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The rising popularity of the Philippines locally-produced coffee

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Coffee farming has existed in the Philippines literally for hundreds of years. The country mostly produces commercial robusta, while specialty arabica always was just a tiny percentage of the Philippine's coffee industry.

There are several reasons why special coffee in the country always has such abysmal popularity. Natural disasters, climate problems and economic issues in the country have affected production negatively in recent years. On top of that, there is a huge gap between customer demand and local supply amounts: in 2018, locals drank 170,000 metric tons of coffee while the country produced only 35,000.

2020 itself also wasn't an easy walk for the industry with even more problems appearing out of nowhere, like the start of the coronavirus pandemic and the sudden Taal Volcano eruption. But at the same time, it somehow brought a new life to local specialty coffee. For the first time ever, a locally-produced coffee won the Philippine National Barista Championship (PNBC)! Let's talk about why this local success is so important for the whole Philippines coffee industry.

The history of the Philippine coffee industry

Coffee was brought to the country in 1740 by Spanish monks in Lipa, which immediately became Philippinian coffee capital. Coffee production grew quickly in the country and by the 1800s the Philippines had already been exporting coffee to Europe via the Suez Canal and to the USA via San Francisco and became the world's fourth-largest coffee exporter. 

Philippians once even was the only source of coffee in the entire world when coffee rust devastated all the crops in Africa, Java, and Brazil. But when said coffee rust eventually reached the Philippines, it destroyed most of the crops in the country and ruined the coffee production for years because most of the producers were forced to abandon their work. The country's coffee industry slowly began to restore through the 20th century and in the 1950s a highly resistant to diseases coffee varieties were introduced in the country by the local government. 

But the Philippines coffee industry hasn't fully recovered even these days — customer demand in the country still highly exceeds local production supplies. The Philippines Department of Agriculture's statistic shows that the country imports between 75,000 and 100,000 metric tons a year only from Vietnam and Indonesia.

"In 2019 our coffee industry mostly produced robusta, with a little bit of arabica (almost without any specialty grade products), excelsia and liberica. And even that is much more than it was five years ago when virtually no one was trying to focus on specialty arabica production," explains JC Martinez, the President of BrewsCo, a Philippine coffee brand. 

The disasters of 2020 also didn't help the local coffee industry. After the Taal Volcano erupted in January 2020, nearly 450,000 residents were forced to abandon their homes and farms, not to mention the damage done to the farmlands, crops, and livestock which was assessed in more than 577 million Philippine pesos (about US 11$ million). More than 5,000 metric tons of coffee also were scorched by the eruption. 

Then, just a week later after the eruption, most of the country was under a lockdown due to coronavirus. That hurt the Philippines coffee industry even more. "Big local roasters get an 80% drop in demand due to COVID-19 lockdown," said Pacita U. Juan, co-chair and president of the Philippine Coffee Board (PCBI).

Inspiring results of PNPC 2020

Since 2013, the licensed body for World Coffee Events (WCE) in the Philippines has been the Philippine National Barista Championship (PNBC). But in 2020, WCE changed it to the new body — the Philippine National Coffee Competition (PNCC) — aiming to improve the global visibility of the country's coffee industry. Three new competitions were presented by the PNCC:

  • The 2020 National Barista Championship
  • Philippine Latte Art Championship
  • Brewer’s Cup

Adrian Vocalan won The National Barista Championship and, opposed to previous champions, he used a local coffee variety — Typica from Itogon, Benguet, processed in an unusual way. 

The future champion used three preparation methods — espresso, milk beverage, and signature beverage — to reveal the coffee’s more refined flavor notes with each different drink. Adrian demonstrated coffee's orange, cherry, and cocoa tasting notes with espresso, while in the milk beverage he highlighted notes of vanilla, butterscotch, and caramel. "It was floral and juicy, with pineapple, honey, and sweet tamarind notes," said Nina Guinto, the PNCC organizer. 

Another thing that differs Adrian from previous champions was that he chose coffee personally and observed how beans were processed and roasted. This way he was able to explain coffee production and processing features to judges, connecting them with people who made it.

The Typica was produced by Elma Serna from Sitio Hartwell — the region vastly known for making great specialty arabica — on a farm 1,500 meters above sea level. Elma's family used to work in mining, but after it was prohibited by the government she started to work in coffee production. 

"This coffee was made in a truly unique way — the carbonic maceration and a piece of yeast from kombucha grown in a lab were used during the processing. As a result, this coffee had a good, effervescent mouthfeel, which is rather uncommon for the local coffee," said Michael Harris Conlin, the 2019 Philippine National Barista Champion and a member of a team that delivered this winning variety to Adrian.

The local coffee winning the 2020 PNBC is a clear sign that a Philippine specialty coffee is constantly improving in quality to the point where it can not only compete with foreign varieties but can even win the competition. According to Sly Samonte, the winner of 2016 & 2017 PNBC, he already looked for local coffee then, but couldn't even find any worth trying to take a shot on the competition with.

"Just a couple of years ago the soil processing and harvesting practices were not in a good state, so was the coffee produced using them. Our local coffee became ready for huge competition only when more independent coffee producers took that seriously and started working hard with their varieties. That happened around 2016-2017, I think," said Raoul De Peralta, a roaster who was preparing Adrian’s PNBC-winning coffee.

Most competitors in barista tournaments usually stick to well-known coffee species that have already shown themselves and don't need to prove their quality. But Adrian wanted to break that stereotype and show that local coffee is worth trying to work on.

"We as a team are really proud to use this coffee and our skills for competition. We wanted to prove that the Philippines coffee and our professional abilities can achieve a win at this competition, and we succeeded," emphasized Adrian in the interview. 

The future possibilities for Philippine local-produced coffee

People involved in the Philippines coffee industry on a high level believe that winning performance of the local coffee on PNCC 2020 will raise attention to the potential of locally produced specialty coffee. "Simply put, this win makes people talk about Philippine coffee," emphasized Rosario Juan, a member of PNCC’s leadership and Commune Café owner. 

"The rumble Adrian's win created will attract the attention of many people interested in the coffee industry. Slow and steady, Philippine specialty coffee becomes more popular. It took pretty long even to get to that point where we can speak about quality - over 20 years of work has been needed for this, and now it starting to make some difference."

"This win definitely spiced things up a little bit," — Sly agrees, — "But there is still a lot of uncertainty. But I personally believe that in some time people would travel to the Philippines for coffee. Some truly unique varieties have already grown up here in the last years."

"This win is a huge moral bust to our coffee farmers, and honestly we really needed this one. It will raise interest in local specialty coffee not only for consumers but also for producers. It will show them how promising this niche is," said Lloyd Eric Lim, the PNCC head of finance and CFO of Conlins Coffee, a Philippine coffee roaster.

Overall, the fact that Philippine coffee has won a barista competition is huge for the country's coffee industry. The next step will be competing on an international level, which would bring even more attention to the local-produced specialty coffee.