ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews / 21 November) – A blend of native Maguindanao coffee from the municipality of South Upi won second place in a competition in Paris last week.
Farmed by local coffee farmers of North and South Upi in Maguindanao and processed by the Malibacao Agricultural Cooperative and North Star Upi Coffee, then roasted by the experts of the non-governmental organization Coffee Heritage Project in Quezon City, the blend won a “Gourmet Argent” (silver) award in the “Puissant Doux” category of the 6th Coffees Roasted at Origin International Contest.
“Puissant Doux” translates to “powerful soft,” but the website of the Paris-based Agency for the Valorization of Agricultural Products (AVPA) who organized the contest, said it means “strong coffee, softness in the mouth at the end.”
“It’s unlike other coffee because it has a kick at the start, a spike, then it mellows as it cools, with a sweet ending,” boasts Estanislao M. Gepte, Jr., proprietor of North Star Upi Coffee.
There were eight other categories in the AVPA competition: coffee with aromatic and acidulate characters well balanced; acidulate coffee developing a very fruity taste; soft, smooth and acidulate coffee; soft, smooth and aromatic coffee; soft smooth coffee with fruity aromatic character; strength and bitterness dominating, hiding other characters; coffee with a powerful, aromatic and acidulate character; coffee with all flavors and aromas in a good balance.
AVPA said there were 150 coffees from 25 countries in four continents submitted for this year’s contest. Among the coffee powerhouse countries include Colombia, Congo, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Honduras, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Rwanda and Hawaii in the United States.
Growing in the wild
Gepte was not originally in the coffee business, having delved into fishponds shortly after finishing his civil engineering studies in the 1980s. He left fisheries in 2013, and worked as a consultant for an NGO while living in Cotabato City.
He said in a telephone interview on Friday that sometime in 2017, a friend from North Upi approached him if he could take a look at the situation of local farmers and help them with their corn harvest that was selling so low in the market.
He went to Upi, checked the product, then went to Manila to look for a market. To his dismay, he found out that feed millers in Batangas were getting their imported corn at a much lower price.
Since he could do nothing about the corn, he asked the farmers: “Do you have other commodities we could sell?”
Yes, they have coffee, of the native variety. He took a look at the farms situated between 700 and 1,000 meters above sea level, and found wild coffee trees of the four major species – robusta, arabica, liberica and excelsa.
“These are trees that are 10 to 30 years old growing in the wild,” Gepte said.
But when he looked at the harvest, he concluded that quality was poor. But he saw the potential.
He said soil in South Upi is good, there is enough rain, and rarely does the weather get too hot – conditions that are ideal for growing coffee.
Gepte said that a few years back, he collaborated with an employee of the Department of Trade and Industry in helping coffee farmers in Sulu successfully improve their produce.
“Why not replicate it in Maguindanao?” he thought.
With his little knowledge about coffee, and with the help of an agronomist friend and the chairman of the cooperative, Boy Favila, who attended some seminars on coffee, he encouraged the coffee growers on good farming practices.
He promised to buy their harvest at a much higher price if the farmers would follow his suggestions to improve their coffee.
“Before, farmers here would harvest coffee the ‘Armalite’ way, getting everything in one go, even the green cherries that are still not ripe,” Gepte said.
He pointed out that because the farmers have not received help from any of the government line agencies, and thus no facilities to process their coffee, they usually just left their coffee cherries to dry on the ground, severely affecting quality.
His North Star Upi Coffee, which he formed in 2018, partnered with the cooperative – the farmers provided the labor, and Gepte spent for the materials so they would have “raised beds” where to put the coffee to dry instead of on the ground.
“I’m just glad that the farmers listened to our lectures and practiced what they learned,” Gepte said.
He said he must be paying double the amount now for the local coffee harvest, and hired 12 women to do the sorting, that tedious process of picking out the defective beans.
A local roastery in South Upi roasts North Star’s coffee. Gepte says he prefers to make use of local resources and manpower to help the community.
Even in the packaging, Gepte levelled up the game, following the big players’ practice of using foil bags with one-way valves to help preserve quality of the coffee. Two of his children who finished multimedia arts from the College of St. Benilde in Manila designed the label.
As luck would have it, Gepte met Rich Watanabe, executive director of the Coffee Heritage Project (CHP), an NGO based in Quezon City helping coffee farmers improve their produce and their lives. CHP happened to have among their ranks a former employee of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim in Mindanao (BARMM), Larry Mapolon.
A partnership ensued.
From Upi to Manila to Paris
Convinced of the quality of the Upi coffee, CHP invited North Star to join the Manila Coffee Festival scheduled in March 2020, a project initiated by Mayor Isko Moreno.
Gepte shipped green coffee beans to CHP for the event. Unfortunately, because of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the festival was cancelled.
“CHP offered to roast the beans and sell the coffee in Metro Manila. Many in the barista community loved the beans because of its unique taste,” he said.
“Maybe because our coffee trees are naturally grown? Or the environment is still pristine?” Gepte opined.
Shortly after, CHP asked Gepte if they can enter North Star’s coffee in the Paris competition of locally roasted coffees. “Of course I said, go!”
CHP sorted the coffee some more, roasted the beans, then submitted the entry in September. The results came out last November 16. Because of the pandemic, North Star, the farmers’ cooperative and CHP were not able to attend the awarding ceremony. Philippine Embassy representatives in Paris received the award instead.
The CHP labelled North Star’s coffee as a “limited edition roast” of its educational arm, the Coffee Science Center, the beans coming from Upi, Maguindanao, and a “product of the Bangsamoro Region.”
In its “Puissant Doux” category, the gold award went to a coffee from Java, Indonesia, which has been in the specialty coffee industry much longer than the Philippines. The bronze went to a coffee grower from Mexico.
In a Facebook post, the DTI-Paris office said that North Star’s win at AVPA was the country’s fourth. Previous Philippine coffees awarded by AVPA were Bana’s Coffee (Sagada, 2017), Mirabueno Coffee (Bukidnon, 2019), and SGD Coffee (Northern Sagada, 2019).
Gepte said that with the award, he is hoping that the government would finally be helping the local farmers further improve their produce.
“Upon learning of the award, BARMM officials already met with us last Thursday,” he said.
Gepte said a few more in the coffee industry called him recently for possible partnership. (Bobby Timonera / MindaNews)