Fact 1: Mention “kapeng barako” (Spanish: café verraco1) and most people immediately think of the province of Batangas. This is despite the fact that, in terms of aggregate coffee production, in recent years, Batangas has produced only 13% of the CALABARZON’s total coffee output compared to Cavite’s 67%2.
Fact 2: In the 19th century, Lipa – which then included the now-independent towns of Balete, Malvar and Mataasnakahoy – became among the wealthiest towns in the entire Philippines largely due to its coffee production. This success would ultimately encourage planters in other towns in Batangas and also in the neighboring province of Cavite to turn to the crop in what was then a lucrative industry3.
|Image credit: Yvette Tan - , CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75060459.
Is it correct, then, to assume that Lipa’s – and Batangas’ – continuing association with “kapeng barako” was due to the 19th century coffee boom which, in fact, propelled the country to be the fourth largest coffee-producer in the world?
The answer, and this may come as a surprise to some, may be both yes and no. Some literature on the subject of coffee production in the Philippines and Batangas seems to have simply assumed that the coffee planted in the boom years of the 19th century was “barako.”
It was not.
“Barako” is but one of four commercially viable coffee species grown worldwide. It is otherwise known as coffea liberica, native to Central Africa “from Liberia to Uganda and Angola4.” In the present, production of liberica accounts for but one per cent of all coffee produced in the entire Philippines5.
In 1998, a local historian by the name of Ceferino Capuchino wrote in an unpublished work6 that the coffee for which the then-town of Lipa became extremely wealthy was, in fact, another variety called coffea arabica, first found in Yemen as early as the 12th century7.
Given the dearth of information from credible documentation, it took Batangas History time to verify that it was, indeed, arabica coffee that was at the crux of Lipa’s 19th century coffee boom. The confirmation came from a 1928 edition of the Philippine Agricultural Review, which said, “At Lipa, Batangas, where Arabian coffee was once an export crop, the altitude is about 304 meters above sea level8.”
The proverbial boom to bust came in the last decade of the 19th century, when coffee trees in Batangas and elsewhere began to die out until they were practically wiped out by coffee rust9 and insect infestation10.
By the early 1900s, the fledgling American colonial government, through the equally new Bureau of Agriculture, and with a view to reviving the coffee industry in Lipa and Batangas, started experimenting with more blight-resistant varieties of coffee.
In Lipa, an experiment was made, with encouraging results, using a variant of arabica coffee called magarogipe, believed to have mutated spontaneously in the Bahia state of Brazil11. There were also experiments with other foreign varieties of coffee like excelsa, robusta and, the most relevant to this article, a type of liberica coffee called Abeokuta from the island of Java in Indonesia12.
The results of the experiments “awakened a lively interest in the people in Batangas,” with the exception of arabica – presumably including the magarogipe – “which would only result in disappointment due to the susceptibility of the variety to the coffee blight,” and again presumably despite the earlier encouraging results13.
Liberica would initially be planted in the Roxas estate in Lipa, although the plantation would eventually be overrun by other forms of native vegetation. Still, the estate would ultimately become the primary source of seeds when the planting of liberica eventually caught on and this type of coffee became “widely cultivated” in Batangas14.
As a matter of curiosity, liberica was recorded to have first been planted in the entire Philippines as early as 1891 not in Lipa but in the adjacent town of San Jose also in Batangas15!
To conclude, while it is most understandable that there are those who simply assumed that the coffee variety responsible for the boom years of the 19th century in Lipa and Batangas was “kapeng barako,” in fact it was another variety altogether, the arabica, which was unfortunately wiped out by blight and which farmers became wary to plant during the American era.
To be more precise, Lipa’s – and Batangas’ – association with “kapeng barako” is likely more because it was here that liberica was first widely cultivated in the first quarter of the 20th century; where many plantations were previously planted to coffee, albeit the arabica type; and where, to the present day, locals continue to have a distinct preference for this strong but flavorful coffee everyone simply refers to as “barako.”
Notes and references:1 “Verraco” means boar in English.
2 “Strengths and Challenges of Philippine Coffee Production,” by Antonio G. Papa, published March 2019 in “Agriculture Monthly.”
3 “Our Coffee Heritage: Coffee’s Rich History in the Philippines,” online at the Philippine Coffee Board.
4 “Coffea liberica,” Wikipedia.
5 “2017-2022 Philippine Coffee Industry Roadmap,” online at the Department of Agriculture (Philippines).
6 “Sa Langit-langitan ng Bayan Ko,” an unpublished history of Mataasnakahoy, Batangas written by Ceferino Capuchino in 1998.
7 “Coffea arabica,” Wikipedia.
8 “Coffee Culture,” by F. G. Galang, published 1928 in “The Philippine Agriculture Review, Volume XXI, No. 2, p. 349.
9 Coffee rust is a leaf disease caused by the fungus “hemileia vastatrix,” Wikipedia.
10 Philippine Coffee Board, op. cit.
11 “Seventh Annual Report of the Philippine Commission, 1906, Part 2,” published 1907 by the Bureau of Insular Affairs and the United States War Department.
12 Galang, op. cit., p. 351.
13 Galang, ibid.