Award-winning barista believes that fermentation processes may be key to popularizing Philippine coffee globally

Michael Harris Conlin won silver and bronze at the Global Coffee Championship in 2021 in the Signature Coffee Latte and Signature Coffee Brewer categories respectively, both using local beans. (Michael Harris Conlin)

Filipinos love coffee. The demand for the beverage is so huge that local coffee harvests account for only 30% of the national consumption. 

In a bid to raise the profile of Philippine coffee worldwide, many growers have been entering beans into global competitions, with some winning awards.

READ: Touched by the Sun’s Rays: Bukidnon tribal cooperative produces award-winning coffee

Some baristas do this by using Philippine beans in their coffee concoctions in international competitions. One of these is Michael Harris Conlin, a 2019 National Barista Champion and World Barista Championship Semi Finalist who won silver and bronze at the Global Coffee Championship in 2021 in the Signature Coffee Latte and Signature Coffee Brewer categories respectively, both using local beans. 

The beans that helped Conlin win in the Signature Coffee Brewer category is the Liberica, more popularly known as barako, from a cooperative in Sta. Maria, Laguna. (Michael Harris Conlin)

READ: Philippine coffee wins silver and bronze in global competition

Conlin is the proprietor of The Giving Cafe (TGC), a social enterprise cafe where part of the proceeds for each branch benefit specific coffee farming communities around the country. 

READ: Coffee ‘Cart’ to Turn Commuters Into Farmers’ Benefactors

Bringing out the best through fermentation

“My main work, especially during the pandemic, was a lot of research and development for processing methods. One of my goals is to give more value or create more value for Philippine coffee,” he says. “Coffee is a very complicated and very long process. Planting coffee and for it to bear fruit takes about five years and processing coffee from harvesting also takes a lot of time. One of the goals of my project was to modulate flavors through coffee fermentation. This is one of the ways we have identified to bring value to the coffee… consumers will then pay more for the end product, for a cup of coffee….”

Conlin examines the cherries of a coffee tree. (Michael Harris Conlin)

Conlin used two varieties from two different growers in his Global Coffee Championship drinks. One used an Arabica varietal called Typica from Agnep Heritage Farm in Benguet, where he was a consultant. 

The other used Liberica, more popularly known as barako, from a cooperative in Sta. Maria, Laguna. “This is a farm that’s in a DENR protected forest… Metro Manila would flood if not for that forest,” he says. “There’s 85,000 trees there in Sta. Maria, Laguna, and it’s one of the highest concentrations of Liberica coffees in CALABARZON.”

Matching fermentation technique to bean type

He developed very different fermentation processes for both. 

Since the Typica beans from Benguet were biodynamically grown in the middle of a lush forest, “we discovered that an uber minimalist processing method was the most suitable for their coffee, and that brought out really delicious, very sweet flavors… from the terroir,” he says. “It proved that a minimalist style of processing has a lot of potential as long as the farm has… biodiversity and the… farming techniques that they apply (are) proper ones. So, if you take care of the soil, basically, the result, you’ll see in the cup of coffee.” 

He used the opposite method for the Liberica beans from Laguna. “…the farmers were getting paid really, really low prices for their coffees at the time… People from Batangas will come to their farm in Laguna, buy it, then sell it in Batangas as Barako. For me, that was a big issue,” Conlin says. “I told them that their coffee should be highlighted as their coffee, as a Laguna, Sta. Maria coffee. They said they’re not famous for coffee…. I told them that I’ll work on their coffee and I’ll make a processing technique that will bring the best flavors out of their coffee because Liberica has a lot of potential, it’s just… the processing that’s currently being practiced… is wrong. It’s not bringing the best out.”

Coffee cherries ripening on the tree. (Michael Harris Conlin)

Conlin bought their cherries and experimented on the processing technique needed to bring out the best in the beans. “…what we found was (that) by isolating the native microorganisms from the cherries and using those (same) native microorganisms to do the fermentation, we were able to highlight the positive flavors that’s available in the coffee and suppress the unwanted flavors,” he explains. “…even the roasting style is very different for Liberica because unlike Arabica that’s dense, Liberica is very light. The density is very low. So if you apply the same style of roasting, it burns… we had to adjust many things to bring the best flavors out of that coffee. The end result was really nice. It tasted like pineapples, Melona (a Korean ice cream brand), with a nice sparkling apple juice finish.”

Focus on Liberica

Conlin is working on a freeze-dried version of the microorganism that farmers can add to their processing. “(It’s a) really complicated process,” he says. “There’s a lot of flavors in coffee, over a thousand aroma volatile compounds... You just have to suppress the bad ones and bring up the flavors that you want, and that’s basically what we were able to do for that Liberica.”

A basket of freshly picked coffee cherries. (Michael Harris Conlin)

His reason for focusing on Liberica is simple: he thinks it might be able to adapt to climate change. “Liberica is a hardier coffee, it’s able to grow in lowlands, and it’s able to take (the) heat (of the Philippines),” he says. “It’s resistant to pests, it’s resistant to rust, so I think if more people plant Liberica coffee, it’s going to be good for the coffee industry.”

Profit and prestige for coffee farmers

The result, of course, is that if a coffee drink wins an award, especially globally, the beans used will immediately be seen as premium, and farmers can command a higher price for them.

A coffee farmer smiles as he poses in front of one of his coffee trees. (Michael Harris Conlin)

The beans from Agnep Heritage Farm were coincidentally its first ever harvest. “(They are now) selling the coffee at a higher premium compared to how much (they) would be making if (they) sold it without an award,” Conlin says.

Meanwhile, the beans from Sta. Maria made history as the highest a coffee drink made with Liberica beans has scored in a global competition. “…we’ve proven that the coffee and the techniques we apply would be able to give the coffee farmers more value for their coffee. They’ll be able to earn more, especially now,” Conlin says. “And of course, now that we’re able to sell the coffee, I’ve been getting inquiries… from international coffee competitors.”

He believes that using Philippine beans in international competitions is one way for the country’s coffee industry to gain global attention. “…the more professional baristas use our Philippine coffee on the world stage, the more attention we’ll get, and the more these coffee farmers can command for their coffee,” he says. “My goal was really to focus on the coffee that we were able to produce and get our fellow Filipinos to give it more value (because)… a lot of people aren’t willing to pay the right amount that would trickle all the way to the farmer.”

Sometimes, just growing a crop is not enough. In the case of coffee, for example, it involves soil health, proper cultivation according to local elements, and a lot of research and development, and finally, testing the resulting product in a highly competitive environment. “I think the moral… is if we just accept the products that are produced… as is without looking at how to improve it, then we’ll be stuck at that level.”

From crop to cup

The research and partner communities are supported by proceeds from The Giving Cafe. “All these experiments have to come from somewhere and all the processes and methodologies we develop, and of course all the stuff we donate to the farmers like drying beds, greenhouses, has to come from somewhere, and all that comes from eating,” Conlin says. “ So far.., the circle of farming, eating, and going back to farming has been working, we call it ‘indulging giving’ because when you eat, you give.”

TGC works with two communities, one in Itogon, Benguet, and the other, the aforementioned one in Sta. Maria, Laguna, each one supported by some of the profits generated by one of TGC’s three branches (Mandaluyong; SM Marikina; and UP Los Banos, where they are collaborating with the College of Forestry on biodynamic farming projects). “We really want to put coffee in the forefront of the academe and the youth. We want to make sure that they understand that coffee is difficult and we need to nurture and ensure that future generations… will still have coffee in the Philippines,” Conlin says. “Many coffee farmers don’t want to continue farming. They want to go into other stuff because it’s difficult and there is extreme poverty in coffee growing places.”

Conlin with some of the coffee farmers TGC works with. (Michael Harris Conlin)

A fourth branch is being planned in Sta. Rosa. They are also setting up a Global Coffee School Program to teach interested parties about different aspects of the coffee industry. “Not only are we building communities, we’re also able to raise more funds for the research that we’re doing,” he says. “We want to keep doing these things, leveling up programs and developing technology for farming, especially coffee farming.”

Conlin is very excited about the possibilities in the coffee value chain. “The people in the value chain who know what the gaps are, and those gaps are opportunities too,” he says.

READ: Syrups made from different parts of the Liberica tree a hit in Japan

“We’re trying to remove as many middlemen in the coffee value chain,” he says. “The new updated coffee value chain should look more like: coffee farmer, coffee mill,  processing center, coffee roaster, and then cafe. It should look like that. There should be no in-between… That way, there’s more margin to be shared across the entire chain. The less hands it passes through, the more to share.”

Photos courtesy of Michael Harris Conlin

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