The Barako: Saving a national treasure
Chit U. Juan (The Philippine Star) - February 9, 2020 - 12:00am

In 1999, Father Roger Bag-ao, a coffee advocate, and I started a campaign called “Save the Barako.” We asked farmers to sort the bigger bean variety from the smaller Robusta, and we paid a higher price for the Barako. After the campaign, Barako prices went up and farmers started to plant more trees.

Fast forward to 20 years after that campaign, and with more people planting Barako trees and farmers maintaining whatever trees they had, Taal erupts on Jan. 12, 2020. The Barako is again threatened with decimation as ashfall affects the trees and also the harvest which could have been more planting materials for propagation.

Not very many people know that Batangas and Cavite are known  for the special coffee variety/species known as Caffea Liberica or Barako.

First, let us clear some misconceptions:

• Not all Batangas coffee is Barako; some are Robusta and Excelsa, two other varieties that grow at the same elevation of 300-800 meters above sea level;

• Not all brewed coffee served in the Philippines is Barako. Some are single variety Arabica, Robusta, Excelsa or blends of different roasts and varieties;

• Barako is a variety, not a method of brewing. It also is not a general name for coffee that is not instant or 3-in-1 (a mix of non-dairy creamer, sugar and some soluble coffee). 

With the recent eruption, many farmers found ashfall on their coffee trees and this caused many leaves to fall and for seedlings to die. The seedlings were to be planted this coming rainy season. In Amadeo, Cavite one of the farms affected is our demo farm for the Philippine Coffee Board Inc. (PCBI). The effects: only 150 seedlings survived among 5,000 which were ready to plant this year. This could have gone to other areas in Luzon for dissemination of the variety. Of the roughly 300 trees, more than half lost their leaves and it would be a long wait for leaves to start coming out again.

“We have to wait another two years,” says Alejandro Mojica, resident coffee research expert, “because the flowers also fell from the trees.”

“Once the tree starts flowering next year (hopefully), it would take another year for the tree to fruit,” he continues.

Mojica and I co-wrote wrote the book on “Barako: The Big Bean” (Anvil, 2005), probably the only one published so far in the country. With this crisis, we may have to update it and ask the publisher to print a new edition. 

From the marketing side, Ros Juan of Commune Café has been promoting Barako to the international market, to some the visitors at her Makati café and also in shows abroad.

Manny Torrejon, another coffee roaster, laments the possible shortfall in supply of Barako. Manny is known in the ASEAN coffee circle as a coffee taster, roaster and a very experienced coffee connoisseur.

“You have to appreciate Barako without comparing it to Arabica,” he says. “It’s different.”

“Don’t be surprised that there are some people who do not even like Arabica, but love Barako,” he continues.

Since we planted Barako trees in Amadeo in 2005, they have been our source of seeds to be shared with other areas in the country. We established a small nursery for the different coffee varieties and some were brought to Nueva Vizcaya while others were bought for Bicol, Ilocos and Bataan. We continue to get inquiries on how to get seedlings to areas as far as Sulu.

This year we were hoping to harvest more fruits. As the trees are rain-fed, the fruits ripen and turn a bright cherry red at different times.That means we have to keep coming back to the trees several times in one harvest season, checking which are already literally “ripe for the picking.”

We also scheduled our annual Coffee Harvest Tour where city slickers get to experience picking their own coffee “cherries” in order to better appreciate the long arduous journey of the coffee from tree to cup. That tour was set for Jan. 25. We then had to cancel the tour and pick the fruits ourselves to see what they will taste like (after ashfall) and to preserve what we could as seeds for planting. 

After the ashfall, where even our vegetables and intercropped bananas and papayas were covered in gray “snow,” I had a moment of reflection on what message Mother Nature is sending us. Must we continue planting? Should we be hopeful that the worst is over and that we can again propagate our Barako trees? Or should I just give it all up?

The coffee industry in Cavite and Batangas comprise about 15 percent of national production, a very low number of 35,000 metric tons (MT) of four coffee varieties: Robusta, Excelsa, Arabica and LIberica. The country consumes about 135,000 to 150,000 MT every year. This leaves a net import figure of at least 100,000 MT, usually from Indonesia and Vietnam. That is a huge import bill of at least P80 billion!

But honestly, we cannot give up on the coffee advocacy. We cannot give up our 20-year drive to promote what is truly Filipino – a national treasure that we can share with the world. Not many countries produce Liberica or Barako. We are one of only four remaining producer-countries of this special variety. 

I also think about the international market and how they have been looking for Liberica. Many of the specialty coffee enthusiasts from Japan to Europe have been on the search for Liberica. There is a Facebook page just for Liberica lovers. The variety we now bring to international coffee shows is Liberica. 

We cannot stop despite the ashfall and the condition of the farms affected by it. To pursue our dream of preserving this national treasure, we must collect the fruits, bring the seeds to other places like Basilan and Ilocos in order to spread our risk.

That probably is the message of Mother Nature. If she could speak she would probably say: “Help me survive by taking me to many places in the Philippines. Help me by reviving my variety in Batangas and Cavite. Help me by asking people to taste the difference between Barako and its cousins like Excelsa.” 

Philippine coffee may never be able to compete in the world on volume production. We consume more than we produce and we struggle to keep some specialty coffee for export. But we can definitely compete in quality, in being a differentiated coffee.

“This crisis presents an opportunity,” says my co-PCBI director Bill Luz. And we heed the call of the roasters and café owners – let us save the Barako.

Please make your next cup Philippine Barako, always and all the time, so we can save this national treasure.

The Philippine Coffee Board, Inc. will continue to grow seedlings in different parts of the country to carry on this drive to maintain the Barako species.Get in touch by email to admin.pcbi@gmail.com.

 

ROGER BAG-AO THE PHILIPPINE COFFEE BOARD
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