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HomeNo doubting Thomas: A Deutschman's belief in Filipino coffee - Part One...

No doubting Thomas: A Deutschman’s belief in Filipino coffee – Part One of Two

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There is always something suspicious with the word “artisanal.”

And its companion words ike zesty and tangy.

Part of the advertising jargon marketers use to, in the words of American comedian/philosopher George Carlin: package premium grade bullshit.

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Artisanal usually means 30 percent more than the ordinary price the hoi polloi fork out.

It could also mean fancy like whipped cream and sprinklings on top of your java or an art work hung over your bed in a hotel room.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Sproten
Photo courtesy of Thomas Sproten

There are true artisans though.

And artisanal products.

Like the small-batch beers of Paolo Sanson and friends’ Illusion Brewery (may it come back to life) or the carabao milk cheese of an upland Filipino farmer or the preserved fish of a Chinese peasant, or a German mother’s sauerkraut.

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Or Ferran Adria’s flato mojito, frozen cachaca or hazelnut espuma – edible desserts at El Bulli, once the world’s top restaurant.

Or Coffee Culture Roastery‘s, well… coffee.

Thomas Sproten is a third of the visionary group that thought of fusing art’s passion and science’s precision in roasting coffee beans.

Sanlag in Hiligaynon. That delicate task of controlled burning that can turn coffee beans into a cup of pleasure or a pile of ash that could very well sit beside that of your grandma’s inside an urn.

Up until 2015 October, Thomas was living the life of a retired development worker in Indonesia.

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In sunny Bali no less.

It is not known if the rustling sugarcane leaves in the haciendas of Negros whispered to him to come back.

After all, he was involved in development work in Negros Occidental, the country’s Sugar Bowl, before he decided to hang his spurs.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Sproten
Photo courtesy of Thomas Sproten

And roast coffee.

Thomas was sitting on a garden chair below a teenaged acacia tree when we arrived at his roastery/coffee shop.

A storm was brewing east of the city as the leaves of the acacia caught the 3pm sun, mottling its rays.

Lean, tattooed, bespectacled, Thomas could pass off as a Gabriel Byrne lookalike.

Or Matisyahu.

“It was October of 2015 when Thomas Sproten and his wife Bombee decided to leave Indonesia to settle in Bacolod City where hectares of sugarcane fields abound,” an article on Coffee Culture’s About page

Thomas did venture into sugarcane farming “like everyone else” but his first love “will always be coffee” as he was already working as a Q-Arabica and Q-Robusta grader and as a CQI-Q instructor with one of the biggest coffee traders of coffee in the world.

The mix of letters might look daunting but it can be summed up in two words: certified expert.

CQI is for Coffee Quality Institute while Robusta and Arabica are two major coffee varieties in the world.

The CQI has developed its own scoring system which, it said on its website, “provides a common language for discussing coffee quality throughout the coffee chain from producers to buyers.”

Thomas Sproten. | DNX file photo.
Thomas Sproten. | DNX file photo.

Going through its qualifications and tests before one becomes a certified grader gives one the feeling that it is like becoming an astronaut or a lawyer.

In short, Thomas knows the nuances of coffee. Not just the usual “namit (delicious), nami (good) or pait (bitter)” we use to describe it.

That is not the story here, however.

While most Negrenses raised on the tingi tingi or sachet economy consume large amounts of instant coffee in various “flavors,” only a few apparently know that there are coffee-producing towns or cities in Sugarlandia that produce good coffee.

Thomas may have come from a country more than 10,000 kilometers away but he knows that Murcia town, an hour’s drive east, have coffee trees, so is it in La Castellana or EB Magalona towns.

And he searches, walking for kilometers through thick brush, underbrush, quicksand, and thickets (alright, that is going too far there).

Seriously. The guy searches.

No mean feat in the sweltering non-virgin forests of Negros, long plundered by logging interests both big and small, that host pockets of coffee farms.

“We grow coffee in Negros,” Thomas tells DNX but adds “interestingly I still meet a lot of people who are not aware of that.”

Negros-grown coffee is “potentially really good” but the “prevailing s system” does not encourage high quality production, he says in an interview last year.

Why? Thomas ventures two possibilities. Traders get only what they want and buy coffee at low prices and farmers either “don’t really know or don’t really care” and sell what they have.

With intervention and mentoring, however, like what he is doing in some areas, farmers can grow “world class” coffee.

A long-time development worker in Negros island, Thomas believes the lack of attention to coffee growing is largely cultural.

“The social fabric in Negros doesn’t really encourage coffee,” he adds.

The answer lies in the fact that sugarcane is one of the main commodities in the province, the major sugar-producing area in the country.

Which earned it the title “Sugarbowl of the Philippines.

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Julius D. Mariveles
An amateur cook who has a mean version of humba, the author has recently tried to make mole negra, the Mexican sauce he learned by watching shows of master chef Rick Bayless. A journalist since 19, he has worked in the newsrooms of radio, local papers, and Manila-based news organizations. A stroke survivor, he now serves as executive editor of DNX.

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