If you could drink local specialty coffee, would you? Of course you would. But what if cafés just didn’t think it was economically feasible?
The specialty scene in SE Asia has exploded as cafés switch their 3-in-1 instant coffee for something better. And that something better is increasingly often local beans. After all, why should coffee-producing countries import beans from the other side of the globe?
Yet it’s not always easy to serve it. Issues such as an unreliable supply and high prices can make other origins seem more attractive.
To delve into this some more, we – two Filipino brothers now roasting and exporting SE Asian coffee – went on a journey to Bangkok and Manila. Dehydrated and sweating profusely from caffeine OD, we ran from café to café, interview to interview, in search of answers.
And answers we found. Read on to discover the state of the specialty coffee scene in Bangkok and Manila, what the challenges facing it are, and what cities like London can learn.
Bangkok’s Eclectic Specialty Scene
The heat hit immediately as we walked out of our hotel. It was that take-off-all-your-clothes, sweaty-already kind of heat. Being from London, we’re used to coffee as a tool to warm up from the British weather; in Thailand, the last thing we wanted was a hot brew.
Yet we pushed ourselves to flag down a tuk-tuk, open Google maps, and see what Bangkok has to offer. And we’re glad we did – the specialty scene was diverse, advanced, and exciting. We’d never come across such an eclectic mix of cafés, each offering their own twists on the standard coffee menu while always proudly promoting local beans.
The third wave has definitely inspired a generation of young and innovative Thai entrepreneurs focused on putting local coffee on the map. They’re not conforming; they’re refusing to offer the same old thing – and compared to London, where everyone orders a flat white or a latte, it was invigorating. We couldn’t get enough of checking what each spot had to offer and, more importantly, how local beans were being pushed.
Our verdict on Thai coffee: absolutely delicious and full of surprises!
While there were many amazing coffee shops, here are five that deserve particular mention:
- Gallery Drip Bar – Pour over coffees only up in here! Baristas use the V60 so much they can’t help but rotate their heads whilst pouring. Try the classic iced Thai Milk Coffee with a fully washed Catimor from Chiang Mai.
- Brave Coffee Roasters – An innovative drinks menu with amazing flavors. Try the Cold Brew Sukhmivit, an iced Caturra from Chiang Mai with lemongrass and Thai basil syrup.
- Ceresia Coffee – A cosy little café away from the buzzing streets of Bangkok. Try their V60 with a fully washed Caturra from Chiang Mai that’s roasted on-site.
- Pacamara – Blends on blends, this place is more for the old-school coffee drinkers pushing that darker roast.However, their Piccolo latte made with a washed Red Bourbon from Colombia is worth a try.
- Roast Café/Roots Roastery – Hidden away in the Commons Food Mall, this place has an innovative drinks menu. Try their Reversed Iced latte, where the ice cubes are espresso. They tend to serve up a fully washed Catimor from Chiang Mai.
The Evolving Specialty Scene of Manila
After our trip to Bangkok, it was time to visit the Philippines. 3 hours and one awkward interview at Customs later (apparently a suitcase packed with Thai coffee draws suspicion), we landed in Manila.
We soon discovered that this city has a developing third wave scene, yet the majority of cafés don’t serve local. When we were able to taste local coffees, however, they definitely showed promise. Here’s hoping that, as Manila’s coffee culture continues to evolve, they will start to appear more frequently.
Here are a few of the cafés worth visiting:
- Luna – A great spot in which to kick back and enjoy some locally sourced Barako – also known as Liberica. This coffee is less well-known and, for some, it’s Robusta’s uglier sister. However, the older Filipino generation regard this as the best coffee in the world, and I’m of the belief that, when roasted and brewed correctly, it’s a delicious choice. Alternatively, try the fully washed Typica from Matutum. The best drinks in this place were the Muscovado Sugar Latte and the Palawan Honey Latte.
- Yardstick – Hard to find but recommended by every barista we spoke to, Yardstick is a café, roastery, and pioneer of coffee education. Try a pour over with a fully washed Suke Quto from Ethiopia.
- Habitual – A nice café right next to an MMA gym, it’s filled with techies and gymmies at all hours. Try their espresso with a fully washed Typica produced in the Philippines and roasted by Kalsada.
- Edsa Beverage Design Studio – This science lab/coffee bar made us feel underdressed – where was our lab coat?! Founded by two Barista Champions and situated away from the city, it serves up the best filter in Manila. Ask for their fully washed Ethiopian brewed in a V60.
- Single Origin – A coffee menu with some twists. Try their orange-infused cappuccino. That’s right, I said orange! It starts rich and sweet, but then there’s a sudden burst of fruitiness. As for their beans, they use a fully washed Kenyan. Top baristas and stunning coffee. They don’t serve local coffees but they do offer an excellent five-bean house blend.
- Wildflour Cafe + Bakery – My favourite breakfast spot, this place serves up great pastries with even better coffee. Unfortunately they don’t serve local beans, but their flat white is still a strong choice.
What’s the Future of Filipino Coffee?
Micro-lot farms are currently the only ones producing specialty-grade coffees, mostly Typica, in the Philippines. While this means the country can produce high-quality beans, the quantities needed to supply it on an international level just aren’t there.
Fortunately, investment into farms is trickling through from national coffee boards. But for Carmel Laurina, Founder of Kalsada, this isn’t enough.
Kalsada, based out of the US, has achieved international recognition for its work on improving both the quality of, and awareness of, specialty-grade coffee grown in the Philippines. It’s safe to say that Carmel knows what she’s talking about when it comes to Filipino coffee.
She said to us, “We need to put the farmer in a position where they know their work is taking care of their family financially. The farms we work with also sell other produce to keep a constant income in case they have a bad coffee harvest. We don’t want them to sell the beans we’ve worked with them on for the lowest price because they need the cash to feed their family”.
And it’s not just Carmel who thinks that. Kevin Tang, Co-Founder of Yardstick, shared his view as a café owner with us:
“Filipino coffee? The quality is definitely getting there. We tried Kalsada last year; our customer base have come to expect the best from us and so we wouldn’t have stocked local beans if we didn’t think they were any good.”
“But the issue for us is quantity and price. Farms aren’t yet at the stage where they can supply us the amount we need year in, year out. If they lose their crop due to bad weather or something, then you have no beans.”
“And then you have the price; it doesn’t make sense to buy local beans that aren’t specialty grade at the same price as a superior-quality Latin American bean.”
In other words, the quality isn’t the issue – it’s the quantity and the price.
The Thai Solution to the Filipino Problem
The Thai coffee industry has the same issue, yet seem to have found a better solution. Cafés have recognised the quality of locally sourced coffee and personally injected investment into farms. Baristas will travel out to coffee capital Chiang Mai and spend time at the farms, learning from and sharing their knowledge with farmers.
The result? You can see it in their beans. It’s allowed the coffee farms of Northern Thailand to develop to a stage where they can supply Catimor, Caturra, Yellow Bourbon and even Gesha varietals – both locally and on an international stage.
Lessons to Be Learnt from the Thai & Filipino Coffee Scenes
There’s a lot to learn from the Thai and Filipino coffee scenes. First of all, they have some seriously innovative takes on the standard coffee, and this level of experimentation would do cities like London some good. Give us something new and surprising, please!
Secondly, it’s clear that there are financial challenges to be faced with serving specialty coffee. The Thai industry is doing fairly well, managing to put local coffees on the menu in Bangkok. In Manila, it’s not that there’s no inclination to do so – it’s only that market forces are currently making it difficult. Let’s hope that, over time, they manage to see the same success as Thailand.