Café Culture

art gallery cafeSo here I sit in my favourite coffee spot in Manila, contemplating my coffee cup as palm trees flutter and spotless azure skies belie the approaching winter. I am intensely grateful for the air-conditioning that is dispersing the cloying humidity with alacrity. To quote Carlos Celdran, Manila has two seasons: hotter and hottest.  But in here I can hide from the heat and sip my coffee in cool, calm peace.

It’s true, I mostly seem to write articles about tea, which is strange, as I am actually more of a coffee drinker. I remember my flat mate, way back in our university days, trying to persuade me to drink tea with her, and I bluntly refused, comparing it, unflatteringly, to dirty washing up water. These days I have grown quite fond of tea, especially first thing in the morning, but by mid-morning, I must go in search of a beverage with a bit more oomph. It’s also a good excuse to catch up with friends over a cappuccino or caffè latte.

Drinking coffee as a social lubricant has been popular since coffee beans first appeared on human horizons sometime around the 10th century. Legend has it that the history of coffee drinking began in the Ethiopian highlands, where a goat herder watched the stimulating effect of the small beans on his goats.  He passed the news on to the Abbott of the local monastery who experimented with the beans to create a drink that could help him to stay awake during long hours of prayer. Whether this tale is true or apocryphal, word soon spread east to Arabia with Yemeni traders. By the 16th century, coffee beans were being cultivated across the Arabian Peninsula and into Turkey and Egypt.

Yet in Arabia, and later in Europe, coffee drinking created religious controversy, due to its effects. Some judicious marketing of its medicinal properties, however, soon ensured popular acceptance, and any further arguments against its consumption were finally laid to rest by papal approval in the early 17th century.

Planters soon realized that coffee trees will only thrive in the belt around the equator between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. So, as demand increased, fierce competition developed to grow coffee beyond Arabian borders. Towards the end of the 17th century, the Dutch were successfully producing coffee on Java and Sumatra. Meanwhile, Columbus had headed west from Spain, in search of a trade route to the East Indies. Instead, towards the end of the 16th century, he tripped over the Caribbean. By 1720, coffee plantations had been established here by both the French and the Dutch.

All this enthusiastic gardening obviously resulted in much greater coffee production. This coffee boom lowered costs so that eventually coffee, like chocolate, once a novel and exotic drink only for the well-heeled elite, became readily available to the masses. Personal fortunes and new nations would be built on the back of the coffee trade, as coffee grew into one of the world’s most profitable commodities.

Here in the Philippines, coffee trees were planted by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Plantations flourished, and for a while, during the 19th century, the Philippines would be one of the largest coffee producers in the world.

An American report suggests that coffee consumption has not risen dramatically in recent decades, but, as I have long suspected, locale has changed and quality has improved. And I am reminded of the moment I first realized that society was changing.

When I was growing up in South Australia, my mother’s friends would ‘drop in for a cuppa’ which generally meant a cup of teabag tea, or a mug of Nescafé and probably a cigarette around the kitchen table. These days there is a dazzling choice of caffè latte, cappuccino or corretto, Americano, espresso, macchiato, ristretto or perhaps a freddo – a mêlée of coffee types that sound like the lyrics to a song – and generally we have vacated the kitchen and  migrated with friends to pavement cafés and coffee shops.

When our daughter was born in the early 1990s, the renaissance of a long-lapsed café culture was just beginning in Australia. Marrying into an Italian-Australian family had introduced me to the voluble snobbery of ‘proper’ coffee over the instant variety. The Italian and Greek coffee culture was having the same effect on Anglo-Australians across the country. My mother, however, looked decidedly nonplussed when I suggested she babysit her sleeping granddaughter while I dashed out to replenish the nappy supply and grab a quiet coffee at the mall. “But we have coffee in the cupboard,” she advised me, puzzled by my odd behaviour.  I raised my eyebrows witheringly at the jar of instant coffee and made for the mall, and a cup of ‘real’ coffee.

Twenty years on and Australians have developed a national obsession for what we call ‘decent’ coffee. Starbucks was booted out years ago for its unsatisfactory offer of pricey and very ordinary coffee. Today, barista training has become par for the course for every job-hunting teenager. And it seems Manila is following suit. While the Philippines is still a haven for large coffee chains like Malaysia’s ‘San Francisco Café,’ London’s ‘Costa’,’California’s ‘Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf’ and the ubiquitous Starbucks with its blends and excessively sweet, flavoured additives, Metro Manila is watching a gathering storm of independent coffee shops and specialists with a lean towards high quality, locally produced coffee in more salubrious surroundings. O and the Australian made Toby’s Estate of course, the only place you can find a ‘flat white’ in the Philippines as far as I know.

The Refinery opened in Rockwell last year, since when I have become a regular customer. The décor is a mock-up of the industrial-chic made popular in older cities, with its polished concrete floor, recycled wood paneling, and high, beamed ceiling, and despite its pretensions, is appealing to the eye. It serves breakfast, brunch, lunch, and swaps coffee for cocktails for the evening crowd, and it has received good reviews for its efforts. I am equally happy with its standards of food and service, but I generally just come for the good coffee, the company and the comfortable atmosphere. Cheers!

* The photo is mine: a wondrous example of coffee art served to me at the Art Gallery Cafe in Adelaide, South Australia last year.

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