Admittedly, the Philippines isn’t the first place you’d think of when you think of coffee origins, but don’t write them off just yet! Philippine coffee is unique for one major reason: this small country grows all four main types of coffee- Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, and Excelsa. How do they manage this impressive feat? Let’s dive in and find out.
History Of Philippine Coffee Production
Philippine coffee is much older than you think. The first coffee plants were brought over by Spanish colonists in the 18th century. It rapidly became a major industry and 200 years ago, The Philippines was the 4th largest coffee producer in the world. Subsequently, the American Civil War in the 1860s fueled the demand for Philippine coffee as imports from Brazil became too expensive. The opening of the Suez Canal also facilitated the movement of Philippine coffee to Europe.
When a plague of coffee rust hit Brazil, Indonesia, and Africa from 1887 to 1889, The Philippines was one of the only coffee-producing countries unaffected which furthered their coffee boom. This good fortune didn’t last however, and eventually, coffee rust entered the country and along with insect infestations, it decimated the local coffee plants and production declined sharply. After World War II, disease-resistant coffee plants were introduced and the production of instant coffee took over.
In the 21st century, the local demand for coffee has risen greatly but climate change and the coronavirus pandemic have cast a pall over coffee production. But it’s not all doom and gloom for Philippine coffee- in 2020, a locally-grown coffee won the Philippine National Barista Championship (PNBC) for the first time.
Where Is Philippine Coffee Grown?
The Philippines consists of over 7,000 small islands, and the climate varies from one island to another. This great diversity of microclimates is partly why so many different varieties of coffee can be grown here. About 85% of Philippine coffee is Robusta, 7% is Excelsa, around 5% is Arabica, and the remaining 3% is Liberica.
Robusta plantations are spread over various areas such as Bukidnon, Sultan Kudarat, Bataan, Bohol, Cebu, Compostela Valley and Palawan. A majority of the harvest is purchased by Nestle to make instant coffee. Sultan Kudarat currently produces the most coffee in The Philippines, growing mainly Robusta and Arabica. Liberica and Excelsa are primarily grown in Sulu. Other major areas of cultivation include Batangas, Cavite, Bukidnon, Kalinga, and Davao Oriental.
The most unique Philippine coffee has to be their Liberica, known locally as Kapeng Barako or just Barako. Cultivated in the Batangas and Cavite provinces, Barako coffee plants are much larger than other varietals, standing at 20m in height. This coffee is immensely popular locally and favored for its strong and distinct flavor which has been likened to aniseed. Barako plants can be difficult to manage since the height of the trees means it requires ladders to harvest. The plants also take up quite a lot of space. Most Barako is grown on small farms and is rarely exported since local demand is so high. This coffee is so beloved that it’s even used in soups and other dishes, as well as in beauty treatments.
Issues With Production of Specialty Philippine Coffee
Despite such a wide range of coffee varietals, growth has been slow in the Philippine coffee industry. Part of the reason behind this is that it’s cheaper to import coffee from neighboring countries, and partly due to a lack of infrastructure.
The demand for coffee locally is so high that local production can’t keep up. This forces the need for imports, mainly from Indonesia and Vietnam. Since most local production is small-scale, it ends up being cheaper to import the coffee rather than grow it. There’s also a lingering doubt about the quality of Philippine coffee since there’s almost no traceability. All these factors combine to make imported coffee more desirable to locals who see it as higher quality, more reliable, and often cheaper.
Second, there’s a huge gap in infrastructure with a lack of warehouses, processing units, and trading centers. This leaves farmers in the dark, with few resources to learn and improve their crops. Mismanagement of harvesting, processing, roasting, and grinding reduces the final quality of the coffee which furthers the notion that Philippine coffee can’t be specialty. Climate change has also been wreaking havoc on plantations, with frequent typhoons destroying crops.
But this might change in the years to come. Government agencies, NGOs, and local businesses are gearing up to increase Philippine coffee production with a focus on improving quality through better infrastructure, more support for farmers, and improving the current pricing crisis. Collaboration and communication are the best ways forward, allowing farmers to take ownership of their crop as a brand and improve their production to drive prices to a fair level.
With goals to increase both short-term yield and build long-term sustainability, the future is promising for Philippine coffee.