From Bean to Brew
by La Verne
It’s some minutes past 9. The weather app registers 10 degrees Celsius. Under the shade of the alnus trees, the day is even cooler. From the Learning Site cottage, it’s been a careful hike through narrow paths winding around what seemed like a forest of coffee and alnus trees.
Finally, we reach the spot. Jennifer Rimando hands Corinna, Brandon, and me a black apron. The apron is large, falling all the way to the shin. There are two large pockets. The pockets have openings at the bottom; a drawstring allows you to open and close it. “Make sure this is tied,” Jen instructs.
It’s February, the harvest season, and we’re in Ola Farms, a seven-hectare pocket of land tucked away in the mountaintop barangay of Aguid, Sagada. We’re here to help Jen pick coffee cherries and, in exchange, we get the reward of learning. Corinna is from Germany, and Brandon is from the US. Since Jen opened up the farm in 2015 as a learning site, she’d been receiving a number of volunteers from within the country and abroad. She tours them around the farm and let them experience coffee—the long, arduous process from bean to brew.
Coffee cherries are green when immature, then gradually turn red as they ripen. For a greenhorn harvester, picking the right ripeness can be initially tricky, as the cherries come in different shades of red. We are instructed to aim for the deep red or even maroon color, then, “grab, twist, and pull.” We’ll know it’s the perfect ripeness, Jen tells us, if the fruit snaps easily. We do this, and after a while, our fingers get a feel for the right amount of tug, the right pluck, the cherries with the least resistance.
“What we’re doing,” Jen continues, “is selective picking.” It’s the only way to harvest Arabica, the most sensitive to handling of the coffee varieties. For comparison, she cites Robusta, its lowland cousin. Robusta can be harvested using a process known as strip picking, wherein the harvester grabs a branch and pulls outward, removing cherries, leaves and all. The same can’t be done with Arabica. The reason is that Arabica trees have no capability of re-growing peduncle, the stalk that bears each individual cherry, much like humans can’t regrow a finger or an ear. And so, every time you damage a peduncle, you, in effect, diminish the tree’s next yield. And compared to other varieties, Arabica is a poor producer. The Department of Agriculture website writes that a hectare of Robusta farm can yield 1200 kilograms per hectare, while an Arabica farm can produce somewhere between 500 to 1000 kilograms. Why not other varieties then? The farm sits at 1700 meters above sea level. At this altitude, only Arabica can survive.
If you asked people 20 years ago what they thought of Ola Farms when it was being started, they would have told you Ola was out of his mind. Extensive coffee farming had never been done in Sagada before. For a long time—a century or about—coffee was cultivated mainly as backyard crop. A yard may have a tree or two, and households would depulp, roast, dry, and grind their own beans. Everything was done by hand—and mouth. One of Jen’s earliest memories around coffee involved depulping by chewing for neighbors in exchange for bubblegum. “Tarzan or Bazooka,” she recalled with amusement, the gum brands of the 1990s. She would softly chew on the pulp, which is actually soft and sweet, until the bean is separated, then “swallow the juice and spit out the bean and pulp.”
But the farmer’s bigger fear: the coffee industry’s long history of volatility. There was the coffee rust of the 1890s that wiped out farms in Batangas and, as a result, knocked Philippines off from the list of top coffee-producing countries in the world. It took nearly sixty decades before people took up coffee farming again, and that happened only after the government stepped in in the 1950s, offering farmers financial aid and technical support. Then, in 1992, the world coffee crisis: prices dropped by almost 37 percent (and would continue to plummet until the early 2000s). Beans sold from 480 per kilo to 180. Disheartened, farmers felled their trees. They planted other crops or sold their farm altogether.
And so in the latter half of the 1990s, the government, alarmed by the steadily dwindling amount of coffee being produced in the country, campaigned for a revival of the industry. In 1997, the Department of Agrarian Reform invited farmers from around Mt. Province for a 12-day free training at the Baguio State University in La Trinidad, Benguet. The training covered a variety of crops. One lecture caught the attention of a vegetable farmer named Joseph “Ola-o” Bogenggeng. It was called “Coffee Under the Pines.” He was 57 then, an age when mortality hangs ever more insistently in the back of one’s mind and so one thinks now of the future in terms of legacy. The idea that coffee trees could live for up to 60 years excited him. Finally, here was something he could leave to his children and grandchildren.
When he returned to Aguid, he immediately began clearing a small area of land that belonged to his clan. His farming philosophy was to work a size that you can manage at a given time, then expand as you go. The land was a wilderness of cogon and tiger grasses. When his mother-in-law heard his plan, she discouraged him. When his neighbors and the rest of the barangay heard his plan, they began calling him “matawtawaw.” Crazy. Crazy Ola. “But I was not insulted,” he said. “The people here, they did not believe that coffee could be farmed in the mountains, but me, I have seen it in Ampasit. I saw that it worked.”
When the first batch of trees he planted died, he kept going. He held on to the image of the demo farm he saw in Ampasit. He had seen its possibility. “Pwede.” He thought that perhaps alnus trees would make better shade trees than pine as they have long, sweeping branches and thick foliage. The leaves are rich in nitrogen and enrich the soil when they fall to the ground. The fallen leaves could also serve as mulch for the moisture-loving coffee trees. But there were no alnus trees in Sagada. He went to Bontoc where he saw them and gathered months-old wildlings. He cut down the pine trees and replaced them with the wildlings. This time, the coffee trees survived. He cleared more areas, and it was no small labor. “Try to picture this as a forest,” Jen tells me, pointing at the neat rows of coffee and alnus trees. Ola felled pine trees. He cut thick swaths of grass. He terraced the slopes. He traveled to Bontoc and back to gather more alnus wildlings. He carried water up the hills during dry summer days to water the plants. The year he turned 60, the year of the first flowering. People stopped calling Joseph “Crazy Ola.”
Ola was always away doing expansion work the several times I visited the farm. When I finally met him, the man I met was 74. His hair was thin and white, his smile was toothless. He was barely five feet tall. One could only imagine the amount of energy and drive contained within that small body.
In Sagada, coffee is associated with women. She plants the trees. She tills the land. She harvests the cherries. She depulps them. She roasts them on a pan, then grinds them. Ola broke a cultural model, but the people who followed him were all women. The earliest followers were widows. “Now, when the trees bore fruit, they believed. They followed me.”
Coffee trees are not native to Sagada. Some say it was the Spanish who introduced them. Another account says Isagada farmers acquired them through trade with Ilocanos. Where history is clearer is that cultivation of coffee as backyard crops began in the 1890s, and would remain so until Ola started his farm in 1997.
In the late 1990s, something else was happening: tourism in Sagada surged. It was the result of many factors. Air fares dropped and discount sites like Groupon and Ensogo made tours cheaper and more convenient. Roads to Sagada were being improved. A cable bus from Manila to Bontoc began operations. Hotels, inns, and restaurants were propping up. Tourists came by the busload or by the vanload. But the town had no capacity to meet the demand of coffee drinkers. Coffee production was still limited—just a tree or two in some backyards. There were no farms, no roasters, no grinders. Some consolidators would go from house to house to buy cherries by the gantas, then sell processed beans to cafés or in the market. It wasn’t enough. Many cafés resorted to serving instant coffee. Marina, who opened her café in 1995, served coffee from the backyard that her mother processed and roasted. Over time, the number of coffee trees even dwindled as some residents cut them down to build hotels and inns.
In 2002, businesses in the town center agreed to promote Sagada coffee as a cultural product. Cafes stopped serving instant coffee, and souvenir shops filled their shelves with “Sagada coffee.” When I asked where the coffee came from, answers have been evasive. The consolidation practice continued, but there was still the question of whether the supply was enough for the tens of thousands of tourists pouring into town. Some talks floated that some products came from Benguet, Apayao, and other farms in the Cordillera, and stores simply rebranded them as Sagada coffee. Around this time, Ola had already than two dozen flower bearing trees. He was also teaching other farmers his technologies, but his efforts were still unknown outside of Aguid. More and more farmers, now seeing moneymaking opportunities from coffee and seeing Ola’s success, started growing coffee trees. Microfarms—anything with two trees to a dozen—sprung up. There were some attempts at large-scale farming, like the Sagada businessman who started a 1.7 hectare farm, but they all failed. “Caring for coffee is like caring for a baby,” Jen said, by way of explaining their farm’s success. “Our secret is TLC.” She meant Tender Loving Care, which translates as commitment and a singular focus on seeing it grow in scale and quality. Today, Ola Farms remains the largest coffee farm in town with 3,000 fruit-bearing trees.
In the middle of the farm is a cottage. A large tarpaulin says “Welcome to Ola Farms Learning Site.” The cottage serves as some sort of mini conference or lecture room. Ola and Jen meet farmers here and provide lectures. Knowledge sharing has long been part of the farming culture, and turning the farm into a learning site allows them to continue this tradition. If you stand on the balcony, your eyes are level with the tops of alnus trees. Inside are tables, benches, and black monoblock chairs. A large whiteboard. Framed certificates on the wall. A photo of Ola and Jen holding up a large basket of coffee cherries for the photographer. They are beaming.
Jen’s relationship with Ola is like that of an adult who’s never outgrown her childhood hero. She refers to her grandfather as her first teacher and continues to seek his guidance on many decisions. Ola taught her not only farming skills and techniques, but also larger life philosophies that Jen continues to practice today, such as, “if you start something, finish it,” and “ignore the negative things people say.”
When Jen was five, her parents separated, and her Ama Ola and Ina Catherine raised her. But farming life wasn’t exactly the life she set for herself. Farmers’ kids, keenly away of the hardships of their parents’ life, tend to want a different life for themselves. Jen certainly did. When she was 16, the same year Ola started clearing the site for his coffee farm, she moved to Baguio to study. But a year later, she got pregnant. She dropped out of the university. In 2007, when she was 24, her grandparents convinced her to move back to Aguid. By then she had three children, a newfound maturity, and a grandfather who had already made a point. Of her decision to take up coffee farming: “Nobody wants to farm anymore. Everyone thinks farmers are low-class people. Kids nowadays just want to go the city to get a degree.”
In coffee farming, she discovered a shared passion with her grandfather. In fact, of Ola’s kin, only Jen showed in it. Together, they give direction to the farm: he, on the physical expansion; she, on elevating the quality of the beans. Jen is now 35. She is petite. She wears her hair long, and her face remains youthful. Her Igorot name is Man-ay, a fitting name, for the Man-ays are said to be industrious and strong. She has a tirelessness about her, and she never seems still. We did our interviews while she was washing the dishes, gathering cherries, depulping, walking, cooking, eating. If Ola wanted to prove that coffee farming in the mountains was possible, Jen wants to prove that farmers can be financially successful. If Ola wanted to leave his grandchildren a legacy; Jen wants to “continue Ama’s legacy.” Jen conceived of the learning site; Ola built the cottage.
Without formal agricultural education, trainings and seminars have become the way for Ola and Jen to increase their farming knowledge. Jen attends so many of these trainings that one friend describes her as “here, there, and everywhere.” One such training was Q grading. Q grading is the scoring and grading of coffee using market standard metrics such as sweetness, acidity, aroma, and flavor notes. Trainees must possess strong sensory sensibility to pass it, and so Q graders are deemed as elites in the industry. Jen passed the training but does not practice professionally. She took it so she could learn how to test their products and make improvements in the processing if their beans are not meeting coffee standards.
“Coffee never lies,” Jen tells me. Each coffee experience—the aroma, sweetness, acidity, and flavor notes you get in a cup—is the confluence of all the materials and processes that go into its making. Tree variety, soil type, shading, elevation, and fertilizer create the bean’s inherent sweetness and acidity, flavor notes, and aroma. Processing, the turning of seed of the fruit into a green bean, allows producers to tap into these flavors. The quality of green beans bear the stamp of a farm’s processing practices, its timeliness, its attention to detail. Proper processing preserves and enhances the bean’s inherent flavor, while poor processing destroys or diminishes it. In other words, the foundation of every good cup of coffee lies on the green beans, and producers like Jen are responsible for their quality.
The farm’s processing site is the balcony of a house that belongs to Jen’s cousin. The facility is bare minimum. There’s a mechanical depulper, a gift from the Department of Agriculture, some wash basins and pails, and sacks and bilaos for holding the beans while drying. Because water in the mountains is plenty but sunny days are, sometimes, scarce, the farm uses a process known as wash method. Jen fills a pail with water, and Brandon pours our harvest into it. Some cherries float to the surface—bad cherries. They’re either underripe or overripe, and are skimmed off. Jen pours the soaked cherries into the depulper. We then take turns cranking the machine. The machine spits out the beans and retains the hull. A basin catches the beans. Jen fills the basin with water. Some beans float to the surface. Again, bad cherries. She drains the water along with the floaters. Then she refills the basin with water. Again, drain. Rinse and drain, rinse and drain. She does this until the water becomes clear. A final drain, and the beans are spread out on a sack or bilao to allow to ferment for a day before drying them under the sun for about two weeks.
If bad cherries are not properly sorted out from the good, if they are overfermented, if they are not dried properly, you get poor quality beans. If your cup taste sour or bitter or muddy, perhaps your barista is not the one to fault.
The morning we picked cherries, a friend of Jen’s named Billy was also there. I shadowed Billy for a while. He showed me how they measure the sugar content of cherries. He took out a pen-like device from his back pocket. It’s called refractometer. He plucked a ripe fruit from a tree and pierced it with the needle-like tip. “See the line?” The gauge read 11.5. I asked if that was a good number. “The ideal percentage is twenty-five or higher,” was Billy’s answer. Sugar content impacts coffee quality: the sweeter the cherry, the better the coffee taste. He said he’d gotten sweeter cherries from the farm before, but maybe they didn’t use enough fertilizer this time. “There are many factors that affect sugar content.” He tilted his head and looked at the alnus trees. “Or it could be overshading.”
Billy is in his early 30s. He works for a company that is in the coffee distribution business. They are one of Ola Farm’s biggest buyers. The company would send him to farms to conduct seminars or talk to farmers on how to improve the quality of their coffee. “Many farmers don’t listen,” he shared. “They’d say, ‘Yeah, we already heard that.’ Sure, they did, but did they apply what they learned?” Jen was different. She showed a receptiveness to new ideas, and would even actively reach out for them. It was Billy who encouraged Jen to try and become a Q grader.
Lunch was coming up, and I decided to wrap things up. “If you were to rank farms in the Cordillera based on coffee quality, where would you put Ola Farms?” I asked. Billy stopped picking cherries. He looked down at the ground. Finally, he said, “Three.”
Once, a vendor at the Sagada market told Jen her coffee tasted bad. Jen pulled out all the stocks and refunded the vendor. I asked how she felt about it. She felt frustrated, but as far as she’s concerned, it’s the same story with her grandfather. “Sometimes people just want to pull you down. Look, they called Ama Ola crazy,” she replied. “What matters is what our buyers think.” Most of their buyers now are from outside Sagada. “I’m a Q grader,” she said.
In the coffee market, there exists such a thing as a coffee standard. That’s what Q graders do: determine whether a given product matches those standards. But for some people, selecting a project is just a matter of personal taste, which is sensory bias built over time. Oftentimes our prejudices are guided by what we are used to, and anything that’s unfamiliar or new to the taste buds, we immediately label as unsavory. As someone who grew up with three-in-one instant coffee, the first time I drank brewed coffee in Sagada back in 2014, I sweetened it with two heaping tablespoons of sugar.
It’s not just some buyers. The day we picked coffee, Billy brought over Panama coffee. Billy started out as a barista, and he was putting his skills on display. He measured spoonfuls of ground beans into a large coffee press. He added hot water. He waited for about four minutes, then pressed the plunger down. He poured the brew into demitasses. Each of us got one. An apple-like acidic taste, followed by a lingering sweetness. It was one of the best rated coffees in the global market. Jen’s cousins were not impressed. “They said it’s not good,” Jen told me later. “If it’s not bitter, people don’t think it’s not coffee.”
Back in town, I asked Marina, the café owner, why she preferred pan-roasted, kettle-boiled brew, which has thinner consistency and a burnt, carbony taste. “Because it’s what I was used to” came the reply. It’s not just taste, but also the memories associated with it. Her mother used to roast coffee for the family and, when the café opened, for the guests. Marina would smile at every mention of this memory. Her mother passed away in 2015.
La Verne holds a degree in Creative Writing from the University of the Philippines (cum laude). Her writing has appeared in the Philippine Free Press, Philippine Graphics, Likhaan Journal, Plural, Eastlit and elsewhere.