Conscious Cup: How Do We Make PH Coffee More Ethical And Sustainable? Be Willing To Pay More - Lifestyle Asia

A global coffee shortage is coming says experts so we must aggressively develop 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. 

Freshly brewed

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 instant 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.” 

Philippines Starbucks coffeehouse, Makati City
Starbucks’ first branch in the Philippines in 6750 Ayala Building, Makati. (Photo: Starbucks.ph)

Nowadays, cafes aren’t just places to get yourself a caffeine fix, but also a social gathering scene.

“Starbucks really established the coffee shop to be that ‘third place’—perhaps more in the Philippines than in other countries that had more robust independent cafe cultures,” shares Kayo Cosio. “It’s a place that’s not your home or workplace, but rather a retail setting that you hang out in and feel like you belong in.”

Cosio was first runner up in the 2018 Philippine’s Brewers Cup, and has worked as a coffee consultant cafes that are starting out. He is also the editor-in-chief of DailyDrinkMag.com

Cafe culture

New cafes, local and foreign, prioritize aesthetics as much as the quality of coffee served. Cosio adds that the success of these cafes serving specialty coffee attributes to the skills of local baristas and the cafe ambiances that people identify with and want to experience.

There was a rise of local specialty or high-grade coffee brands in 2012. “By 2014, we would see Yardstick Coffee and YKW Roasters come in strong with high-quality roasted coffee supply for wholesale. That move set the stage for companies like Habitual and El Union to lead the charge in a boom of smaller local coffee shops inside and outside metropolitan areas. This growth continued steadily until 2020, when you-know-what happened,” Cosio explains. 

READ ALSO: 6 Coffee Shops That Deliver Your Much Needed Caffeine Fix To Wherever You’re Working From

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, Dalton 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.” 

Sustaining home grown 

Cosio shares that we should be willing to pay more for locally grown coffee. It’s the first step, he says, on how coffee enthusiasts can help the industry be more ethical and sustainable. He emphasizes that caring about where your coffee comes from matters. 

“I know that’s a big ask, but currently, farmers are underpaid compared to what the Philippine cost of living is at right now,” he shares. “We’re about to see a coffee shortage globally for several reasons including climate change and the pandemic’s effect on shipping or trade.”

Conlin says that education can also be a factor. 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.

man in brown jacket and brown hat sitting on green grass during daytime
Coffee farmers at work (Photo: Unsplash)

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

Many baristas lost their jobs when the pandemic hit due to coffee shops downsizing. Some shops even closed down completely. “With dine-in cafes suffering, I think a lot of cafe goers learned that they could make great coffees at home. And a lot of those same people also realized that they could even sell coffee off of the back of their car or motorcycle, bringing the cafe culture to the curbside too,” Cosio says. 

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. 

With brewed coffee making a presence on casual streets, it’s a step toward Cosio’s dream on how Filipinos enjoy coffee.

“If we’re gonna eliminate sachet-culture, we need to do it without disenfranchising the current stakeholders at the grass-roots level. Imagine going to the corner store every morning and filling up your flask with fresh, black coffee and picking up brown bag of pandesal or piyaya to pair? That’s the life!” he says.

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