It started with a photograph.

Pike Place Market, Seattle, Washington, 1909: Filipinos selling coffee in the very place where Starbucks would set up shop some 60 years later. Who were these vendors and how did they get there?

Filipino Coffee Company, 1909, Pike Place Market, Seattle. Courtesy of the Museum of History & Industry, PEMCO Webster & Steven Coll.

Filipino Coffee Company, 1909, Pike Place Market, Seattle. Courtesy of the Museum of History & Industry, PEMCO Webster & Steven Coll.

That’s what Carmel Laurino wondered when she unearthed the photo in 2007 as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. A student of international studies and political science, she was doing research on the Pacific Northwest’s Filipino population in the early twentieth century. 

“That’s the curiosity starting point of getting interested in both the Philippines and my heritage and background, wanting to uncover that rich history and past of coffee in the Philippines,” Carmel explained when we spoke with her in April. That curiosity led her to found Kalsada, a company working to raise both the quality and profile of Philippine-grown coffee, and by extension the Filipino coffee producers’ quality of life.

As a newcomer to the coffee trade, Carmel needed a partner with the technical training and industry background to provide practical insight. Enter Lacy Wood, self-described coffee geek.

Team Kalsada (left to right): Carmel Laurino, Lacy Wood and Theresa Domine. Photo courtesy of Kalsada.

Team Kalsada (left to right): Carmel Laurino, Lacy Wood and Theresa Domine. Photo courtesy of Kalsada.

“We had a blind Skype date,” Lacy said of her introduction to Carmel. “I was roasting coffee for Coutume Café in Paris at the time and… as soon as we started chatting we were really on the same page about coffee and the role that it could play in development, because that’s what I was writing my master’s thesis about at the time, except on Vietnamese coffee.”

Six months later, in January of 2014, Carmel and Lacy quit their jobs and relocated to Manila to immerse themselves in the Philippine coffee industry and build relationships with local producers.

Kalsada coffee producer Auntie Rosita, from Lubon, Mountain Province, Philippines. Photo courtesy of Kalsada.

Kalsada coffee producer Auntie Rosita, from Lubon, Mountain Province, Philippines. Photo courtesy of Kalsada.

 

“We were not trying to answer the question of how can we make money off of these farmers, but instead answering the question of what do these farmers need and why is it that we still don’t see Philippine coffee in Pike Place Market?” Lacy explained. “Trying to figure out a way to meet those farmers’ needs so that we could be able to bring this coffee worldwide I think set us apart from the other coffee companies that we’re seeing in the Philippines right now.” 

Kalsada focuses on smallholder farmers--the largest farm cultivates only ten hectares of land--interested in learning how to increase their production and improve the quality of the finished product so they can in turn increase their income.

A grower examines a coffee plant. Photo courtesy of Kalsada Coffee.

A grower examines a coffee plant. Photo courtesy of Kalsada Coffee.

“These farmers are really on their own,” Lacy elaborated. “They don’t have the infrastructure that other countries already have. There’s no nearby washing stations where they can just take their cherry and sell it to the local washing station where it can be processed… They’re still processing their cherries from cherry to green coffee that’s ready to roast by hand in their backyard.”

In meeting local farmers and learning more about their trade, the question for Kalsada became how to develop easier, more efficient production techniques to deliver more consistently high quality coffee while reducing the labor required of the farmers themselves.

Part of the answer included a completely funded (and then some!) Kickstarter campaign to build a wet mill in one of Kalsada’s partner communities. Wet mills process coffee by floating and skimming off underripe coffee cherries while ripe cherries sink to the bottom. The raw fruit is then separated from its seed or bean, the pulp discarded, and the beans fermented, washed and dried. The crowdfunded wet mill increased the quality of the coffee produced and introduced a processing technique largely nonexistent in the Philippines.

But even the coffee-savvy reader may be wondering--why Philippine coffee?

Coffee farms in Mountain Province, Philippines. Photo courtesy of Kalsada Coffee.

Coffee farms in Mountain Province, Philippines. Photo courtesy of Kalsada Coffee.

“This origin has never been explored from a sensorial perspective,” Lacy said. “So many of the baristas these days are looking at the South American, Central American, and/or African coffees only… I found flavor notes that are really indicative of African coffee. Definitely some floral and tropical and red fruit character, but then also you have the nuttiness, the richness, the chocolate-y notes that you would find in South American coffee. It’s really its own unique terroir and it deserves the same attention that we place on an Ethiopian coffee.”

That sounds great, you say to yourself, but where the hell am I supposed to find this unicorn of coffees?

Well, friends, today Kalsada launches its retail site!

You can choose from among three different single origin coffees:

  • From producers the Domisa Family in the Benguet region: a naturally sweet coffee with calamansi and almond notes and a honey-like texture
  • From producer Auntie Rosita in Lubon, Mountain Province: a well balanced coffee with grapefruit, macadamia and gingerbread notes
  • From producer Auntie Asthrine in the Benguet region: a light, juicy coffee reminiscent of ripe harvested grapes, black tea and buttered toast

Each coffee is available in four-, eight-, and twelve-ounce packages ranging in price from $6 to $15. There are even coffee subscriptions available with monthly or bi-weekly delivery options. Best part--they ship worldwide.

Philippine coffee is brewing now, friends. Get it while it’s hot.


Header photo credit: 1909, Pike Place Market, Museum of History & Industry, PEMCO Webster & Steven Coll