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Optimizing Opportunity in Specialty Coffee Markets

This article first appeared on Business World Online, written by Patricia B. Mirasol on July 12, 2023

FILIPINO coffee farmers can excel globally by prioritizing taste and quality, ensuring traceability at the farm level, and joining cooperatives, according to an industry expert.

“You could be organic and fairly traded, but if the coffee doesn’t taste good, to begin with, it’ll never make the grade,” said Pacita U. Juan, president and co-chair of the Philippine Coffee Board, Inc. (PCBI).

The PCBI, established in 2002 to promote Philippine coffee, emphasizes the importance of taste for success in the industry.

Farmers are trained from the early stages to taste their coffee, allowing them to identify areas for improvement prior to market entry, according to Ms. Juan.

Adding value at the farm level entails the painstaking process of forgoing strip picking — or the method of stripping off all the fruit from trees, thereby yielding a mix of ripe and not-so-ripe fruit.

Quality coffee is when only what’s ripe is harvested, Ms. Juan said.

Coffee farms in the Philippines are backyard farms, she noted. This makes the manual process of having to go back to their farms once a week as more fruits ripen labor-intensive.

“A farmer from Cavite will get someone from Bicol, or a farmer from Davao will get somebody from Cotabato,” she added. 

“It happens globally. A farmer from Mexico might get help from a Guatemalan. Whatever is contiguous… you will get somebody who will charge you cheaper labor.”

Increasing the buying price of coffee — from P120 per kilo back then to now P500-800 per kilo for the Arabica variant — incentivizes farmers to pick only the ripe cherries.

“The best-tasting coffees will go into auctions where a farmer, instead of just getting P500-800 per kilo, may get P2,000… for maybe a microplot. It’s a good incentive,” Ms. Juan said.

Between 2020 and 2021, approximately 166.63 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee were consumed worldwide, marking an increase from the previous year’s 164 million bags, as reported by statistics portal Statista in March.

South America has taken the lead in satisfying the preferences of coffee enthusiasts by producing around 78 million 60-kilogram bags in 2021.

Additionally, the United States has recorded the highest coffee market revenue, amounting to $85 billion.

According to Statista, a notable trend in the coffee market is the growing demand for specialty coffee. In a separate 2023 report, it highlighted that consumers are actively seeking unique and high-quality coffee experiences, exploring diverse flavor profiles, and appreciating the artistry and craftsmanship involved in coffee production.

This emerging market demand presents an opportunity for growth, said Ms. Juan.

Traceability also appeals to global buyers.

“If you’re asking for the recipe to successfully enter foreign or export markets, ensure traceability,” said Ms. Juan. “Quality, followed by traceability. That will catch the attention of international coffee buyers.”

She said that putting your name on your coffee signifies your commitment to the product. “During our [PCBI] trainings, we tell them, ‘Don’t put your name if you’re not proud of your coffee.’”

Pacita U. Juan with Business World Online

“We make an effort to know the farmer, so when we bring their coffee to countries like Malaysia or Singapore, it carries the farmer’s name,” she said, highlighting that it has become a global trend for farmers to label their produce.

Mere mention of Philippine coffee does not hold much weight, according to Ms. Juan.

“You need to specify, ‘I have Philippine Liberica from a single estate in Alfonso, Cavite, and the farmer’s name is so-and-so.’ Do you see how the price has increased?” she added.

She also said that the price competition is not solely about the coffee beans. The added value, including traceability, organic practices, sustainability, and fair agricultural prices, enhances what would otherwise be considered just Philippine coffee.

The Philippines’ foreign trade service corps, with offices across the globe, knows how to sell coffee “in a way that aligns with global buying preferences,” according to Ms. Juan.

She described a 2019 briefing by the Philippine Coffee Board with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) as a “watershed moment.”

“We are pleased that the DTI listened to us,” she said.

“Don’t provide it to them already roasted,” she noted, highlighting that overseas roasters prefer to roast their own coffee.

“Each culture has different roast preferences. Germans may prefer medium dark, while Norwegians might enjoy medium roast. A roaster understands the local market’s demand for roast levels,” she said.

Opportunities also abound among second-generation immigrants in North America, she added.

The California branch of Blue Bottle Coffee, Inc., a US-headquartered coffee chain with a majority stake owned by the Nestlé group, sells Philippine coffee, she said. Switzerland’s Blaser Café does as well.

Ms. Juan also listed coffee businesses run by Filipino-Americans that sell locally grown coffee.

“Teofilo Coffee Company of Los Alamitos and Mostra Coffee of San Diego. These are coffee shops started by Fil-Ams who want to reconnect with their roots,” she said. “I’ve met them, and they’re very proud to serve Filipino coffee.”

Another secret is to join cooperatives, Ms. Juan said. It is better to work with a group than go alone, she added.

She also emphasized how farmers in cooperatives are exposed to competition.

“Cooperatives will probably even have a cooperative-wide competition,” she noted.

Evaluating for quality entails checking the defect count, the size of the bean, and the taste of the commodity itself. This process can be done through the Coffee Quality Institute’s Q grading system, as well as the A grading system by the Association of Southeast Nations Coffee Federation, of which Ms. Juan is vice-president.

Producing consistent coffee can be compared to nurturing a relationship, Ms. Juan also said.

“It’s really a relationship… a farmer has to do this consistently for them to remain in the minds of buyers,” she said.

“We had an experience before where they won, but the next year they let go — so their coffee was not sustained. It’s a season-to-season initiative.”

Ms. Juan started a coffee shop in the 1990s and began serving only local coffee when she realized people would always ask for it.

It was also around that time when she discovered the growing gap between the increase in consumption and the decrease in production.

“For the business to be sustainable — and our business then was what would be a 70-store chain — we had to get enough coffee around the country. That led me to the Philippine Coffee Board,” she said.

“Over the last five to seven years, farmers have significantly improved the kind of coffee they produce and process,” she added.

According to Ms. Juan, Filipino farmers are now more aware of the types of coffee produced all over the world.

“You can’t just say your product tastes like coffee,” she said.

“It has to have some flavor nuance. Barako [the Liberica variant], they say, is like langka or jackfruit. Then it might as well taste like good jackfruit and not an off-tasting jackfruit that tastes like grass,” she added.

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