A Philippines Coffee Journey

Every time somebody asks me how I survived living in the Philippines during the pandemic, I always have a simple answer. Just one word: COFFEE.

It was February 2020 when I arrived in the Philippines to be with my Filipino wife. Little did I know that a nationwide lockdown would be imposed that would be extended for more than a year, becoming one of the world’s longest and strictest. Unable to return home to Christchurch, my wife and I decided to settle in Indang, Cavite--- a provincial town about two hours away from Manila - to avoid the COVID-19 infections ravaging the capital.

With nothing to do during the pandemic, I discovered some old coffee trees while exploring the farm we lived on. I felt lucky to see up close red coffee cherries sprouting on trees ready for harvest. It was only then I was reminded that the Philippines is a major coffee-producing country and one of the few that grow all four varieties of beans - Arabica, Robusta, Excelsa, and Liberica.

To keep my sanity during the pandemic, I did my own research on the harvest and processing of coffee.  It was mostly a solo venture that became an everyday routine. Early in the morning, I  picked the cherries, before I washed and dried them in the sun in makeshift drying beds. In the afternoon, I manually took off the skin of the green beans, and “roasted” batches in a wok. I ground up the roasted beans, brewed them, and the result : An authentic DIY bean-to-cup coffee experience!  

My personal hands-on experience with coffee made me realise the complex science behind it, given the many bean defects that I produced. I searched on where to get proper training on coffee farming and processing and got in touch with the Cavite State University’s National Coffee Research, Development, and Extensions Center (NCRDEC)--- the Philippines’ leading institution on coffee research and innovation. The NCRDEC provided me with the practical knowledge and training on the proper way of harvesting and processing coffee, which curtailed my trial-and-error experiments that produced bad coffee.  

After a year of learning about coffee, I was able to produce better-quality single origin beans. The validation came when my coffee won awards during the 2022 Regional Coffee Cupping Competition in Cavite--- First place in the Robusta category, Second Place in the Excelsa Category, and First Place in the Coffee Blend Category.

Those successes were the motivation to pursue more training on the various fields of coffee: Post-Harvest Processing from the NCRDEC, Roasting Skills from the UCC Coffee Academy, and Barista Training from the Global Coffee School. I was also fortunate to be granted scholarships to participate in two courses accredited by the US-based Specialty Coffee Association (SCA): Green Coffee and Sensory Skills, and Basic Agronomy and Nursery Management sponsored by the Barista & Coffee Academy of Asia (BCAA) and PhilCafe.

I plan to use the knowledge I gained into expanding my business, the “W&J Coffee House”. It currently offers coffee farm tours and coffee tasting and appreciation class. I am also preparing to open my own coffee shop with a farm-to-table concept and continue selling coffee under the brand Wit and Joy Coffee. My wife and I are also able to establish our business as a beneficiary of the Agri-Aqua Technology Business Incubator (ATBI) program supported by the Philippine Government.

This generous technical support motivates me to contribute to the local coffee industry.

As a coffee grower, I personally experience the difficulties of fellow farmers toiling under the hot sun to cultivate and process coffee. It is time consuming and expensive, especially with the use of fertilisers and machinery for dehulling and roasting.

Most Filipino farmers settle for producing and selling commercial coffee instead of the specialty grades. but my plan is to develop a cost-effective way of producing coffee using science-based and sustainable farming techniques and share this knowledge to help local farmers produce good-quality coffee to industry standards.

This should elevate the value and taste of Philippine coffee that is in my view underappreciated but has a great potential to capture a bigger market share in the world of specialty coffee.

As a New Zealander, I am humbled to be among the coffee producers in the Philippines. This vocation gave me an appreciation of the hardships people from coffee-producing countries (mostly from developing countries) go through to provide the coffee Kiwis enjoy.

While there is a thriving and sophisticated coffee culture in New Zealand, I was unaware of the grassroots origins of coffee until I lived in the Philippines. My experiences here have driven a personal advocacy to promote awareness and appreciation of coffee--- not only for its great taste and aroma but also of its labor-intensive production process.  

During the pandemic, I realized not to take life for granted. Little did I know that it would change my life and from then on told myself - “I will never take for granted a cup of coffee again.”

About the Author: KC Jung holds a PHD in Political Science at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. The life-changing pandemic transformed him into a coffee producer, roaster, and barista.