In Search of My North Star

I have always dreamt of inspiring others. More than personal gain, my ambition was to create a profound impact on people, with the drive that their lives will be moved for the better. However, this path that I chose is fraught with uncertainty, both from the insecurities within myself, as well as the challenges that beset from without — with me constantly seeking clarity, looking to the skies to guide me back to my path.  

I am fortunate that I need not look far, but just a few blocks from where I live is a growing vibrant community of creatives, the community within the First United Building. Located in the “Queen of Manila’s Streets,” Escolta, this community is composed of a diverse group of changemakers from different backgrounds coming together to do their part in revitalizing Escolta and championing Philippine-made. Among these changemakers is Kalsada Coffee.

With even greater fortune I had the genuine pleasure in participating in vital work for Kalsada Coffee as an intern, doing architecture design projects for their partner coffee farming communities in Atok, Benguet. I was able to stay with the coffee farmers along with Tere Domine, Kalsada Coffee’s Country Director and idol ng bayan, through which much conversations were held that challenged and expanded discussions of the industry and its associated challenges. Through these unique learning experiences, I saw first hand the range of work carried forward by the powerful women-led team of Kalsada Coffee. Through conversation and observation, reflection and interaction, I have come to the realization that have been very humbling of the privilege I experience, and awaken the duty that I, myself, and others have to take part. 

Tere with the women in coffee of Sitio Belis.

Tere with the women in coffee of Sitio Belis.

I was also able to take this time to look within. Throughout this internship, I was able to build on my emerging interest, specialty coffee. I was able to participate in an environment committed to excellence within the individual and the organization — through the complex task of coffee cupping, where the difficult and arduous process of creating the perfect cup becomes all the more evident. Kalsada’s Operation Manager, Ivy Soon, took the extremely draining task of not just managing Kalsada operations, but also with answering my questions, educating my knowledge in specialty coffee, as well as personally engaging with me the most. I was also able to take part in presentations with some of the country’s notable industry leaders, an exhilarating and unique experience for someone just graduated from university, and in  my opinion, no little feat. This particular experience showed me how to collaborate with others towards a common goal, as well as reminded me the path I wish to pursue is not a lonely one.

On our walk down to Sitio Belis.

On our walk down to Sitio Belis.

Beyond learning the discerning taste and pursuit of quality coffee, this unique learning environment taught me to discern true ethical and social-oriented practices from those capitalizing for personal gain. I believe this to be a challenging endeavor as this entails one to hold oneself to a higher moral and ethical standard, in the midst of those who may not share the same ideals. It entails the self to not compromise or rationalize. 

Through the interaction over the past year with the people of Escolta and this internship in recent months, I have come to hold close as well as in high regard the people of Escolta, who have been forging the difficult path of empowering local communities and culture. Through the connection and learning that is only possible in physical conversation and discourse, I have gained much insight from these women of Kalsada, and a shift in perspective of the world we live in and the roles we play. 

We count ourselves fortunate to be living in a time where one can pursue one's interests and ambitions, with a support structure already in place, built upon by the pioneers who started these initiatives. In the same note, we are also challenged with ever worsening inequality and apathy, often at the expense of those less fortunate who do not have a platform to speak out. For those of us that follow the ones that came before us, it is our duty to build on what they have already started on, and spread the initiative and beliefs that these leaders have built — in our own ways, in our own platforms, in the conversations we hold. Through this, we not only find the North Star that guides us in the kalsada we seek, we also rise and become that which we hope to find.

Written by Brandon Ang

Coffee Beyond the All-nighters: A Med Student’s Perspective

As a med student, I used to have a love-hate relationship with coffee. While it served as my most reliable companion while cramming a semester’s worth of topics the night before an exam, it also kept my heart rate up when I was finally settling down in bed after deciding that my brain has had enough of the Krebs Cycle. Regardless of the situation, it was clear that my relationship with coffee was solely contingent on its practicality, as a source of caffeine to keep me awake. This all changed when I was offered a summer internship as a proposal writer by Tere Domine, the Country Director of Kalsada Coffee. Despite having no direct relationship with my course, I felt that this could be a refreshing break from the long hours of rote memorization in school.

The best of both worlds

My first meeting with Tere was after a cupping session (tasting coffee beans of different origins laid on a long table) at The Curator. It was my first time to be in the midst of such a wide array of coffee artisans—roasters, baristas, and cafe owners—all working towards perfecting their respective crafts. At the start of the session, the host asked everyone to introduce themselves and their favorite coffee. I didn’t have one, so I mentioned the only specialty coffee I had bought in my life at that time, beans from Yirgachefe, Ethiopia, roasted by The Coffee Academics in Hong Kong. I thought I was safe, but the next challenge was providing an adequate explanation without sounding pretentious. I don’t recall the exact words I said, but I do remember coming clean and telling everyone in the room that I was new to coffee. There was no judgement, and I felt welcomed. 

During the cupping session, I was beside the roaster of the coffee we were tasting. I could hear him whisper his thoughts about each cup to himself, detecting the differences in roasting that distinguished the samples of the same beans. I was inspired by the passion that came in two forms: the feeling of disappointment for the extra minute of roasting that led to an unpleasant burnt taste, and the sense of accomplishment resulting from the vibrant fruity notes that followed grueling days of trial and error.

Cupping session

Cupping session

This was when I learned that just like most art forms, there are set criteria for evaluating coffee. There are also experts who have the authority to dictate what is good and what is not. Tere even taught me about the 100-point scale that certified Q graders use to evaluate coffee; a score below 80 would disqualify the beans from specialty grade. Closely following these standards are the artisans I met, dedicated to serving the perfect cup. This required mastery on every level of the supply chain—cultivating the best possible fruit in their barest form, roasting the carefully processed beans to unleash their full potential, and brewing the grounds with the right grind size, temperature, timing, pH level, water hardness, rate of pouring, and plenty of other factors that a casual drinker couldn’t possibly think of, but are actually crucial to the taste of the final beverage. I was so fascinated by all these quantifiable variables that had to be accounted for. Everything had to be measured to the unit, just to achieve such subjective qualities, defined by the extent of each consumer’s preferred taste and standards.

As someone whose strengths lie in the social sciences and humanities but is taking up arguably the most science-heavy course, I saw this as an opportunity to learn to love the hard sciences, specifically biochemistry, which is a quintessential subject in med school. Luckily, Tere is a biology major, and the Operations Manager, Ivy Soon, is a licensed chemist. We understood each other and bonded over the similarity of our respective fields. Through brewing coffee, they explained and demonstrated the relevance of the Krebs Cycle in cultivation—how cherries harvested during the latter part of the year tend to taste like alcohol due to excessive fermentation activity. They taught me how something as fundamental as water actually plays a large role in the taste of coffee, how the amount of cations (positively charged ions) has a direct relationship with the rate and extent of extraction. They did this by letting me try three different cups of coffee, all with the same beans and preparation procedure except for the type of water that was used—mineral, distilled, and filtered.

It was interesting to see familiar scientific concepts applied to preparing specialty coffee. Here, I saw the duality of the beverage—coffee-making as a science, just as much as it is an art. More importantly, however, after years of not being critical with the information I absorbed, I was introduced to the idea of looking beyond the theoretical and seeking real life examples. I learned to be curious about whatever fields I encounter, to appreciate their cross-sectionality, and to actively search for how they relate to other disciplines.

Not just for art’s sake

Over the summer break, when I had more time on my hands, there were nights when I was preoccupied reflecting on my activities during the day. One thought that kept me up was the sense of fulfillment, or lack thereof, from what I was doing. Was I making a difference? Was I helping anyone? Or was I only doing it for myself, as a hobby to pass time?

I had this notion that specialty coffee, just like fine art, fashion, and wine, was clouded with exclusivity—that only the privileged few were qualified to appreciate, evaluate, and indulge in the art form. In an attempt to bridge one of my interests with medicine, I thought of conducting research on the biochemistry behind specialty coffee and its effects on human physiology. But with epidemics rising on a national level, is this something that the country needs? Would the university even allow such a topic? With this thought process sullying the validity of what I was doing, I began to question the movement against what coffee enthusiasts call the “3-in-1 culture” that is definitive of how Filipinos enjoy their coffee—powdered Robusta beans, with its already faint hint of coffee, further masked with sugar, milk, and artificial ingredients. To me, this felt like experts going against a commodity accessible to everyone and instead advocating for a luxury, solely for the sake of art.

While I was writing proposals for Kalsada, however, I realized that there was more to the beans than the art. While there are countless institutions pursuing coffee to push the craft to new horizons, at Kalsada, it isn’t about getting a higher grade on the 100-point scale or winning international competitions. The idea of making better-tasting coffee is simply a means to a more noble end. The core of Kalsada’s mission is to improve the living standards of the farmers by ironing out the inefficiencies on the agricultural level, thereby increasing the quality of their beans. Better practices and facilities would mean better coffee, and better coffee would mean higher price points that the farmers could sell their beans for. At the end of the day, it was about redirecting art to align with service for humanity through using it to provide opportunities to the marginalized. Upon realizing this, my internal conflict came to an end, and I could rest assured that what I was doing was truly meaningful.

Auntie Asthrine tending the coffee seedlings

Auntie Asthrine tending the coffee seedlings

A Mix of Learnings

My stint as an intern at Kalsada challenged me to explore specialty coffee from different angles. It taught me how the variables governed by the science could be manipulated to create a cup that would reach the standards set by the art. It helped me understand the delicate interactions between elements in the supply chain. It showed me a model institution making use of art to stir meaningful change for those who need it most. And most importantly, it gave me a new mission to staunchly rally behind.

Despite my newfound learnings about coffee, I don’t think I’m going to stop depending on it as my main source of caffeine when I return to med school. While equipped with a better palate that can appreciate the art form, my relationship with coffee will still be one of practicality, and I will probably still regret the nights I’d consume too much. However, this time, whenever I take a break from memorizing transes and grab my mug to take a sip, I will be reminded of the much larger world out there. I will be comforted by the fact that whatever I am learning will be useful, even in fields outside of my own.


Written by Leonard Lim.

Where is Auntie Leah?

Over the years, Kalsada’s brand has evolved from roasted coffees in jars that say the name of the farmer to kraft paper bags that say the name of the community we source the coffee from. I often get asked, “where is Auntie Leah and why am I not able to buy her coffee from you anymore?”

Kalsada Coffee in jars, circa 2014.   

Kalsada Coffee in jars, circa 2014.  

Auntie Leah retail bags, circa 2015.

Auntie Leah retail bags, circa 2015.

When we started our journey of finding the best coffees in the Philippines, we were surprised at how difficult it was. We considered ourselves lucky to find Auntie Leah whose coffee were clean and had distinct flavor notes we liked. But she, like many smallholder farmers in the Philippines, could only produce a maximum of 35kgs. So naturally, we would also go to her neighbors and try to buy their coffees. In most occasions, we ended up empty-handed as the quality of her neighbors’ coffees were not the same as hers. And so, for the first two years of our exploration, we would seek out individual farmers, listen to their stories of growing and processing coffees and taste and try their lots.  Most of the time, the coffees that scored the highest on the cupping table would be less than 35kgs.

To answer the question “where is Auntie Leah?” She is still in Sitio Belis. She just had a baby and we still work with her closely. However, you don’t see our bags with her name on it anymore because instead of purchasing her 35kg of green coffees that she processed herself, we pay for the cherries she brings to the mill every other day as well as all the cherries brought by her neighbors. We learned through our conversations and tastings with individual farmers the reasons for the low production and inconsistent qualities were:

  • Because of its seasonality, coffee is not the primary crop. Farmers focus on growing vegetables because they can harvest it weekly, securing cash flow for their family.
  •  There is a lack of infrastructure and machinery to process the coffees. Majority of the farmers manually pulp coffee using a big mortar and pestle or with a hand-cranked pulper they made themselves. This process takes a great chunk of their time, not to mention the wastage created in the process. To save on time, farmers would consolidate three-days worth of harvest and process them all together instead of processing daily. This practice has a huge impact on quality.
  • It rains a lot during harvest season and since farmers are not financially equipped to build suitable drying facilities, they are forced to either dry the coffees as fast as they can on roofs or settle with high moisture coffees.
  • With these considerations, farmers are not encouraged to grow more nor invest in better agricultural practices. Most of the time, they will settle with mediocre practices and sell to the local market at low prices.
Farmers delivering their harvest while our mill was being constructed, circa 2015.  (Photo courtesy of Kaye Lavin)

Farmers delivering their harvest while our mill was being constructed, circa 2015.  (Photo courtesy of Kaye Lavin)

What we chose to do at Kalsada was to address all these individual concerns collectively. We built a washing station that processes not only Auntie Leah’s coffees but also her neighbors. We brought in a mechanical pulper that pulps all the coffees brought in everyday with minimum labor required. We built drying facilities ensuring coffees are free from fungal contamination and safe from occasional rain showers while maintaining a slow drying process. Instead of focusing on finding buyers for their coffees, farmers have a consistent buyer for their coffee cherry and incentivize the effort to wait for the cherries to fully mature before they are picked; an idea which was also sparked by listening to the farmers. They also shared with us that they harvest and process the coffees as soon as they can – including the immature cherries, dry them as fast as they can so that they can sell the coffees right away. This practice has been the primary reason why the majority of the coffees from this side of the country used to taste unripe and had either high moisture content or are dried too quickly.

Aunties and Uncles pose for a photo after delivering coffee cherry.  

Aunties and Uncles pose for a photo after delivering coffee cherry.  

Four years into our operations, we no longer work with only 15 farmers whose names you might have come across in our early years. When you get a bag of Sitio Belis, it translates to 70 farmers who bring in their cherry to our mill everyday. We still get really picky in terms of buying the raw materials just like we were with our green purchases. We decline to purchase immature and over-ripe, deteriorating coffee cherry. We float the cherries when they arrive at the mill to get rid of defects. And everyone has an equal opportunity to have their coffees processed in the best possible way we know how.

We are still a long way from achieving production that will fill an entire container but now that the initial concerns of Auntie Leah and her neighbors are addressed, it opens another discussion on how we can grow healthier trees that will produce more cherries. There are always new concerns to be addressed and we’d be thrilled to chat about these with you over bottomless overflowing hot cups of coffee in Sitio Belis with Auntie Leah and her newborn baby.

Tere Domine, Country Director

Auntie Leah with her boys. 

Auntie Leah with her boys. 

From Lab to Love: my coffee journey and the Pigtauranan community

Years back, I met the team behind Kalsada and became quite familiar with their work in transforming coffee farmers’ lives. I joined them on several farm trips to Benguet, with different companions each time. One particular trip stood out where we put out improvised insect traps in a farm severely affected by coffee berry borer that I became really curious -- what was the agriculture and science behind this?

Little did I know then, I’d be joining the team soon after my move back to Mindanao almost two years ago. I traded the confines of a systematic and exacting approach of the lab work that I was used to, with that of an open-ended community driven work where there are no standard formulas or technical specifications. Instead, I had to actively listen, observe and be open to possibilities.

Learning how to be "open to possibilities" while harvesting ginger with Auntie Melia.

Learning how to be "open to possibilities" while harvesting ginger with Auntie Melia.

Having been born and raised in the agricultural landscape of Zamboanga del Sur, I understood early on that farming was a serious matter. My parents own a small integrated farm planted with coconut, cacao and a good mix of fruit trees. During middle school, I remember playing under the canopy of robusta coffee trees that my parents used to grow in our backyard. And in the mid 1990’s when the price of coffee reached rock bottom, a buyer came and asked to purchase the cherries. My mother created an agreement with the buyer: they could get the cherries if they harvested it themselves.

Our family backyard, where pomelo and rambutan replaced the coffees.

Our family backyard, where pomelo and rambutan replaced the coffees.

My work mainly involves community partnerships in Mindanao. The first community we partnered is in Pigtauranan, located in the southwest part of Bukidnon, near the border of Lanao del Sur. The community is at 1000 meters above sea level, sits on the foothills of Mt. Kalatungan mountain range and is home of the 35-hectare Lake Napalit. Going to Pigtauranan, there is no signage and your phone’s only functionality are limited to camera, calculator and flashlight. If you’re looking to disconnect from the rest of the world and reconnect with what is present and in front of you, you can do it here, come and visit and keep me company during harvest season!

Mornings in Pigtauranan

Mornings in Pigtauranan

It was through several visits and community consultations between 2015 and 2017, were we then converged onto the collaboration. In preparation, we designed and conducted specific workshops and targeted trainings to standardize processes. Together with Bayanihan Millenium Multipurpose Cooperative (BMMPC), we created the first community mill and started processing coffees.

Coffee trees are known to adapt well in different terrains in Pigtauranan, you can find them in the farthest and steepest locations that usually take 2-3 hours to get to.  With no actual roads leading to the coffee farms, you can either go by foot, a carabao or horse ride. Due to the lack of infrastructure, making it almost impossible to pick and process on the same day, we experimented on the processing. Taking into consideration the varying length of the in-cherry fermentation, the coffees we processed as washed, honey and natural. For the unfamiliar, coffee cherry fermentation is a metabolic process that starts right after picking, and the extent of fermentation is highly dependent on temperature and level of ripeness. Because we wanted to explore the cup potential of the different varieties available in Pigtauranan, we sorted them accordingly. Understanding the interesting occurring reactions inside the coffee cherry is something that’s very relatable to me, even in the molecular level.

Cherry delivery!

Cherry delivery!

Harvest season came late this year and when the first cherries of the season were finally delivered, it felt like receiving a sack of Skittles! From the immature green to the overripe dark reddish black and everything in between. Through constant reminder and encouragement, the cherry ripeness significantly improved and I would hear farmers teaching one another the “Kalsada way” - from picking to sorting and processing.

“Christmassy” first delivery

“Christmassy” first delivery

Ripe and sorted second delivery

Ripe and sorted second delivery

Processing coffees and translating the flavors into the cup is for me the most exciting. My work in Kalsada afforded me a laboratory without a wall or division. I was reunited with my long time subject organic chemistry through the so-called fermentation of coffees. Equipped with a good background in fermentation, crafting and manipulating processes were easier. It was also an opportunity for me to share to farmers the science behind it, including the practical application like knowing the things they can control, choosing the appropriate process and even predicting results before they happen. I tried to instill to the community members I was working with that specialty coffee doesn’t happen because the cherries rolled over and somehow did some magic chants, but that they as farmers and producers make it happen.    

My workstation with a view.

My workstation with a view.

This first year working in the community maybe the hardest and the most challenging as our harvest in Pigtauranan was low and living and working in a community was a new experience for me. With less volume to handle, managing the mill was easier and we got to focus on specific processing experiments. The road to transformation will be uphill and a bumpy ride, but our presence and integration in the community is slowly breaking the wall of doubts and hesitation. After all, the journey of Philippine specialty coffee is taking a leap for a bigger and brighter possibilities, and I am going forth with it.

Ivy Soon, Kalsada Field Officer

Limited Release: Pigtauranan 

 

Questions with Dex Fernandez, Creator of Garapata

Questions with Dex Fernandez, Creator of Garapata

Dex Fernandez is the artist behind the rounded, many legged "Garapata" character taking over cities across the world in the form of stickers and street art. Inspired by the infestation of ticks that explored his childhood home (brought in by his pet dogs), Fernandez's surreal Garapata pieces now explore urban areas around the globe, making art more accessible to people on everyday commutes. He has collaborated with Kalsada in designing our new, limited edition coffee bags for the Harana Blend. This week, we sat down with him for an exclusive interview regarding the inspirations behind Garapata.

The team who’s taking Mexican specialty coffee to new levels

The team who’s taking Mexican specialty coffee to new levels

Mexico City is turning into a major capital of specialty coffee. Local pioneers BUNA are one of the major players of this fast-developing scene, and at a turning point for the team: they’re about to move their roastery to a bigger space and in the middle of their café renovation, which will reopen early April. Their shop, called BUNA 42, is located in La Roma, the city’s hippest neighborhood where specialty coffee shops are popping up, and is the continuity of an adventure the owners started years before on a rooftop terrace.

Tastemaker Series: Kaye & TJ Rocamora

Tastemaker Series: Kaye & TJ Rocamora

There’s something about Fridays in the metro—the streets fill up with cars and highways turn into parking lots. Checking the traffic report feels like a bloodbath from all the red lights indicative of heavy traffic. When you’re lucky enough, you get a short window of bearable traffic and that was the goal for the day. It's the small victories that count.

Luckily, we were able to catch Aeropress power couple Kaye and TJ Rocamora before the Friday madness. We asked them a couple of questions about their favorite beans and winning recipes as they did a final check on their luggage before their Iceland and Scandinavia adventure.