‘Coffee from earth to cup’

In Photo: Rondel Olarte demonstrates how an old roasting machine is used. The family keeps its old coffee equipment at the coffee shop in Shangri-La Village, Baguio City, for its sentimental value.

Story & photos by Jonathan L. Mayuga

The matriarch of the Umali clan of Lipa, Batangas, moved to Baguio City in 1948 during the liberation era at the close of the last global war.

Arsenia, wife of the late businessman Silverio Olarte, first brought the barako coffee to Baguio City as a distributor, thus, becoming the city’s first barako coffee trader in Baguio City.

The Olarte couple at Kape Umali’s cupping room.

It was in 1951 when the Arsenia Umali Coffee Store was established at the Baguio Public Market, thus, becoming the first store selling barako coffee­—a combination of roasted excelsa and robusta—from Lipa, Batangas.

Before focusing on the coffee-trading business, Arsenia and her son Alberto were selling garments and assorted goodies for pasalubong, said businessman Rondel Salcedo Olarte, owner of Kape Umali Coffee, a pioneer in the coffee-shop business in Baguio City, where the first Coffee Conference was held in 2013.

Interviewed by the BusinessMirror, the 38-year-old Baguio City-born licensed physical therapist, artisan roaster, barista, bass player and vocalist, shared his family’s origin and passion for coffee, as well as his determination to revive the family business in the province of Batangas, well-known for its barako coffee brew, and recognized as the Coffee Capital of the Philippines.

“When my grandmother remarried to Nicholas Latayan, she eventually moved to Baguio City with my father,” Olarte said.

Batangas origin

Back in the days before the country earned its independence, the Philippines ranked fourth globally in terms of coffee production. It is known for its barako coffee produce, or simply called the Batangas coffee because of its strong coffee flavor and aroma.

During that time, Batangas was the single major producer of coffee. “That is why it has always been known as the Coffee Capital of the Philippines,” Olarte added.

“Later, Batangas coffee production dropped and Silang, Cavite, took over. Recently, Benguet overtook Silang, Cavite, and is now the top producer of coffee.”

In the next few years, he predicted that Davao would likely emerge as the top coffee producer. It will also host the next Coffee Conference this year or next.

Family of farmers

According to Olarte, his grandmother’s family members were farmers back in Batangas.

“They own several farms in Lipa before the war,” he said. Unfortunately, all those farms were eventually lost and the family could no longer regain possession because all documents, including land titles back then, were burned or destroyed during the war, Olarte narrated.

Arsenia’s first husband, Silverio, and four children perished during the war, a reason Arsenia and son Alberto found their way to the City of Pines to start a new life.

“The war was not yet over in Baguio when she moved here, she told us. Americans were still hunting for [General Tomoyuki Yamashita],” Olarte said.

The surging demand and opportunity to make it big in the barako coffee-distribution business prompted Arsenia to focus on coffee.

The Umalis’ coffee business thrived in the 1970s, distributing premium coffee beans and roasted coffee in the city that extended to other areas in Northern Luzon.

Like most businesses, the coffee-distribution venture of the family had its own ups and downs, he said.

In the 1990s Olarte’s brother took over, but it did not go well. He said he had to start from scratch to revive the business.

“The family then concentrated the business at the Baguio Public Market,” he narrated.

“By the time I took over in 2007, the business is already bankrupt because the competition was very stiff,” Olarte said.

Love for coffee

So how did he manage to revive the family business?

“Marketing,” he said. “We did a lot of marketing.”

He confided, though, that not being an Igorot is a disadvantage for him.

“But because I was born in Baguio City, we were able to cope,” he said.

When the family started selling barako coffee at the Baguio Public Market, even before, they knew it was the love for strong coffee like barako that would make the business click, Olarte added.

“Here, people really love barako coffee, that’s why the family started to venture more into the coffee business,” he said.

Baguio City’s pioneer in the coffee business is now back on its feet under new management.

In its own little way, Kape Umali is helping revive the coffee industry in the Philippines by enhancing awareness about coffee through the seminars it offers—from farming to roasting, and even barista training.

Olarte said Kape Umali is famous because it lives up to its business concept of offering “coffee from earth to cup,” perfecting the process every step of the way, from farming coffee, harvesting, roasting and brewing.

Coffee trader

He recalled that the Umali family started as farmers in Lipa and raising coffee beans is embedded in the family’s genes.

“Our farm is still there. It’s now owned by the Levistes, I think,” he said. “When you speak of barako, it is always robusta and excelsa. Liberica during those times is not popular.  It is always robusta and excels.”

In Benguet, because of its high altitude, some of the consolidated farms supply Kape Umali its arabica coffee.

Now known as Kape Umali Coffee, the business that all started with Arsenia, it is a major distributor of premium barako coffee—extending beyond Baguio City to Northern Luzon, back to the Tagalog region, particularly Silang, Cavite, and Metro Manila.

The company also exports coffee to Hungary and Denmark in Europe; Houston, Los Angeles and North Carolina in the United States of America; and Korea and Japan in Asia.

Coffee-shop pioneer

Olarte and wife Sheila Marie Gumban now run the family business and are keeping the tradition alive—even expanding from being a mere distributor of coffee from Batangas to consolidating farms, including in the hinterlands of Benguet, and running three coffee shops while doing retail and wholesale, import and export of premium quality roasted coffee beans.

To help enhance the Filipinos’ appreciation of coffee, particularly barako coffee, Kape Umali is providing coffee business-related services like seminars and training about coffee, from farming to roasting and brewing, with Baguio City as its base of operation.

The coffee shops-cum-coffee stores in Shangri-La Village, Mines View Plaza and the Public Market are offering espresso-based latte, cappuccino, Americano, macchiato and mocha, and are selling roasted-coffee products—retail and wholesale—like excelsa and robusta, arabica, even liberica, grown and harvested from the family’s consolidated farms, then roasted and packed for distribution to perfection.

Reviving the industry

According to Olarte, there is a big opportunity in venturing into the coffee business, but the industry and all stakeholders, including the government, farmers, roasters, traders, and even the barista or coffee shops, must put their acts together.

He said Kape Umali aims to bring back the Filipinos’ passion for barako coffee—a reason it is in the business of conducting seminars and training about coffee.

According to Olarte, annual coffee production is still short of the estimated demand. The annual production of coffee in the Philippines is 72,000 tons, even as the demand is about 90,000 tons. “That is why we still import coffee.”

The government, he said, is not doing badly in helping revive the coffee industry. “But it is not doing so good either.”

Farmers, he added, need to be taught the right way to produce coffee, saying that the knowledge about the commodity is essential.

Farmers, he said, should stick to farming. “If you have the skills in farming, concentrate on farming.”

“The money is there. Coffee farming is not taxable. We have the lands and we have existing farms. And they have government support. So all they have to do is to make coffee farming work.”

According to Olarte, rejuvenating old farms is the key. “They are rejuvenating farms now in Silang. It takes two to three years to do that,” he said.

The government, he added, can help farmers revive coffee farms to increase production.

Meanwhile, roasters and traders, he noted, should not be greedy by paying the farmers the right price and selling the products fairly.

“Don’t be greedy. Give justice. Don’t overprice. Buy at the right price, sell at the right price,” he said.

Last, he urged coffee shops to continuously train their barista or coffee makers.

He said baristas should undergo training and learn more about coffee—to give justice to the price of coffee.

“They should not be contented with a Tesda [Technical Education and Skills Development Authority] certification. They should learn and continue to learn because, right now, it is not the farmers, the roasters or traders and barista who know coffee, but the consumers. They know coffee more because they drink coffee and they know coffee,” he said.

He added that he imports coffee from other countries to compare the price and the quality of imported coffee with locally produced beans, and learn more about coffee and their origins.

Keeping the price of the coffee low, he noted, will help ensure the industry will continue to grow, citing the case of the Benguet coffee, which is being marketed at a very high price today.  “Coffee traders should do justice to the farmers and to the customers.”

Like farmers, Olarte said, the government can do better by learning more about coffee to help roasters improve their craft and baristas and coffee shops to prepare and serve the best coffee—at the right price. ac

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Turning Points 2018