, depending on their area of expertise.
Domine said that because the local coffee community is small, it is easier for members of the community to collaborate. Despite their differences, Ongchuan explained, the panelists all have a shared zeal for finding a good cup of coffee. This usually leads them to meet up in coffee meet-ups and compare their experiences, seeking to discover new ways of making their coffee blends taste better.
This curiosity and passion for learning is something that the panelists emphasized when asked to give advice to coffee “noobs” or newcomers. While learning about the intricacies of coffee can be overwhelming at first, it is best to start by asking the barista questions, according to Ongchuan. Domine added, “If you don’t know the answer, just ask away.”
In the end, though, what matters is finding the right blend suitable to one’s preference. As Ongchuan put it, “There is never going to be a perfect cup; the perfect cup is always going to be your preference.” While the coffee enthusiast world may seem intimidating, Ongchuan assured that it is an open and welcoming community—who, in some ways, are still learning the art of coffee-making themselves.
No way to go but up
The Philippine coffee industry is “headed in the right direction”, Domine affirmed. Although the country had already been known to produce commercial grade coffee, the Philippines’ identity as a producer for specialty grade coffee also began gaining traction in the last six years. Specialty coffee is distinct from commercial grade coffee in its flavor profile, aroma, and acidity, among other characteristics, and is usually considered to be of higher quality and more expensive.
Ongchuan has observed the rising curiosity for local coffee among consumers, with many individuals trying their hand at home brewing, while Sy pointed out the growing number of “smarter consumers” who are more cognizant about the challenges of producing specialty coffee. Garcia believes that this is a good thing, as the increased presence of specialty coffee in the country is making consumers more educated about it. “The more discriminating people are on flavor, the more discriminating [they will be] in other things,” the chemist explained.
From bean to beverage
Coffee is more than just a beverage. The steps associated with brewing coffee are largely anchored on scientific concepts, such as Chemistry and Physics, that Garcia has come to be familiar with. Joining coffee meets—where enthusiasts and casual consumers alike come together to taste and experience different types of coffee—have allowed him to experience first hand the stimulating effect of the beverage. After spending four years learning about coffee, he designed the Coffee Science elective course that will soon be offered at the University, intending to use coffee as a medium to promote critical thinking and to foster a greater appreciation for Science.
Coffee is also a way of life for the many Filipino farmers who depend on its production as a source of livelihood. Farmers meticulously grow and taste the coffee beans—a process that lasts up to seven months—representing an inordinate amount of the time and effort necessary to serve the perfect cup. Domine added that through understanding the entire process behind its production, from cultivation to brewing, people can learn to appreciate the extensive amount of time and effort it takes to produce the beverage. “This is a part of the livelihood of farmers, and not just a beverage for us to enjoy,” she expressed.
Whether we brew our own coffee at home or crave a distinct beverage at our favorite coffee shop, it is high time that we re-examine our relationship to this pantry staple. From taking into account the actual cost of producing the coffee, Garcia urged coffee enthusiasts to go a step further by taking into account the environmental impact of our coffee consumption. “In general, you need to start asking questions every time you drink a cup of coffee,” he shared, encouraging the audience to also “think about the planet”.
Back on the map
What may seem like a simple cup of coffee for us is the result of the combined passion that farmers, brewers, and other innovators have poured into elevating Philippine coffee blends—exploring and appreciating the many possible flavors local coffee has to offer.