To get to Sitio Belis from, say, Makati, one has to take a bus up to Baguio, and then take an hour-long jeepney ride, past the city limits, past the limits of La Trinidad, and out to a place only known by its kilometer marker.
And when one gets to that particular curve in the road, there will be no other landmarks to let you know you’ve arrived, save for a lonely waiting shed (indistinct from the dozens of others you’ve already passed) and another jeepney impossibly filled to every square inch with chayote.
But that isn’t your destination yet. From the highway, there is a half-constructed road that leads all the way up and over a couple of mountains, and you have to go past the church, past the school, past the bend in the road where there is a view of a secret gold mine, up and down steep roads that will take your breath away literally and figuratively. It is a walk that will take perhaps the better part of two hours, thanks to the knee-damaging inclines, unless you’re from here in which case it will be a brisk half-hour walk. If you have connections and foresight, you’ll be able to call ahead and arrange a ride for a valley, on a private jeep, or on the back of a motorcycle.
Just my luck: The day I choose to arrive, there is a sign, written in hurried permanent marker on corrugated cardboard, that says, “ROAD CLOSED” and yesterday’s date. “Road-to-market,” someone mutters, echoing an old government buzzword. So the good news is that, in two months or so, a paved road will eventually connect the farms scattered in the valley to the high ways that will ferry their produce all the way to the hungry cities. The bad news, for now, is that there is no choice but to take all of our bags, roll up our pants, and pick our way through the dirt road where the mud runs ankle-deep in places.
On the way in, there are farmers grimly tying down sacks of chayote into the last jeepneys, to rush to the market before the road becomes fully impassable. The news today is that chayote has gone up to six pesos a kilo, up from the four pesos it was a week ago, so they’re rushing to take advantage of the favorable prices. (The price, in case you’re wondering, is easily ten times that by the time the produce reaches Manila.) When the road closes, the farmers will have to pay for porters to haul the sacks on their backs, and they will find themselves cutting even more into their already-paltry profits.
Asthrine Pias’ farm is on the shaded side of the mountain, away from the rising sun. Three giant hogs beg for food from their pens, while a mother hen clucks at her brood. Auntie Asthrine’s two younger daughters are away in high school; her two sons are helping their father with construction on the property; five dogs vie for places sleeping in the embers of the morning’s breakfast bonfire. The land is fertile and fat over here, and trellises run all over the mountainside in orderly patterns, giving the chayote vines the full benefit of sun. There are other, less orderly plantings: lemon trees heavy with fruit, coffee trees carefully awaiting harvest, in every available space in the land.
A few months before, my friend Carmel Laurino had stopped by for dinner and brought a small packet of roasted coffee beans. “I think you’ll really like this one,” she said then. The craft-paper packet contained specialty-grade coffee—the very best beans, single origin, produced in microclimates.
Like good wine, one farm can produce distinct, unique coffee; and so the beans are labeled as one would wine from a chateau. This particular packet was labeled “Auntie Asthrine.”
My first encounter with specialty coffee was accidental. I’d come home from a very late night, crashing at my parents’ house in the morning. On a Sunday, there was only one halfway-decent coffeeshop open, and into that I’d staggered, shaky and grumpy and in need of a good iced Americano. The gentle proprietor nodded when I told him what I’d wanted, then gestured to a small chalkboard. I’ve forgotten what he’d offered me then, only that it was a choice of beans from different countries in South America and Africa. I probably chose something with a gentler-sounding description. Jonathan probably nodded sagely.
How long does it take to make a goddamn iced coffee, I wondered ten minutes into the wait. When Jonathan returned, he didn’t have a cup with him—he had freshly ground coffee. That he wanted me to smell.
By then the caffeine deprivation was reaching critical levels, and I was ready to punch the “fucking hipster” who was insisting on telling me what the fucking “flavor profile” was of the fucking coffee beans that he’d wanted me to fucking smell. But Jonathan’s enthusiasm and pride in his coffee was just too earnest, so I let him tell me about the coffee.
He went away with the beans and returned again, a full 15 minutes later, with a small, stylishly tilted glass of iced coffee. “Don’t worry about the ice melting. I’ve made an allowance for it,” he said, and stood by to watch me drink it.
I was ready to take a sip, declare it “excellent,” and wave the man away. But then I put the glass up to my lips and had the best iced coffee I’d had since then: It was light, and sweet, and complex. It was coffee, but it was also more than coffee. In my head, I took back and apologized for every mental expletive. This was great coffee.
When an epidemic of coffee rust hit Brazil, Indonesia, and the coffee producers of Africa, the Philippines suddenly became the world’s only source of coffee beans.
Unlike Jonathan, who’d come upon his passion for specialty coffee as an adult, I had grown up, literally and figuratively, with coffee in my blood. My grandfather on my mother’s side came from a family of coffee farmers. As a small child, I played on coffee drying beds and ran over coffee cherry until an adult yelled at me to quit ruining the batch. I remember my granddad’s marble nameplate proclaiming him head of the co-operative. I remember being allowed to chew on the freshly picked cherry, and being admonished, when I was older, not to sully the coffee with too much (or any at all) cream and sugar.
But more than that, I’ve always been aware of the existence of coffee as a commodity, and as a rather volatile one at that. My grandfather witnessed how the prices of coffee would swing wildly, from its lowest point of all time around 1975, to its very peak, just a couple of years later; and then again in 1985 and 1987. My grandfather’s fortunes—and that of farm workers alongside him—depended greatly on this temperamental market.
This has been true for generations of farmers before my grandfather. Coffee has been a major crop in parts of the Philippines since at least 1740 (some people believe that it’s been around for far longer than that), with Batangas as the coffee capital of the country. The Philippines was a major supplier of coffee to the United States by the 1860s, and our coffee—Batangas barako particularly—was of such superior quality that it would fetch as much as five times the price of beans from other Asian countries. In just twenty years, by 1880, the Philippines had become the fourth-largest exporter of coffee worldwide.
As it sometimes happens in world trade, the misfortune of other countries became our gain: When an epidemic of coffee rust hit Brazil, Indonesia, and the coffee producers of Africa, the Philippines suddenly became the world’s only source of coffee beans. The story—though probably apocryphal—is that Batangas farmers were so wealthy from the coffee trade that they were known for wearing slippers made of gold.
There is a postcard floating around present-day Seattle that is a reproduction of a photo from 1909, showing bowler-hatted customers buying from storekeepers in white coats: “25¢ lb. 25¢ lb. 25¢ lb. Batango Blend Coffee. Once Tried Always Used. Sold at wholesale prices by Filipino Coffee Co.” The caption at the bottom places the scene at Pike Place Market.
Now spend a few minutes considering how mindblowing a photo like this could be to, say, an American from Seattle, the world’s coffee capitol and home of Starbucks. An American with Filipino roots, who had no idea that you could even grow coffee in the Philippines.
Carmel Laurino knew next to nothing about coffee in the beginning, and had nothing to do with Philippine coffee (“except that I’m Filipino,” she laughs). The photo piqued her interest enough that, by February 2013, she found herself working with Lacy Wood, who was then finishing up a masteral thesis on the role of coffee in sustainable development. Lacy brought the academic framework; Carmel, who worked as a community organizer, brought the plan of action. The dream was to use coffee, the world’s most traded commodity, to improve the lives of farmers, and act as an agent of change for their communities.
Before the end of the same year, the pair embarked on an epic journey throughout the Philippines to do a general survey of the coffee world here—interviewing farmers, immersing themselves in the local culture, and gathering samples.
The Philippines remains one of a handful of countries that produces all four varieties of commercial coffee: arabica, excelsa, robusta, and the well-regarded liberica (which is widely known as a coffee bean native to Africa, hence the name, but which we know as the very Filipino barako). But our glory days as the world center for coffee were short-lived. The coffee rust infestation hit our shores in 1889, and the whole industry came to a crashing halt, from which we still have to recover. As it stands, the Philippines is currently 24th on the list of coffee-producing countries, exporting a paltry 43,680 metric tons of the stuff in 2015, compared to Brazil’s 2.72 million, or runner-up Vietnam’s 1.65 million metric tons. Carmel and Lacy were essentially searching for the answer to one question: Why wasn’t Philippine coffee being exported the same way it was before?
Most people have never seen a coffee tree, which is short, shrubby, and generally nondescript. The coffee “bean” is actually a seed that is found inside the red coffee cherry, which is also bright red when ripe. Think of an aratiles, though bigger, and with a tough, bitter skin. There’s a sweet pulp underneath that you can actually eat, and another honey-like layer under that. There are two beans inside every cherry, enveloped by a parchment-like layer.
Only in places where the coffee grows on flat land can you even use machines to harvest; here, where most coffee plantations are on mountains and rough terrain, everything is picked by hand. It’s a more laborious process than it sounds—pickers must twist the cherry off its stem without breaking the stem; this is where the next season’s fruit will come from, so you have to treat that with care.
The most basic way to get at the beans is to dry the cherry under the sun for about a week or so. This was the method I’d know from my grandfather, which meant we’d have coffee beans to roll around in when I visited. These days, however, the beans are processed the same day they’re harvested, with the use of pulping machines and fermentation tanks that can strip the rest of the cherry away from the bean in one or two days before being laid out to dry. This latter method is a much better way to preserve the flavor of the coffee beans, but it does require more resources than most farmers have (or want to) devote to coffee.
The coffee is then milled, to remove the hulls from beans, and to polish them into green beans. These are then sorted for size and quality, before they’re sold and taken to the roasters for the final processing that turns them into the aromatic, shiny, brown beans that most of us know them as.
It’s a long process with plenty of opportunities to make shortcuts. Frankly, our farmers have only known to treat coffee roughly, because it was a rough product. They don’t know anything about the world of our coffee shops—though this is true of so much of our farms and our food, which is so cut off from us on the consuming end of it. For us in the cities, it’s as if the end product has nothing to do with the produce; it’s as if everything that ends up on our plates and in our cups sprang fully formed from a Star Trek replicator. For the farmers, too, the end product—and their prices—are so alien to the reality on the farms.
What Lacy and Carmel wanted to do was to build a supply chain for high-quality coffee that was fair to the farmers at every step. Not only were the farmers to be compensated fairly, but they were also going to be trained to recognize and appreciate their own product, so that they understand the value of what they were providing the market. On the other side, too, they wanted to make consumers aware, not just of the provenance of the coffee, but of the farmers who produced it. The project, christened Kalsada, was going to try and close the gaps between farmer and consumer, in the hope that both sides will also see and benefit from the value of this closer relationship.
On one of the first few times I ran into Carmel, she was holding an informal “cupping” session—a blind tasting, in other words—where tasters were invited to see the differences between coffee from different places and different farms, and to appreciate the more nuanced flavors of specialty coffee. It does, admittedly, sound a little ridiculous for regular coffee drinkers, to treat coffee like wine: you’re supposed to recognize the differences in varietal, region, even in the farm, along with recognizing the impact of different roasting profiles and brewing techniques; and you’re also supposed to detect the subtle nuances in the flavors using some of the same language, by recalling parallels with other tastes (flowers, honey, citrus, wood, fruits, etc.). Maybe you won’t like the mellower, watery quality of specialty coffee; or perhaps you’ll like it so much that you’ll never be able to stomach a Starbucks Frappucino ever again.
The project, christened "Kalsada," was going to try and close the gaps between farmer and consumer, in the hope that both sides will also see and benefit from the value of this closer relationship.
“When we first started tasting the coffees from around here, we took a sip of Auntie Asthrine’s batch and I immediately said, ‘This one! We have to have this one!’” says Tere Domine, who is Kalsada’s third employee. She goes on to say something I don’t fully catch—something about how the changing temperatures on Auntie Asthrine’s farm cause the coffee to deposit the sugar in the beans—as we pick our way down to the edges of the property. Auntie Asthrine herself is a quiet, friendly presence lovingly protected by her big white dog, who insists on running at her side at all times.
Had this been coffee harvest season, the family would be up before dawn, scrambling to pick as much coffee as they can before the day grows too long. They’ll have to pick coffee in the wee hours of dawn, so they can start processing it before the day is out. After working on the day’s harvest, they’ll move on to milling the previous days’ picks. Then there’s housework to be done, and attending to their livestock. “It gets crazy here during harvest,” Tere clucks.
The harvest is a few months away, so these days it’s all about the chayote and the new mill that’s being built by Auntie Asthrine’s husband and sons. It’s been three years since Carmel and Lacy went on their big coffee walkabout in the country, and last Christmas, they launched a callout for crowdfunding, to build milling facilities for this community. The crowdfunding callout was successful, and they were able to raise around $18,000 to buy a machine for hulling and polishing, and for construction materials for a small building to house it. Since coffee needs to be processed the same day it is picked, having all the facilities here will make life and work all that much easier for the farmers of Sitio Belis.
And the farmers do need all the help that they can get. The average age of Filipino farmers is 57, and it’s a number that alarms those working in the area of food security for the country, and rightly so. As new generations of Filipinos leave their farms to look for better-paying jobs, the country produces less food from its own farms, and we are forced instead to rely on imports. It’s always bad news when a country doesn’t produce enough food to feed itself. But who can blame the farmers? Agriculture is such hard work, and the money you get back is so ridiculously small.
Of Auntie Asthrine’s four children, Raffy, the younger son, has already signed up for vocational training in Canada. Her two daughters are in high school, and spend most of the week away from home to be nearer their school. Soon, without Raf-raf, it will only be Auntie Asthrine, Uncle Bunsoy, and Paus, their eldest, working the fields.
Had they stuck to chayote as their main crop, the Pias family would be earning around four pesos a kilo for their hard work right about now, while lemons would go for about 60 pesos a kilo. It’s coffee that could potentially be the cash crop—the going rate is about P160 to P190 over at the Baguio public market. Kalsada, however, does even better than that. The farmers know that Kalsada is only looking for the very best coffee, which does mean extra work and fewer beans that make the cut. But for their efforts Kalsada offers P250 to P300, “and even more if quality is exceptional. We give quality incentives if the coffee reaches 86+ on the SCAA [Specialty Coffee Association of America] standard,” says Tere.
There’s also pay for work at the mill, which, at P250 per day across the board, is kind of a revolution in itself. The traditional rates were P250 for men, and an inexplicable P225 for women. (“What kind of extra work does twenty- five pesos buy? Sinong nag-decide na P25 ‘yung difference?” Tere laughs.) Between all this, and the mill being built right in their backyards, there is new capital being poured into the small community—and, one hopes, new reasons to stay put.
Later that day, we sat in a shed on a junction in the road in Sitio Belis. This shed becomes the focal point of village life at sundown—around 5pm, just when the fog begins to roll in, and enough time for the farmers to come up and chat for a few minutes before darkness catches them on the road. Their voices carry all the way down to Auntie Asthrine’s house in the valley; they laugh a lot, exchange news and gossip, or just sit quietly watching the calming view. The co-operative’s is right by the shed too, and opens from 6 to 9 in the morning, and then again at 3 to 6 in the afternoon. There is no point in manning the store at any other time, because everyone’s away working the fields.
Tere is a geneticist by training. She was, in fact, trained by Carmel’s sister, Mercy, who is a professor under the government’s Balik Scientist Program. That’s how she was introduced to Carmel, who took her in to Kalsada. Over the past three years, Tere has become invaluable to Kalsada, not only because she’s become the small company’s chief roaster, but because she has an easy rapport with the farmers. In this case, it doesn’t hurt that she’s fluent in Ilocano, either, so she can trade banter easily with the residents of Sitio Belis. “You should raise our rates!” says Melia, Ashtrine’s sister, who lives on another property down the road. “Para may pambili naman ako ng asukal!”
“Hindi mo na kailangan ng ganoong kadaming asukal!” Tere jabs back. I look into my cup of coffee from Asthrine’s kitchen, boiled in a kettle with so much sugar that the liquid is sticky and sweet. They like their coffee very sweet here, I observe, as Tere watches me flick out a fly from the coffee, lured to its death by the sugar. “We’ve had cuppings done here for the farmers. ‘Uy, break muna, mag-kape muna tayo’ habang nagtratrabaho sila,’” Tere says. “Suprisingly, ayaw nila ‘yung rough na kape. But it was the closest to what they have here!”
Sitio Belis is Kalsada’s model community, which pilots a relationship that they hope will prove their framework right. Here is where, they hope, the farmers get to know the value of what they’re growing; here might also be where everyone from retailers and baristas to coffee drinkers like me can get to know where their coffee comes from, and who toiled to get it to them. “Oh, we had a really good batch recently! We called it Paus’s Wash,” Tere smiles at the memory.
Auntie Asthrine’s coffee, I recall, was sweet and light, aromatic and complex—I don’t have the third-wave coffee vocabulary to tell you about its flavors, but I can tell you that it really did make for a standout cup of coffee. But more than that, I remembered Auntie Asthrine’s name. And in her house, proudly displayed on a mantel near some of the new appliances that they’ve bought for themselves recently, are a small group of packets where their coffee beans will go. They’re labeled Sitio Belis, Belis Bourbon, and, of course, Auntie Asthrine’s.
Originally published in GRID Issue 14.
Dedicated to our friend, Rennell.
Meet the good people behind a great cup of coffee