BY MYLES DELFIN
Coffee was brought to the Philippines by the Spanish in the 1700s. Soon after, enterprising Batangueños introduced the murky beverage to Mindanao and the rest, as they say, is history. It must have been quite a story, how coffee crossed an ocean and spread across a country of more than 7,000 islands.
A Nescafe agriculturist shows off newly-picked coffee berries ready for drying.
These days though, the story of coffee is not as epic as it once was, though just as important to the farmers who plant them and the country that just can’t seem to get enough of it. Coffee continues its journey as the world’s favorite beverage, this time in the hands of large and small coffee companies and the farmers who continue to make a living from planting and selling coffee. The relationship between farmer and buyer is something that is almost as old as time, or at least for as long as coffee has been a traded commodity.
From the sidewalk stalls of Turkey to the legendary coffee houses of England, coffee trade has always been a serious preoccupation. In Tagum City, the coffee trade is played out in a much smaller scale, albeit just as important, between the coffee farmer and the coffee buyer. And for Nescafé, the process of producing quality coffee starts with selecting the right stock to buy. Good coffee starts at planting, and just as important to have excellent planting material is the availability of training that can increase a farmer’s so-called “success factors” when the time comes to sell his coffee. For a farmer hoping to sell his crop to Nescafé, his chances become good when he takes care of the quality of his beans from the moment he plants his coffee.
Green Coffee Beans
Nescafé does its part by providing access to true-to-type plants and by providing what it calls highly-competent agricultural assistance to farmers. The assistance that Nescafé provides is unprecedented, from selling seedlings to farmers at cost and providing organic fertilizers to conducting professional workshops that update farmers’ knowledge of the entire cycle of coffee farming. They say that coffee farming follows a 9-9-9 cycle, which is a very simple way to illustrate the 9-month periods between planting, growing, and harvesting.
During this entire process, agriculturists from Nescafé work regularly with the farmers to ensure a successful transfer of knowledge. Once the coffee is harvested, the very careful process of drying begins and this is where coffee begins to look like the coffee that we know from pictures and posters. Coffee berries are dried and the resulting bean is what will be delivered to Nescafé for a process called grading to determine its quality.
Sampled beans from a truckload delivery.
In Tagum City, we ate a lunch of tasty native chicken grilled over hot coals before we headed out to a Nescafé buying station to see first-hand how coffee is traded. The buying station is not exactly as we pictured it to be, expecting a movie-version of the transaction perhaps, we instead found ourselves in a bare-walled warehouse sandwiched between a bustling bus terminal and machine shops.
We watched sacks of coffee being unloaded from a truck as we spoke to Rainier Medina, a grains and coffee bean buyer for Nescafé, about the process of buying coffee. The stock that was being unloaded when we arrived was from a farmer who had his stock rejected the day before because of insufficient quality. He was making a second delivery with the hopes that the new stock will be better and he would be able to make a sale. Rainier was hopeful too, he didn’t like the idea of farmers being unable to make a profit from their work, but as it is, quality must be maintained.
Coffee buyers conduct thorough sampling of newly-delivered coffee stocks to determine their quality.
Earlier in the day, we were on the road to a coffee farm called “La Filipina” in Tagum where we met a smiling man named Dionisio Sultan, he was surrounded by birds as he sat on top of a small hill watching over a landscape covered by maize, bananas, and coffee. We were accompanied by Jerson DelaCruz of Nescafé who also happened to be the former Municipal Agriculture Officer of the town of Talaingod, also in Davao Del Norte. The road to the La Filipina farm is off the main highway and hidden from view by tall maize plants and a long line of trees. It was yet another hot day in Mindanao when we visited the farm but it was hard not to be curious with the scenery and the bed of coffee beans that were out drying in the sun. La Filipina is a real farm, as it turned out, with citrus plants and fruit trees growing everywhere.
The surrounding terrain undulated like waves, hills that stretched out to the horizon, and in between them grew coffee plants, more maize, and a fresh-water pond that seemed to have sprung from nowhere. Jerson was also an agriculturist like Mon and Enteng and La Filipina was just one of countless farms that Nescafé agriculturists like them visit every month to provide assistance. Eventually, Nescafé hopes to create enough value in the Philippine coffee farming industry that would reduce the ratio of imported coffee beans. The goal is to help the local coffee farmers maximize the potential of their crops. Mon Parreno proudly tells us that Nescafé is already buying coffee from Filipino farmers at world market price, which essentially levels the playing field for them in terms of value for the coffee that they plant. What remains to be done is really just the transfer of knowledge and technology to farmers that will finally give them the final push to help Philippine coffee become truly local.
Nestle Demo Farm staff demonstrate the proper technique to plant coffee.
Back at the buying station in Tagum City, Rainier Medina walked us through the process of grading the quality of the coffee that was just delivered to his warehouse. From testing the moisture content of each bean to sorting the beans themselves according to its physical characteristics. The final part of the quality testing, and perhaps the most interesting, was the cupping. They threw a 300gm sampling of the new stock into a roaster and a grinder and soon the buying station started to smell like any other coffee shop you know.
Except, in this coffee shop, you can’t order a half and half or an extra shot, everything is poured into bowls where they’re allowed to settle before they are checked again for their aroma. The quality testers then scoop spoonfuls of the newly brewed coffee and take turns in loudly slurping the concoction into their mouths. According to Rainier, cupping is a process that requires a taster to “aspirate” the coffee, to slurp the beverage in a way that makes it hit the rear portion of his mouth. This, Rainier says, lets them taste the latent flavors of the coffee. For the uninitiated, the coffee would probably taste nothing like what we buy in fancy coffee shops, or at least not something that you would pay for.
Coffee flower blooms perfectly in the tropical weather of Mindanao Island in the Philippines.
For people like Rainier who get the chance to taste fresh coffee straight from the farm though, it’s a job that they wouldn’t trade for anything. It all seems like a tedious process for the casual observer, sampling and grading the coffee beans, roasting and grinding endlessly, but theirs are the sensory talents that gives us coffee quality that never changes, no matter where you get your cup.
We spent our last night in Davao on the beach. It was night, so we didn’t actually get to see the beach. It didn’t matter though, it was the perfect place to enjoy dinner and stare out into the reflected stars on the waters of the Davao gulf. If it were up to me, I would have loved to have met more of the coffee farmers whose lives have been changed by a simple plan to make more coffee. Coffee is big business, but if that is all that you see about it then you are clearly missing the point. The Nescafé Plan is something that goes beyond the cup of coffee that we drink every morning. It is a genuine plan to change things for the better, one cup at a time, one coffee bean after another.
Myles Anthony Delfin Tagum City, Davao Del Norte, Philippines 2013