Michael Harris Conlin only started training and refining his skills after watching the World Barista Championships in South Korea in 2017. Photograph by Medal Elepaño
Food & Drink Features

Coffee geek Michael Harris Conlin plants beans of progress for the Filipino brew

The Henry and Sons CEO and master roaster embodies the word “champion,” both as a noun and a verb. On one hand, he has lifted the trophy at the National Barista Championships, which allowed him the opportunity to geek out at the world tilt in Boston. On the other hand, he champions Philippine coffee by pouring his time, resources, and heart into realizing a grand vision.
Jacs T. Sampayan | May 17 2019

 When he was 12 years old, Michael Harris Conlin was spending winter vacation at his father’s house in Nova Scotia. “There was a really cool espresso bar there. My dad taught me that coffee had to be freshly ground, and showed me how to steam milk, and how to pour a proper cappuccino,” the Henry and Sons president and CEO recalls. “I was his personal barista ever since. I loved making coffee for my dad and until this day I still make him his coffee every chance I get.”

It gives me peace that we’re able to make a positive impact on the people around us, coffee has been such a huge part of my life, Conlin says.

 

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While Henry and Sons proudly remains one of the last few Abaca rope factories in the world, the Conlins have long since branched out to the coffee game. “I started our coffee business in 2001. At the time I wanted to start a business of my own. In 2006 my brother joined the business and is now running Conlins coffee, and it is now one of the largest coffee roasting companies in the Philippines today,” says the master roaster. “In 2013 we acquired one of the pioneer coffee companies in the country and rebranded it to Henry and Sons as a tribute to our dad. Our focus is on specialty coffee and uplifting the Philippine coffee community.”

A confessed coffee geek, Conlin has recently added “barista champion” to his java-laced portfolio. After being proclaimed as the National Barista Champion, he flew to Boston to compete at the world tilt, alongside the rock stars of the global coffee community. There, he proudly promoted some of our local produce by using Itogon coffee in his 15-minute presentation bid.

Conlin eventually ended in the top 15 of the tournament, which is quite a commendable finish in such a competitive field. When he came back home, he opened the doors to the Institute of Coffee Excellence, right across the popular Mandaluyong dining space they launched a couple years back, The Giving Café (TGC). At the Institute, he plans to execute his vision for local coffee; they will use the two-story building to house classes for baristas, meeting spaces for farmer-trader deals and discussions, and discover more innovative ways to put Philippine beans into international awareness.

We caught up with Conlin at the Institute, where he shared his experiences in Boston as well as his dreams for our kape.

After winning the National Barista Championships, Conlin competed at the world stage in Boston.

 

You transitioned to learning—and excelling—in latte art a couple of years back. What made you want to try it?

I’ve always believed that the customers experience can be enhanced when the coffee they are served is perfectly brewed and visually appealing. I’ve always known that the pursuit for coffee excellence is a never ending one. so I started developing my skills with latte art and making the best espresso. In 2017, while watching the world barista championship in South Korea, I was inspired by what the baristas were doing on stage. I felt that it would be the perfect platform to bring Philippine coffee into the global coffee spotlight. This can unite the industry in working toward a sustainable coffee economy for the Philippines.

 

How was the training for that like for the World Barista Championship (WBC)?

It was difficult, and was the most difficult challenge I ever had to prepare for. I had to rediscover my self and dig deep to find “why” I wanted to compete in the world stage. After months of practice, and mental preparation, I was determined to share to the world our mission of creating a fully sustainable coffee economy. The Philippines is one of the lucky countries that has the right terroir and micro climate that can grow and consume coffee. I also realized that in order to do this we have to first start by shifting consumer preferences from drinking instant coffee to specialty coffee. I applied the law of diffusion of innovation to the competition format and created specialty coffee offerings for each of the consumer types in the market. Espresso for the innovators, milk course for the early adaptors, and my signature drink for the early majority. I believe this is the best way we can promote specialty coffee. The skills came naturally with practice, it was the mindfulness and attention to detail that I had to pay attention to. Determination and persistence definitely played a huge part in preparing for the competitions. Training starts every morning by dialing-in and tasting the espressos. The target is to be able to find the best tasting espresso grind size and recipe in a maximum of 3 shots.

 

It sounds like a long journey. What kept you going?

During one of the training sessions, I was almost ready to give up. One of our “coffee for great minds” scholars sent a photo of her graduation picture and I realized that it is important to represent the Filipino farming community so that the world can notice what we can achieve.

Conlin recently opened the Institute for Coffee Excellence in Sheridan street, Mandaluyong.

 

What was going through your mind during the actual competition in Boston?

It was a surreal and very emotional moment for me to be standing at the middle of the world stage. As a huge world barista championship fan I loved to watch my coffee heroes perform on stage, and at that moment I realized that I was now on stage performing and competing alongside them. It was a dream come true and was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Even if I was a competitor, I was still a huge fan of the people I was competing against. I spent an entire day getting all the coffee celebrities to sign my apron; they were all so happy to give their autograph. When I was finally on stage and ready to perform, I truly enjoyed serving the judges three of the best coffee courses I’ve ever made, and I was so happy to finally share our mission for the Philippines.

The Giving Cafe is a hub for your initiatives in coffee. Can you enumerate some of them? The giving cafe was built as a Social enterprise that would be able to sustain the activities of our Foundation for Sustainable Coffee Excellence (FSCE). It has five main purposes. Cup to Seed, which provides livelihood programs to local coffee growers in Benguet, assisting them between the period of planting and harvesting. The Giving Well, which provides potable water to coffee farming communities. Beans for the Little ones, which distributes mosquito nets and booster vaccines to coffee farming communities in Benguet, giving them access to basic health necessities. Coffee for great minds, grants educational assistance to the children of growers in La Trinidad, Benguet, providing them access to education. Beans within reach, which creates programs and activities that will connect the local coffee growers to global buyers, enabling them to market their produce at a premium price.

 

What kind of personal fulfilment do you get from seeing these initiatives enrich the lives of those who benefit from them?

Peace. It gives me peace that we’re able to make a positive impact on the people around us, coffee has been such a huge part of my life and it’s important for me to share my passion for coffee. It’s my vision to be able to inspire our community to work towards food and coffee security for the Philippines.

 

What is your vision for Philippine coffee?

A beautiful coffee future where farmers, baristas, coffee professionals and consumers all work toward a future where we have food security for the Philippines. This is our vision for the next 10 years.

 

Please share some of your favorites. What’s your favorite coffee bean?

Currently, my favorite is our Itogon coffee processed using “G protocols.” This is fermented in a temperature controlled oxygen free environment that enables us to enhance its dark cherry, ripe bananas, and apricot flavors. It’s intensely sweet with med to low acidity and medium bitterness. I also enjoy coffees from Gesha village.

 

Favorite coffee drink?

Espresso

 

Favorite dish to pair with coffee?

The chocolate chip cookie from TGC.

 

Comfort food?

Sweet and sour pork with yang chao fried rice.

 

Favorite wine?

I don’t drink anymore. But I do like making coffee cascara wine.

 

The last book you read and loved?

My current favorite is The Monk of Mohka by Dave Eggers.

Having Philippine coffee make a name for itself in the international scene is Conlin's vision.

What’s on your regular music playlist?

Coldplay, Imagine Dragons.

 

Favorite clothing brand?

Underarmour.

 

Favorite shoes?

Cole Haan.

 

Favorite city in the world?

It’s a toss up between Taguig and Mandaluyong.

 

Favorite hotel?

The Grand Hyatt.

 

Dream car?

It’s actually my 6-year-old son Dylan who has a dream car. He wants a red Lamborghini.

 

How do you de-stress?

I go for long 10 kg runs.

 

What’s on your bucket list?

I want to go meet the Dalai Lama. I’d also like to be able to help Philippines coffee be known as one of the best tasting coffees in the world.

 

For more information on the Institute for Coffee Excellence, visit their Facebook page.

Photographs by Medal Elepaño