Photographs by Andre Drilon
Food & Drink Features

In search of heritage Arabica coffee in the highlands of Sagada

Hiking through meadows and pine forests, we discover age-old coffee farms and practices and learn to appreciate single origin, small batch, artisanal coffee at its source
Nana Ozaeta | Mar 04 2019

It was my first ever trip to Sagada and we were going to visit the coffee farms there. Famed for its hanging coffins, the fabled photographs of Masferré, and the blockbuster indie movie That Thing Called Tadhana, this town in the Mountain Province isn’t quite as well known for its coffee. But I was told that we’d find something pretty special there: heritage Arabica coffee trees.

After a surprisingly speedy 10-hour drive to Sagada via Baguio (we were told the trip can take as long as 12 hours), we arrived at our base, the fittingly named Coffee Heritage House situated a short drive from the town proper. Atop a hill with terraced rice paddies on one side and a pine forest on the other, this quaint and comfy hostel is the Sagada outpost of SGD Coffee Bodega and the Coffee Science Center in Quezon City. It also happens to be the base of the Coffee Heritage Project, a partnership between farmers and coffee specialists to help uplift Philippine coffee.

Coffee Heritage House in Barangay Madongo, Sagada.

John Batara, the community manager for the Coffee Heritage Project, was our guide for our coffee farm visit. When I asked him where he came from, he chuckled and admitted, “Quezon City.” But in the 5-plus years he has been coming to Sagada, this soft-spoken Ilocano has become quite at home in the area, as he fills his days with visiting the 30 or so farmers that participate in the project so far.

 

Small scale and women-led

On our first morning in Sagada, after a breakfast of eggs, toast, and an invigorating cup of Sagada coffee, our group set out on a short hike through alpine-like meadows to the farm of Magdalena Bolinget, coffee farmer extraordinaire and a gentle yet moving force in her community.

Magdalena Bolinget and John Batara

We soon learn that there are no coffee plantations in Sagada. Rather, most are backyard plots with not much more than a few hundred coffee trees planted, and interestingly enough, almost always farmed by women. A mother, grandmother, barangay official, store owner, and coffee farmer, Magdalena showed us around her large hillside plot filled with Arabica trees shaded by white-barked alnus trees. Fun fact: coffee tends to take on the flavors of the plants they’re intercropped with. We learn that pine trees don’t work with coffee as they tend to add too much acidity to the beans. Alnus trees, however, are perfect as they impart the soil with much-needed nitrogen.

Through the Coffee Science Project, John and his team have been visiting Magdalena’s farm for several years now, providing her with coffee seedlings, helping plant them, and periodically visiting to clear the area, remove weeds, water the trees.

Coffee seedlings at the Coffee Heritage House nursery.

The Coffee Science Project also practices organic farming and doesn’t introduce any pesticides or fertilizers to the farms. In exchange for the assistance, Magdalena harvests the coffee cherries and sells them directly to the Coffee Heritage Project at a fair price. It’s support that she readily welcomes, as she no longer has family to help her with farm work, and she doesn’t have to worry about where to sell her harvest.

Magdalena working the farm with alnus trees in the foreground.

After our visit to Magdalena’s farm, John brought us to the house of coffee farmer Maria Bisay to show us what a backyard coffee operation looks like. Together with her neighbor and fellow coffee farmer, Benita Doga-ong, Maria demonstrated the time-consuming process it takes to get from cherry to green bean.

Maria Bisay and Benita Doga-ong in front of their all-weather coffee drying rack.

After harvesting, the cherries are de-pulped, soaked in water to separate the floaters, fermented, rinsed, then dried, before being sold. It’s a laborious process but necessary to guarantee the quality expected of beans that bear the proudly Sagada grown label.

Coffee parchment with the pulp removed.
Dried coffee beans

 

Bringing back heritage beans

Magdalena grows two kinds of Arabica trees: the more prevalent hybrid called Mundo Novo which tends to be more resistant to pests and produces a higher yield. Growing beside them is a stranger sort of coffee tree, one that I haven’t seen before. According to Magdalena, they’re Arabica Typica trees, significantly taller than the Mundo Novo but with a much skinnier trunk and branches, and a paltry amount of leaves. While they don’t look as lush as the Mundo Novo, both John and Magdalena consider the Typica the far superior coffee variety.

A Typica tree at Magdalena’s farm.

What is Typica? They’re known as the heritage Arabica, first brought to the Philippines in Spanish times and planted in the uplands where the variety thrives. According to the Specialty Coffee Association, Typica can trace its origins to Yemen, and further back to Ethiopia where it is believed coffee was first cultivated. Typica has a long and storied history, spreading around the world to India, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Typica trees used to be prevalent throughout the Mountain Province. Magdalena remembers that most families in Sagada and environs had Typica trees in their backyards. But with coffee farming gradually falling out of favor, and with newer hybrids replacing the old trees, Typica has become a much rarer sight in this part of the country.

At the Tomegs’ farm, a Mundo Novo tree on the left and Typica tree on the right.

For further proof of Typica’s long history in the region, John led us on a 30-minute invigorating (meaning, mostly uphill) hike from the Coffee Heritage House to the farm of couple Andrew and Mary Tomeg. Their farm sits high up the mountain where the couple grow vegetables aside from coffee. As we approached their house, we spied lemon trees, native blackberry bushes, lush rosemary plants, and neat rows of cabbage interspersed with coffee trees. But what really caught our attention were the age-old Typica trees towering over the house.

Mary and Andrew Tomeg
Coffee trees growing beside cabbage.

These were full-grown Typicas, nothing like the younger trees we saw at Magdalena’s farm. They didn’t look like regular trees either, but more like a tight jumble of trunks and branches and leaves that extend high above the rooftop. According to the 60-ish-year-old Andrew, it was his grandparents who first planted them. Likely more than a hundred years old now, these trees continue to bear fruit.

One of several century-old Typica trees in the Tomeg property.

The Tomegs’ farm is one of the few places that still have such ancient trees, and as a working coffee farm, it is the rare one that directly links our earliest coffee traditions to today’s more globalized practices. It’s a realization that struck me as Andrew and Mary demonstrated how they prepared their coffee, from bean to cup, a process that has not changed in generations. The couple harvest and process the coffee cherries, remove the hull by pounding them in a lusong or stone mortar, roast them in a claypot over a wood-fired oven, pound them in the lusong until ground up, then brew the coffee in a kettle, native style, in a rolling boil.

Grinding coffee beans the old-fashioned way.
Coffee beans brewed in an old kettle over a wood-fired stove.

Go to any specialty or third-wave coffee shop in the city and you’ll read terms like “handcrafted,” “single origin,” “small batch,” “artisanal” proudly emblazoned on their menus or signboards. But as we were sipping the coffee that Andrew and Mary prepared for us in their humble pinewood-paneled abode, these terms shed their trendy millennial meanings to signify something more authentic. The coffee, by the way, tasted wonderful—a light, aromatic brew with minimal acidity and a touch of sweetness. I could’ve drank it all day.

One-of-a-kind Sagada coffee prepared from bean to cup by Andrew and Mary Tomeg.

John Batara sometimes brings guests from the Coffee Heritage House to visit the Tomegs, a chance to see their ancient Typica trees and sample their home brew. After all, the couple are grateful for the assistance that John provides through the Coffee Heritage Project. Mary recalls the old days when traders would buy beans at a much lower price and without much regard for quality. It no longer became sustainable for farmers to grow coffee, and they converted their fields to other crops, thus leading to the disappearance of many of the coffee farms in the region, including the Typica trees.

With consumers’ renewed interest and demand for good quality coffee, coffee farming is once again becoming a viable source of livelihood for many of the locals, with the Coffee Heritage Project contributing to this resurgence in Sagada.

100% Sagada coffee for sale at Coffee Heritage House..

After meeting the likes of John, Magdalena, Maria, Benita, and the Tomegs, I recognize that there really is a story to tell about Sagada coffee, and the farmers and community leaders that keep its heritage alive. While not all of us have the chance to visit these coffee farms in Sagada, we can enjoy their 100% Sagada-grown coffee at SGD Coffee Bodega in Quezon City or at its new branch SGD Coffee Roastery in Greenhills.

To learn more about the Cup-to-Farm movement, including the origins of coffee, coffee farmers, and the enforcement of green practices in farm tourism, the Coffee Science Center is presenting and organizing the very first Manila Coffee Festival, a coffee exhibition and trade show that showcases coffee in all forms and cutting-edge coffee lifestyles. The Festival will be held on March 7 to 9, 2019, from 11 am to 7 pm at the World Trade Center in Pasay City. For tickets, visit www.manilacoffeefestival.com.

 

SGD Coffee Bodega, Coffee Science Center, 45 Maalalahanin Street, Teacher’s Village East, Diliman, Quezon City, (0917) 826-9537

SGD Coffee Roastery, G/F Fox Square Building, 53 Connecticut Street, Greenhills, San Juan City, (0906) 267-4519

Special thanks to the Coffee Heritage Project and Coffee Heritage House

Photographs by Andre Drilon

 

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