Kapeng barako: The Endangered Philippine liberica

In the Philippines, coffee is the most consumed beverage after water. A 2015 study by research firm Kantar Worldpanel found that coffee is a staple drink for Filipinos, who have shifted from being moderate to heavy coffee drinkers. This probably isn’t a surprise for those in metro Manila and other urbanised areas, which are chock-full of coffee houses ranging from big chains to boutique cafes. But the country’s coffee culture has surprisingly old roots, and some aspects of it – including the elusive and endangered form of liberica, kapeng barako – are not well known.

Kapeng Barako: Origins

A coffee varietal that belongs to the species Coffea liberica, kapeng barako is grown in the Philippines, predominantly in the provinces of Batangas and Cavite. The term barako refers to Philippine liberica. The liberica is one of four identified species of coffee, along with robusta, excelsa and arabica. Of these liberica has the biggest cherries and therefore produces bigger beans.

The story of barako in the Philippines dates back 200 years, when it was first planted in a place called Lipa City in Batangas. Coffee had only recently been introduced to the country by a Franciscan friar but it quickly grew into thriving industry, and the Philippines became a key coffee producer.

In the Philippines, “barako” is a name given to a male stud bull or a wild boar, both of which are recognised as symbols of power and strength. The name “kapeng barako” was given to the local coffee by farmers because it has a super strong taste and aroma. Barako was so popular that when the beans were shipped to America and Europe, the price they fetched was five times higher than other coffee varieties from Asia.

Then, in the 19th century, disaster struck: the country’s crops were hit by a disease known as coffee leaf rust. This greatly affected production and eventually farmers were forced to abandon their coffee bushes and focus on other crops instead. The scene did pick up again in the middle of the 20th century, with the growth of instant coffee. Sadly for barako, it never quite regained its place in this coffee-loving nation again… until today, that is.

The endangered Philippine Liberica

Liberica is relatively uncommon globally, accounting for less than two percent of commercially produced coffee worldwide. Despite barako’s distinctive taste profile, in the Philippines it can be particularly hard to find a pure, wild liberica bushes.

This is partly for practical reasons. Barako bushes grow up to 17 metres high and have large branches that require a lot of land. Some farmers cut down their barako trees and replaced them with robusta, a species that requires much less maintenance and is more resistant to diseases. Others who still own barako farms are replacing their bushes with shorter, hybrid coffee trees that are easier to harvest.

Barako is well-known among the older Filipino generation. Photo from Laura Margarita Peralta

And then there’s the problem with demand. Barako has difficulty finding its way onto the menus of mainstream coffee outlets in the Philippines. Many speculate it’s because barako is popular with the older generation, since that’s all they knew back in the day. Also, this crowd generally liked their coffee strong and bold, complete with that extra kick.

Barako today

Demand for barako has never returned to its heyday of two centuries ago but that hasn’t stopped some cafes and businesses in the Philippines (and all over the world) from seeing its value.

Spots like Cafe de Lipa in the Philippines take pride in their barako brew, while places like Figaro Coffee even went so far as to come up with a “save the barako” initiative that included programmes revolving around awareness, new plantings, research and targeted marketing. The result? The campaign has managed to get liberica production back in the game and it now represents about three to four percent of the Philippines’ national coffee harvest.

Be part of the #SaveTheBarako campaign. Photo from Joshua Ness

Even overseas, the push for barako is growing. Names like Len’s Coffee, a US-based brand, carry the rare product and some of your money actually goes to supporting conservation of both liberica coffee and the forests in which it grows. Over in London, second-generation Filipinos Omar and Jovan have established Barako Bean, a roastery that’s dedicated to sourcing and roasting single origin coffees from the Philippines, including barako.

For many Filipinos, barako is a drink of the past. Young ones might remember it as their parents’ favourite pick-me-up in the morning. But on the back of growing interest from roasters and stockists, barako looks like it will find its niche in the coffee world – both inside and outside of the Philippines.