Finding My Identity Through Philippine Specialty Coffee

By Corazon Padilla,
Andytown Director of Quality Control

Filipino Coffee Co. at Seattle’s Pike Place Market in 1909. The Philippines has long been a producer of coffee, but has struggled to make a name in the modern Specialty Coffee Industry. Photo: Museum of History & Industry, PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection

Filipino Coffee Co. at Seattle’s Pike Place Market in 1909. The Philippines has long been a producer of coffee, but has struggled to make a name in the modern Specialty Coffee Industry. Photo: Museum of History & Industry, PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection

 
 

As a Filipino American, I grew up often questioning my national identity.

I was raised in a home of traditional Filipino values and ideals but went to schools that had few Asian immigrants. At home, my parents taught me to be proud of my Filipino heritage, to never forget my roots, and help fellow Filipinos when you can. However, it was difficult to feel a complete connection to my motherland when my immediate community was mostly American, and I would be teased by family and other Filipinos for my Americanisms.

All too often, I would be told by older Filipinos, “Why don’t you speak Tagalog? You should learn.” And yet, when I would speak broken Tagalog with my American accent, others would find it funny and “cute.” I felt shame for not knowing enough and I felt shame for trying.

To my American community, I was welcomed but still viewed as someone different. The question of “Where are you from?” actually meant, “What’s your ethnicity?” My peers loved learning about Filipino traditions and eating lumpia and pancit but held skepticism and revulsion when I mentioned dishes involving fish sauce or shrimp paste. I didn’t dare mention diniguan—pork blood stew—to anyone unless it was a close friend. Even then, like all other Filipinos, I first called it chocolate meat stew to minimize the fear factor and save myself from potential embarrassment.

I grew up never feeling fully Filipino, and never feeling fully American. It was as if I was never enough of either, and inside me grew this longing to belong. I began searching for ways to connect with people who experienced otherness. This led me to studying abroad and eventually working in international exchanges. Even though I wasn’t settled with my duality, perhaps I could still help others find their sense of belonging by bridging cultures.

Pickers at the Sitio Belis washing station in the Philippines.

Pickers at the Sitio Belis washing station in the Philippines.

My love for coffee began when I started traveling in my early 20s. I was used to the “grab and go” coffee experience in the US, but when I travelled to Europe, it blew my mind that “getting a coffee” often meant sitting at a café for hours on end, talking about anything and everything.

I loved that coffee was a means to bring people together. I fantasized about working in a café someday just for fun, and when I moved to the bay area in 2014, I became a barista at a specialty coffee shop while searching for a different job in the international field. However, that search ended shortly after I realized there was more to coffee than serving lattes. There were many fields of specialization in coffee, and I was so enthralled by the amount of endless possibilities that I decided to shift my career into the specialty coffee industry.

When I told my mom I became a barista, she said to me, “Did you know there’s coffee in the Philippines, too?” I started to do some research and learned that the Philippines grew both Arabica and Robusta, and the lesser known Liberica (Barako) and Excelsa species. The Philippines was colonized by the Spaniards in the early 1500s, and coffee was first introduced in 1740 by a Spanish Franciscan monk. It became the fourth largest exporter of coffee by 1880, but when coffee rust hit the nation, production saw a sharp decline by 1889. Fast forward to the 2000s, and coffee is still grown in the Philippines, but in small amounts.

To most of the world, the Philippines has been forgotten as a coffee producing country. I couldn’t find anything on specialty coffee. I took out my notebook and starting writing notes on ways I could get involved with Philippine coffee and bring it to the US, but I quickly became weary. How could I get involved with specialty coffee in the Philippines if—to my knowledge—it didn’t really exist there yet? What do I know, I just became a barista! I closed my notebook and left my thoughts on the shelf. Something will come around someday.

Kalsada coffee bags, ready for export.

Kalsada coffee bags, ready for export.

I spent the next few years pulling shots of espresso, expanding my geeky coffee knowledge, and taking in whatever information I could to determine what direction I wanted to take next. Serving drinks to people and making them smile on a daily basis was fulfilling, but I was looking for something different.

Was I bridging cultures the way I wanted to? I heard a good handful of stories of people with a vision to change up the coffee game in producing regions. Around the world, there were efforts to help farmers become better educated so that they could improve their farming practices and cultivate coffees of higher quality. Farmers could then receive better pay for their hard work. Was this happening in the Philippines? There’s got to be other people thinking about this and working on it, right? 

I hopped back onto the internet and found Kalsada Coffee—a social enterprise that champions Philippine coffee and their dedicated efforts to bring quality coffee to the specialty market. I eagerly reached out to Carmel Laurino, a Filipino American from the Pacific Northwest and Founder of Kalsada, to see if there was a way I could help. We kept in contact and finally met for the first time at the 2018 SCA Global Coffee Expo, where I, along with the Kalsada team, Steph Canlas (Andytown Graphic Designer) and other Filipino American supporters, helped run the first ever Philippine Coffee booth. It was sponsored by ACDI/VOCA, an international development non-profit organization.

Carmel Laurino, center, with Steph Canlas, center left, Corazon Padilla, center top, and the Kalsada SCA Booth crew.

Carmel Laurino, center, with Steph Canlas, center left, Corazon Padilla, center top, and the Kalsada SCA Booth crew.

The backdrop to our booth was a photograph of the Filipino Coffee Co. at Seattle’s Pike Place Market in 1909 – 62 years before Starbucks first opened. It’s the photograph that Carmel discovered during her undergrad research and what inspired her to start Kalsada Coffee. And here we were, the new generation of Filipinos, brewing and sharing the top 12 Philippine specialty coffees that placed at a national coffee competition that took place a month prior.

Here we were, the new generation of Filipinos presenting a product and livelihood initiated by colonizers, that nearly died out because of agricultural disease, but is coming back to life because of the descendants who believe in it. We were reclaiming our heritage and proudly sharing it all at once. I brewed a cup of coffee to one of the Filipino farmers able to attend the conference, using the beans he lovingly cultivated. I nervously presented him with his coffee, as if I was asking, “Is it good? Am I good? Am I Filipino enough?” He took a sip, smiled and said, “Masarap (delicious).” Until that moment, I never realized just how much I was seeking approval from my heritage.

Coffee grows on the Sitio Belis farm.

Coffee grows on the Sitio Belis farm.

I invited Carmel to Andytown to share her experiences and the work being done in the Philippines. She held a presentation in our small cupping room, filled with coffee professionals and customers alike, all curious and excited to learn and taste Philippine coffee first hand. Those following us on social media were also able to view parts of the presentation. At the end of the day, there was a resounding message from all of our supporters: We want Philippine specialty coffee in the Bay Area.

It’s hard to believe that Philippine specialty coffee is finally here. It has been a labor of love and dedication of makers and doers, believers, and supporters; but for me, what started off as a search for approval became a journey of discovery, understanding, and acceptance. I am indeed not fully Filipino, nor fully American; I am proud to say I am equally both. My otherness has allowed me to connect with Filipinos of various backgrounds and become a champion of Philippine specialty coffee. It’s been a long road, but it’s only the beginning; all of us who worked to get this coffee here are excited for you to join us as we continue our journey on this kalsada.