In the foothills of Mt. Apo, the country’s highest peak, a coffee farming community is slowly gaining prominence as a source of fine Arabica specialty coffee.

by Noel T. Provido

Coffee connoisseurs classify specialty coffee based on their origin, or where they are produced. According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), specialty coffees are usually grown in ideal climates, and these areas have special characteristics and soil compositions where the coffee trees thrive, giving the beans a distinct flavor and aroma.

Arabica coffee grown in high elevations such as Balutakay is a good source for processing specialty coffee.

The Balutakay Coffee Farmers Association (BACOFA) in from Sitio Pluto, Barangay Balutakay, Bansalan, Davao del Sur has what it takes to produce Arabica specialty coffee as their trees are grown in special volcanic soil with a cool climate and high elevation of 1,200 meters above sea level.

“From a range of 0-100, specialty coffee must have a score of at least 80. The closer to 100 a coffee sample gets, the more likely it will command higher [prices] and [enjoy] increased demand from specialty roasters,” said coffee guru Ted Lingle.

Ariel Dubria, board member of the Balutakay Coffee Association (BACOFA,) takes pride in that during the recent 2nd National Coffee Conference in Baguio City, BACOFA Coffee ranked first in coffee quality grading, with a cupping score of 85.7 and an overall average of 85 over 100, as scored by the International Q1 Cup Grader.

The achievement was the product of the nurturing hands of BACOFA’s coffee farmers who through the years have gained valuable knowledge and formed the right attitude towards quality coffee production.

BACOFA board member Ariel Dubria shows off freshly picked red berries, which he said are at their peak of ripeness.

High Altitude and Right Attitude

Although growing coffee in Balutakay’s high altitudes was their comparative advantage, as it is one major consideration for specialty Arabica coffee production, Dubria underscored that farmers’ attitudes towards good farming practices is essential in producing quality Arabica coffee. He said farmers need patience as it takes a year for coffee to ripen. 

“Coffee farming here is as old as our ancestors. But for a time, we cut our coffee trees and shifted to vegetable production due to very low buying [prices for coffee]. We later found out that vegetable production is more capital intensive as we have to use chemicals to get rid of pests,” he said.

After two decades, they went back to coffee farming upon realizing that the problem of low buying prices could be overcome by producing quality coffee beans. “Quality adds value to your coffee. You have to handle coffee with care because it’s a sensitive commodity. Proper picking, drying, and storing must be observed to produce quality coffee,” Dubria said.

He said they used to practice “all-in” or strip picking (pulling all the berries from a single branch), which would include green or unripe berries in the harvest. This incorrect practice has adversely affected the quality and taste of their coffee as unripe berries have lower oil and higher organic acid content, giving the beans a sharp bitter or astringent odor and a bland flavor.

He also noted that poor handling and storing practices also degraded the quality of their coffee. “We just dumped our beans in one area without proper drying and grading, and good beans were contaminated; [this] affected its taste and aroma. Our buyers complained of its poor quality when in fact its origin should have given them premium quality,” Dubria said.

Things changed after Dubria and fellow Balutakay farmers developed coffee quality consciousness after attending many training sessions and availing themselves of technical assistance from various organizations. These include the Kapwa Upliftment Foundation, Catholic Relief Services, Coffee for Peace, and ACDI-VOCA.

Jonathan Arellano cautiously picks red berries from the foothills of Mt. Apo, renowned for producing fine Arabica specialty coffee with a distinct aroma, flavor, and taste.

The assistance of these organizations significantly improved their attitude towards coffee farming. In harvesting, for instance, strip picking was abandoned and replaced with picking only the red berries. “Pick red” is a recommended practice as red berries indicate that the coffee is at the peak of its ripeness and the flavor has fully developed.

Recommended post-harvest practices were also observed, which included washing freshly picked berries and air drying these in an elevated dryer. “Unlike before, [when] we just dried it on the ground,” he said.

“Growing coffee in mountainous areas such as Balutakay’s is good for greening the environment as well as [for] the variety and quality of coffee it can produce,” said Department of Agriculture – High Value Crops Development Program (DA-HVCDP) regional coordinator Melani Provido.

“The 1,000 hectares of Arabica coffee planted…1,200 meters above sea level is a valuable source for fine Arabica coffee, both for production of green coffee beans and [the] processing of specialty coffee,” Provido said.

“In producing specialty coffee, [the] wet process is observed [in which] red berries are washed, de-pulped, parched, and fermented for 24 hours. After fermentation, beans are air dried in an elevated drying bed,” Dubria said.

He said the process is quite tedious, considering that they lack the equipment to hasten the drying of their beans as well as for processing specialty coffee. “But we have to be careful in processing our beans to meet the discriminating taste of our buyers.”

Thanks to the improved quality of their beans, BACOFA’s big break came when their product has been classified as specialty coffee from renowned coffee authorities: the Coffee Quality Institute and SCAA. BACOFA’s coffee was graded 85 over 100 by the International Q1 Cup Grader during the recently concluded 2nd National Coffee Conference in Baguio City, paving the way for wider market in the competitive world of specialty coffee. Their coffee’s distinct flavor, aroma, and taste allowed it to be certified as specialty coffee which can command prices of more than ₱120 per kilo, compared to beans for instant coffee, which are usually pegged at only ₱100 per kilo.

“Our buyers are big traders; one of them buys our delivered beans “all-in” (unsorted) at ₱135 per kilo. Another buyer buys our green coffee beans at a pick-up price of ₱125 [per kilo], while a Japanese buyer priced our green beans at ₱200 a kilo [for] sorted beans having no defects,” Dubria said.

He said they also include Coffee for Peace and FROG Kaffee and Roasters both in Davao City, and the Monastery of Transfiguration in Bukidnon, which roasts and packs the Monk’s Blend.

Coffee Rejuvenation

To sustain coffee production, BACOFA is also working towards rejuvenating their old coffee trees to improve their productivity. The said plan coincides with the ongoing coffee rejuvenation program of the DA-HVCDP, which caters to existing coffee farms like those of BACOFA.

We are rejuvenating old coffee trees and provide needed interventions such as fertilizers and coffee seedlings. We are also providing technical assistance in partnership with private sectors and non-government organizations,” Provido said.

DA-HVCDP regional focal person for coffee John Paul Matuginas said coffee rejuvenation requires cutting of the old trees’ vertical stems about 50-70 centimeters from the base. “It is a widely accepted practice for revitalizing coffee farms and has been found [to be] more advantageous than replanting,” Matuginas said. “Rejuvenated coffee trees will bear larger berries [after only] a year compared to replanting, which will take three to four years before flowering.”

Despite this, coffee farmers in the country are still hesitant to undertake rejuvenation initiatives. However, BACOFA famers have appreciated the technology and now take part in the DA-HVCDP’s coffee rejuvenation program.

“My coffee trees are now about 14 years old so I planned to rejuvenate [them] as they tend to require [more inputs, resulting in higher costs while providing] lower [yields], unlike rejuvenated trees, which I observed to have larger berries and higher [yields],” said Jonathan Arellano, who expressed his interest to be part of the DA-HVCDP’s coffee rejuvenation program.

Arellano said he alternates rejuvenated trees with vegetables so that while waiting for one year, he can still earn from vegetable cultivation.

Starting with only 20 farmer-members—but they were highly committed—BACOFA has increased its association to 68 members, who continuously strive to keep up with the discriminating demands of specialty coffee lovers.

As the association expands its production area, Dubria urges other BACOFA members to continuously observe the recommended practices and adhere to the quality standards they have developed through the years. “We must maintain the quality of our coffee to keep our buyers; otherwise, they will leave us and we will go back to cutting our coffee trees again,” he said

With the right attitude, surely BACOFA’s humble coffee beans from the foothills of Mt. Apo will find their way to international cupping tables and specialty roasters’ rooms.

This story appeared in Agricultural Monthly’s February 2017 issue.