Try taking a trip to Sagada to gain a newfound appreciation for coffee.
We don’t know exactly when the coffee revolution started in the Philippines (if there was a revolution at all) but in the last decade or so, the dark brew has become almost as ubiquitous as rice. But have your ever thought about where your coffee comes from? How it gets from bean to cup? These are the questions the Sagada Coffee Heritage Project (CHP) attempts to answer.
The Coffee Heritage Project is the brainchild of SGD Coffee, a local company hell-bent on showing the world the quality of Philippine coffee, specifically the variety that comes from Sagada. Led by its hyper-enthusiastic and highly entertaining owner Rich Watanabe and wife Margaret, CHP started out seven years ago as just a way to train their employees and have some fun.
“It was just us (the SGD Coffee team) and it started out as a way to train our employees so we can explain to them the origin of coffee and let them experience the coffee-making process from start to finish. It was also a team-building event, so we would close our shop in Quezon City for a week,”
says Watanabe. “Eventually, some customers wondered why we were closed for a week every year. So, when we explained it to them, some of them wanted to come with us, and it grew from there.”
The concept is simple enough: bring coffee enthusiasts to Sagada, let them plant the coffee themselves and, hopefully, they leave with a newfound appreciation for coffee.
Soon, Watanabe realized he needed to create a simple program for people who join them on their yearly trek up the mountains.
“On our third year, since we were attracting more and more people, we decided to build a simple program complete with meals and a trekking itinerary,”
Sagada, up to that point, only had a couple of small hotels and inns where participants could stay. But the project attracted so many people that they soon got filled to capacity. Watanabe had to find a new place to accommodate them.
“We wanted the guests to stay some place nearer to the farms, so we found this charming little house on top of a hill, and we made that into our headquarters for our researchers and interns as well.”
The group converted the house into the Coffee Heritage House, which now serves as the headquarters for the Coffee Heritage Project. The house itself can accommodate dozens of guests, and is the ideal take-off point for the main planting activity.
For two days, participants need to wake up early and trek for one to two hours to seven different farms in the area, each with appointed team leaders and safety and rescue officers. Each area is owned by a local farmer, as non-Sagadans are prohibited from owning real estate. Once you reach the farms, you’re given a number of coffee seedlings to plant, as well as a species of shade tree called Alnus to protect the coffee plants from the sun.
Julien Guiot, a Belgian entrepreneur with a waffle business in the Philippines, thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
“To see the smile on the faces of the farmers who even cooked for us just because we helped them plant coffee, I don’t think there’s a better feeling than that.”
“It was tiring but really fun. The farms were all well-maintained, there was no trash, and the views were gorgeous,” says online entrepreneur Diane Agujo.
“Planting coffee yourself really gives you a different feeling. You won’t take it for granted after that.”
While the activity seems simple enough, Watanabe explains it took them years to organize such an event for their guests.
“We had to earn their (farmers') trust because we were outsiders. And that meant being really genuine in our efforts to help.”
After each planting session, which usually lasts for several hours, participants get to rest and relax at the Coffee Heritage House and enjoy unlimited piping-hot Sagada coffee in minus 15 degrees Celsius weather. Talk about living the life.
“It’s more about the experience,” says Giselle Lapid, senior liaison officer for the Coffee Heritage Project and SGD Coffee.
“The camaraderie and relationships that develop among strangers who plant together, it’s an amazing thing to see.”
The Project isn’t just for the enjoyment of the more than 200 participants, however. It has revived a dying industry that was slowly being overtaken by technological advancements as recently as several years ago. Through the project, thousands of seedlings have been planted and are expected to be harvested in the next few years. This year’s participants were able to help the farmers plant around 3,000 coffee seedlings.
“Decades ago, a good chunk of Sagada appeared red from a distance because of all the coffee beans. That disappeared almost completely until we started this project..."
"...Now we’re hoping to bring back the glory days of the industry,”
SGD Coffee buys the coffee and distributes it to Metro Manila and other provinces through its main shop in Teachers’ Village in Quezon City, spreading not only amazing Sagada coffee but also information about its heritage.
The project isn’t limited to just coffee itself. Watanabe says the “Heritage” part of the project also involves the Sagada community and its way of life. The group partners with various companies every year who want to support the local farmers by giving them free products and other livelihood tools and materials.
This year, SGD gave out books and medical supplies to local Sagada schools thanks to pledges from Adarna House and Unilab.
“The great thing about it is that companies who have been supporting us aren’t requiring us to acknowledge them or advertise for them,” says Watanabe. “And I value that relationship because they really believe in the advocacy.”
Though hesitant in the early years of the project, the farmers soon felt the genuine help and support the program has given them.
“At first, some of us were afraid and didn’t want to let outsiders into our farms, because we’re used to doing it our way. But later on we saw they were really helping us grow our coffee industry,”
says local farmer Joan Toneg
With its simple but profound advocacy, the Coffee Heritage Project has been a resounding success every year since its inception. Watanabe says in 2018, around 18,000 people reserved slots for this year’s trip. Those who want to join in 2020? At this point there are 24,000 reservations.
“We can only accommodate so much, and we also filter the participants. We want those who really care about the advocacy to be the ones to experience it and share it with others.”
The next time you want to try really good coffee, know that we have world-class coffee in our own backyard. And before you take that next sip, remember it takes hard work to produce that piping hot, soul-calming coffee we all love.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CYRIAN AGUJO
Article available at: https://www.esquiremag.ph/long-reads/features
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