by Alan Robles
originally published in SCMP Aug 2006
Last week Jackie Chan visited Manila for a few hours, just long enough to announce that he was opening a chain of coffee shops in Asia, and the first branch would be located here.
Why Manila? It seems investors believe Filipinos drink large amounts of coffee. I wouldn't know. I myself take no more than a large mug of freshly made espresso every morning of every day of the year. Unless I go out for lunch or dinner, in which case I drink more.
I don't see myself as a coffee addict merely because I have two stove-top, stainless steel caffetieres, a couple of percolators and an electric, steam-driven cappuccino maker that froths milk through a small pipe at the side (tricky, but it gets the job done). All right, I admit it looks suspicious. I won't mention the two grinders, demitasse cups and boxes of filters.
Anyway, if I like coffee, I'm not alone. From office workers and labourers dunking their hot rolls, to yuppies sipping at trendy bars, Filipinos are into caffeine. Scores of foreign-franchise coffee shops import sacks of exotic blends.
It's gratifying and depressing, because bringing coffee to the Philippines is like selling ice to Inuit. We're a coffee producer, and have been since 1740, when Spain introduced the plant. By the 19th century, we were the world's fourth-largest coffee producer, creating a crop of millionaire farmers whose product was nothing to sniff at - or actually, it was. The beans were so prized that France bought almost one-third of the produce.
It all came crashing down in 1890, when a coffee rust infestation nearly wiped out the business. It never really recovered, and now, hampered by fluctuating market prices and lack of equipment, our farmers produce only 0.12 per cent of the world's supply ... not even enough to meet local demand.
Vietnam, by comparison, is the world's second-biggest producer. There's a claim that we provided some of the plants that are growing in Vietnam, but that's probably just sour grapes - or beans.
The Philippines is one of the few countries growing four coffee varieties: arabica, robusta, exelsa and liberica. Our poster bean, if you will, is barako, a liberica that's strong and earthy. Barako means "wild boar" or "manly man", so you get the drift.
There's currently an effort to revive the industry by boosting production. A company called Figaro's is taking the lead, and if you want to try a good cup of Philippine coffee, you should duck into one of their shops.
I should point out that I'm dropping these names purely as a public service, with no expectation of reward. I would never dream of accepting gifts of powdered coffee. I prefer beans. Arabica. Italian dark roast.