The metropolitan capital of Manila is a city whose growing fascination with specialty coffee seems to closely rival its obsession with karaoke ballads — that’s saying a lot, considering old school love songs are the norm on even the most rickety jeepney ride.
Since the coffee rust invasion of 1889, the Philippines has largely remained hidden from the specialty coffee world. Kalsada – a social enterprise championing Philippine coffee – is aiming to change this. I had never thought of the Philippines as a coffee origin, despite its prime position in the coffee belt. Brimming with curiosity and drunk from caffeine, I sent Kalsada a message. I already had plans to fly into Manila and I didn’t want to miss a chance to learn about coffee in my homeland. A reply and video conference later, I found myself at Cafe by the Ruins, a local café in Baguio, chatting with Carmel Laurino and Tere Domine, two of the co-founders of Kalsada Coffee.
Baguio is a four-hour car ride north from Metro Manila and is considered a haven from the country’s stifling humidity. The mountainous city located in the Benguet province is home to cultural treats such as tsokolate de batirol, a traditional hot chocolate drink made with local cacao, as well as strawberry taho, a silken tofu snack topped with tapioca pearls and strawberry syrup. While I could have easily spent my time filling up on local delicacies, I was most excited to visit Sitio Belis, one of Kalsada’s micro-mills in Benguet.
The road to Sitio Belis is not for the faint of heart: to get there, a driver must expertly maneuver a jeep down a rugged road that is mere inches from the mountain’s edges. The dirt road turns to gravel at some turns, leaving only Aretha Franklin’s soulful vocals to soften the jitters. To my surprise, before Kalsada, this road was nonexistent. For Carmel, Kalsada began as a journey to trace her Filipino heritage. As the project gained traction, Kalsada incidentally built a literal road (kalsada is Tagalog for road) for the farms, allowing farmers to sell their products at market price. Choosing to invest in relationships with local coffee farmers also triggered a cascade of interest in achieving a higher quality production. Kalsada introduced proper equipment and drying facilities to the coffee communities in Sitio Belis and empowered the farmers in understanding that the magic of coffee begins in their hands. These collective efforts have resulted in bags of Philippine specialty coffee that both the farmers and an expanding global audience can enjoy.
Kalsada currently focuses on two regions in the Philippines: Benguet in the north and Bukidnon in Mindanao down south. Expect fruity and nutty flavor profiles with kalamansi-like acidity from Benguet and floral, tea-like qualities from the beans in Mindanao. If you find yourself in Metro Manila, grab a plate of tapsilog or hot pan de sal for breakfast then wash it down with Kalsada coffee from local coffee shops Habitual, The Den, and Artesania as well as from renowned restaurants Toyo Eatery and Purple Yam Malate.
JESSICA HERNANDEZ is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, US. She documents the intersections of food, culture, and travel. See more of her work at @hernandezjess on Instagram.
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