If you enjoy coffee even remotely, then it's fun to try local ones as you travel.
Some are great, some are...less so...but it's always an interesting experience.
There's definitely a specialty coffee scene in the Philippines, but the most authentically local option is barako coffee (or kapeng barako in Tagalog).
But that's probably not a familiar term, so what exactly is barako coffee?
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Barako coffee in brief
Barako is a unique varietal of coffee plant in the Philippines, grown primarily in the Province of Batangas. While most of the world's coffee comes from the arabica and robusta species, barako is actually a varietal of liberica. It has a characteristically strong taste and is extremely popular throughout the Philippines.
Introduced to the Philippines in the mid-18th century, it became reasonably popular and, briefly, was even a desirable import in the US.
Unfortunately, the coffee rust pandemic of the late 1800s did not spare the Philippines. Barako production fell precipitously.
When coffee plantations finally began to recover, farmers opted for more disease-resistant varietals. Combined with the difficulty of picking from barako trees (they can exceed 60 feet in height), that meant barako never again caught on outside Southeast Asia.
Today, the Philippines produces some good arabica in the mountains of Benguet Province and parts of Mindanao.
Just the same, kapeng barako remains the quintessential Philippine coffee, and it's well worth a try on your next trip to Manila.
Below is a little more background about this unique bean, and how best to enjoy it.
What varietal of coffee is kapeng barako?
The word barako is not a botanical term. It's a local word for "stud," both literally and figuratively.
There are many species of the coffee plant: over 120, as I was surprised to learn. However, we basically drink three.
Arabica is what we're mostly used to, and it comprises the vast majority of all commercial production.
Robusta is also very common, and usually appears in blends and instant coffees since its taste is rarely pleasant or complex alone. Brazil and Vietnam, in particular, produce it on a huge scale.
Finally, the liberica species is what we're talking about here. Kapeng barako is not arabica or robusta, but a varietal of the liberica species.
Worldwide, liberica is the least common of these three major species. Still, it's common in Southeast Asia, and particularly in the Philippines thanks to barako. There are even more obscure liberica varietals around the world, but they're much harder to find than barako.
What does barako coffee taste like?
If you roasted good arabica and good kapeng barako to a similar level, the barako would have a much stronger taste.
Barako is often described as tasting like aniseed, although I've never quite detected that. But it's a strong, herbal, and earthy taste without a doubt. (And I mean that in pleasant way.)
I usually find that barako coffee has a thicker mouthfeel than most arabica, but how you brew it will make a big difference.
Does kapeng barako have caffeine?
Like almost all coffees, kapeng barako (like the rest of the liberica species) does have caffeine. However, barako coffee generally has a little less than arabica and much less than robusta. This academic paper gives far more info than you'll ever want to know, but in brief, it does vary a great deal across samples, roasts, crops, and other factors.
So, if you're a real barako ("stud") who likes coffee as strong as can be, then you'll probably enjoy your barako brew without getting quite as jittery.
How to buy and drink barako coffee
The only good coffee is fresh coffee. Unfortunately, kapeng barako is not widely roasted in other countries, so anything you find abroad will probably arrive quite stale.
If you're keen to try kapeng barako, it's absolutely best do so in the Philippines.
(Update: someone pointed me to the Philippine Coffee Company in Texas. I have no affiliation or experience with them, but would probably start there if you're in North America.)
Seeing as most barako comes from Batangas (just south of Metro Manila), you'll have no problem finding it at coffee shops, grocery stores, and even some local food markets.
If you buy whole barako beans, then here's how I recommend brewing them.
You'll need a kitchen scale, if at all possible, and preferably a grinder to maximize freshness.
(If you don't have a scale handy, that's OK. You can estimate that one tablespoon of medium-ground coffee is about 5 grams. Grind size makes a big difference, plus ground coffee settles a lot, so don't be surprised if using tablespoons gives inconsistent results.)
- If your tap water is particularly hard or soft, then get some bottled water. Dasani, Crystal Geyser, and Trader Joe's are good, neutral-tasting choices in the US. Do not use distilled water, since the lack of minerals actually makes coffee taste dull.
- Measure out 17g water per 1g coffee. If you want two large cups, that would be something like 440g water and 26g coffee (about 5 tablespoons, if you must).
- If you're using a coffee machine, then follow its instructions, and stop reading right here!
- If you're brewing manually, then do an initial bloom (a small pour to soak the grounds) with an amount of water equal to 2-3x the weight of the coffee.
- Wait 30 seconds, then slowly add the remaining water. Add it in two portions, 30 seconds apart, if you're brewing multiple cups.
- Gently swirl it once or twice to keep the water from channeling down and leaving lots of grounds on the sides of the pour-over brewing. Kapeng barako is usually roasted to darker levels, which is more conducive to channeling, so this is important!
To make it stronger or weaker the next time, just use 1-2g more or less coffee while keeping the water the same. Adjust little by little, since a bigger change can take it from watery to overpowering (or vice-versa) in no time.
Even if you don't normally take coffee black, it's worth at least one try. Better yet, have a fresh cup of arabica or even robusta blends side-by-side, and note the differences. How do they differ in aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, and so on?
To take your barako coffee like a real Batangueño, keep the brew very strong and dark, and feel free to stir in a heaping spoonful of muscovado sugar. Filipinos have a bit of a sweet tooth on the whole, and it certainly extends to coffee.
How to make "bulletproof" barako coffee, Philippine-style
I never jumped on the bulletproof coffee bandwagon, but if that's more your style, then here's a Philippine twist on the original recipe.
- Get an extra-large mug or carafe that can contain some froth and splashing.
- Fill it with a single cup of kapeng barako as described above, preferably on the stronger side.
- Add 1 tablespoon of coconut oil. I realize the most hardcore Bulletproof brand fans will recoil at my omitting MCT oil, but hey, we're keeping it local!
- Add 1 tablespoon of carabao butter. This one is not only high-quality, but also supports a fantastic social enterprise.
- If you like it sweeter, but still zero-carb, then sprinkle in a monkfruit sweetener like Lakanto. (Monkfruit is actually from Thailand and parts of China, but I've seen it for sale around Metro Manila. If there's an indigenous Philippine equivalent, then let me know!)
- Finally, get yourself a traditional batirol (it looks like this) from any market, and work the mixture into a froth.
- Bottom's up!
Play around with proportions and coffee strength to suit your taste, calorie goals, etc.
This is an easy way to whip up, literally, a barako-based bulletproof coffee using mostly local ingredients.
Is there barako coffee 3-in-1?
Sadly, to us coffee snobs, the only thing more truly Filipino than a cup of barako coffee is a cup of 3-in-1 instant barako coffee.
It's not as common as the usual robusta + arabica instant blends, least of all outside Southeast Asia. However, Manila's ubiquitous San Miguel brand does offer one that is occasionally available on Amazon.
Beyond that, your best bet is to stock up while in Manila, or ask a local acquaintance to send a package. Is the hassle worth it? Well, not to my palate. Just as regular coffee tastes little like fresh arabica or robusta, instant barako doesn't taste much like the real thing, either.
Enjoying barako on your next Philippines trip
The Philippines has begun producing some good arabica in a couple regions, but kapeng barako from Batangas is still the islands' most distinctive coffee--and probably the local favorite.
The strong, herbal-earthy flavor of barako is unique. As a big-time coffee enthusiast who has sampled hundreds of beans, I've never found anything similar. That makes perfect sense, given that the plant itself is actually a strain of liberica (a relatively rare coffee species), not the far more common arabica or robusta.
Despite its brief international popularity in the 1800s, it's unlikely that barako will ever be prominent on the world coffee market again.
And that's all the more reason to try a fresh cup on your next trip to Manila.