'A 'Barako' helps the farmer plow the field'
Barako - What is it and the history behind it
Barako in the Philippines is the name given to a male stud bull or wild boar. A symbol of raw strength and power. Its name was given to the coffee by the farmers due to the strength in taste and aroma of the coffee. We were sceptical of this until we felt the effect a few hours after a few sips. We have never tasted rocket fuel but thought it would be similar to this. To describe the experience, imagine insomnia, combined with profuse sweating and sudden spiderman-like reflexes.
Being of Liberica variety, the bean itself is huge compared next to Arabica or Robusta beans. It has a distinctive pointed oval shape. The trees at their peak tower at a height of 20m plus. It is one of the rarer varieties, accounting for less than 1% of coffee produced worldwide .
Liberica has a very large distinctive pointy hooked end
The history behindBarako spans back 200 years. In short, Philippines during the 1800's was one of the world's biggest producers of coffee. By the 1880s, it was the 4th largest producer of coffee in the world .This rankingwas cut short as by the 1890s the coffee rust disease hit. This decimated coffee production and farmers began to give up and focus on other crops. Coffee production continued following this decline and was revived to a degree with the help of Philippine Coffee Board and campaigns such as 'Save the Barako' but was nothing like its glory days. Farms now mainly producing beans to supply local chains. It is only in the last 5 or so years with the recent explosion of the third wave that the importance of local coffee production including Barako is coming back into the limelight.
What Barako means to the Philippines
Barako is a shining symbol which is synonymous with the Philippines (after Manny Pacquiao and Jeepney's. Barako is that strong black coffee with a distinct smell of aniseed that Philippines older generations grew up drinking, and their parents before them. Traditionally brewed black served straight up or sweetened with muscobado (local natural raw cane sugar). It was the drink your parents sipped at 5am with the rooster crowing whilst they were getting ready for another day under the sun. The rise of both local and international chains over the past 10 years has helped the Philippine coffee industry get back on its feet. However the more recent wave of specialty coffee taking over poses the question 'does Barako have a place in Manilas evolving specialty coffee scene' ? We asked a few locals their opinion.
The position and opinion of Barako in the current exploding specialty coffee scene in Philippines
Barako is available in the Philippines, thanks to chains such as Figaro Coffee and Café de Lipa however, it has not been adopted into many of the cities new third wave cafes. Our friend and Manila local Earl Queron, a young Head Barista at Coffee Empire one of the cities new third wave coffee shops shared his takeon Barako. Earl explains " Barako was only really popular with the older generation as that was all that was available back then. The older generation liked that strong bold taste". When asked about whether it had a place in Manilas specialty coffee scene Earl goes on to remind us the unique flavour of Barako "it has a very strong kick, different from robusta. It would not do well with other origins as it would overpower the cup. By itself it is a different experience". However Earl agrees Manilas specialty coffee scene is evolving so fast, Barako could have a place within specialty coffee. It is if third wave cafes are willing to incorporate and experiment with it in their offerings.
Earl pouring us a v60 whilst he shares his view
We searched further for answers around why farmers gave up on producing and focusing on the quality of their Barako, a bean clearly producing a cup so unique it had great potential for farmers earnings. President of the Philippine Coffee Board Pacita Juan enlightened us on the subject from their extensive work with farms" farmers used to mix Barako (liberica beans) with other varieties in the farms, there was no sorting, people never knew what the taste of Pure Barako. This caused people refer to the term Barako as anything "brewed" as opposed to Instant or soluble coffee".
The decline was actually due to physical restrictions in harvesting we learn from Pacita " There was a death of supply. Many farmers cut their Barako trees and replaced them with Robusta because Barako trees take up more land space due to its size and breadth of branches". The robusta trees required less maintenance and were more disease resistant, meaning and easier income for the farmer.
Barako on a international level
It appears there is more movement for Barako outside of the Philippines on a third wave level. A number of cafes owned by second and third generation Filipinos are proudly showcasing this bean as a drink of Philippine tradition , a piece of their heritage. Rowena Romulo, owner of the newly opened London branch of Romulo café, a food destination showcasing fine dining Filipino cuisine. Rowena recalls her first memories of Barako during childhood, "we were offered this when we visited places like Batangas and Cavite, it reminds me of the hospitality Filipinos are known for". When looking at how today's generations see Barako, Rowena explains that "the proliferation of international brands and local chains aspiring to a western bias have eroded the focus out of the bean. The focus has become the shop itself not the coffee". Its not only Rowena pushing to showcase and revive the glory of Barako.
We met up with Barako Bean. Run by Jovan and Omar, they operate a London based Roastery who dedicate their time to sourcing and roasting single origin coffees from the Philippines including Barako. Supplying local businesses, fuelled by a love for their motherland, they are an example of combining heritage and the third wave. Over to Eastern Europe which has given rise to another Barako Mecca.
Ryan in Barako Kafehaz, Hungary
Ryan Andres, owner of Barako Kafehaz has created a neighborhood cafe proudly offering Filipino Arabica and Barako, and has earned a huge following with locals with success leading to a second branch soon to open. Ryan is championing Barako as a world class coffee, however it seems many do not share the same patriotism for the bean. Ryan explains to us "the younger generation are extremely brand conscious, they have a mindset that Barako is inferior and nothing more than cheap market coffee. It is shameful that we have been embraced so much by the coffee community here, some would not even acknowledge and embrace a piece of their history".
Future of Barako
There is no general consensus of Barako. Some see it as a bean of the past, whereas others wish to honor their heritage and bring its story back to life. With the coffee producing countries struggling to keep the demand and the ever increasing rise in specialty coffee we continue to look at alternatives to Arabica including underdeveloped coffee producing countries and even specialty Robusta.
Barako has great potential within specialty coffee. If it is adopted into third wave culture and its uniqueness embraced, who knows what could happen.
Credit to the following :
Earl Queron - Head Barista at Coffee Empire
Pacita Juan - Philippine Coffee Board
Rowena Romulo - Founder of Romulo Cafe Chain
Jovan Masilungan - Founder of Barako Bean
Ryan Andres - Founder of Barako Kavehaz