By: Jeannie E. Javelosa
There are pluses when your business partners are coffee experts. First you learn about coffee. Then you learn how to tell bad coffee from good coffee. Then you learn how to bring yourself a notch higher by snobbily saying, “I pick only red cherry beans”, feeling a sense of amateur pride that you hope will separate you from the mundane instant coffee drinkers.
I bask in the reflected glow of coffee experts. At ECHOstore, my business partners Chit Juan and Reena Francisco have coffee down to a science, to an art, bringing it to heightened glorified status. They have written books together while Reena steadily does the backroom work, Chit is the passionate public trailblazing voice for Philippine specialty coffee, throwing herself behind coffee farmers, especially women. With Nicky Matti, the co-chair of the Philippine Coffee Board, I have joined them in coffee picking, talks and trips for the sheer fun of traveling the country. And no, I refuse to learn more, I tell them… as with two experts in the business, I better remain the happy coffee addict. So I go and listen when I want, not really digesting the two decades old knowledge of my expert friends.
What is the downside? I have a nag who bullies me to stop putting sugar in my coffee. “My life mission”, Chit says to me threateningly, “is to make you drink pure black coffee without the sugar”. “Really?” I respond nonchalantly as I add on a teaspoonful of coco-sugar, muscovado or whatever natural sweetener there is around, to my piping hot aromatic brew.
“Join us for a cupping session,” Chit has repeatedly asked me. “Naaaah”, I say, “too much information in my head already, there’s no more space,” as I steadfastly refuse to learn. “Another part of my life mission”, Chit tells me in near exasperation, “ is to teach you about coffee.”
So I humor her. I go off to pick red coffee beans when its time for picking. I twist the cherry from the twig, then pull. They are beautiful bunches of cherry red beans that clump together. As far as I can remember when we started ECHOstore in 2008, Chit and Nicky’s advocacy had always been to teach farmers how to pick the choice red cherry beans so farmers could eck out a better profit. What was happening was farmers would strip bare the coffee trees, often while the beans were still green, and quickly sell these to contract growers or traders who would buy them for lower prices. But because farmers needed funds, they would sell quickly. The “pick red” advocacy which has gained ground locally and is now being shared in the region, has brought together coffee stakeholders such as the farmers, coffee traders, banks that give loans to the farmers, and coffee enthusiasts (like me!) It has also shown how these cherry red beans become specialty coffee and command higher prices in the market.
Unknown to the experts, I do my own taste-testing at home. While I have my daily favorites, I do once in a while try different beans from different localities in the country, and from other countries too. I am getting more familiar with the varying scents of robustas and arabicas, the after-flavors that linger and suggests nuances of the soil and nearby fruit trees. Even trips to farms, and trying to study the different beans on the coffee trees – all these make for a student slowly but surely learning about coffee. But I dare not discuss coffee with the experts lest they push once more, in their eagerness to share what they love and know. Instead, I will continue to play dumb.
“Try to eat a sweet desert with your coffee so you don’t need to add sugar,” that’s Chit’s voice again. I oblige one bite then a sip, then smile and say, “please pass the sugar!”