Go from mass market brands to artisan brews in Manila

By Raul Dancel
Philippines Correspondent In Manila

I remember mornings when I was a child and my grandmother would make coffee from the burnt portion of the rice stuck to the bottom of her pot. She would boil it until the water turned black. It was not really coffee and it tasted awful, but the idea was there. It was meant to be an early morning pick-me-up for the very poor as they prepared for another day in the field, or out at sea, under the hot sun.

We have come a long way here in the Philippines from that Stone Age way of making coffee. We have evolved steadily to instant coffee, 3-in-1s, “designer” coffee and, now, coffee that zeroes in on the origin of it all: the beans and the hands that care for them.

Owners of speciality cafes here are bringing the attention back to the coffee itself. They do not just sell coffee. Some  have “labs” and “training spaces” for patrons who have taken an interest in what is inside their cups, rather than in the pretentious mural on the wall or the Swedish furniture.

They do not hate Starbucks. Many, in fact, credit this mammoth coffee chain for reawakening Filipinos’ deep love for coffee.  But they want to take it to the next level.

Here is a list of some of the best coffee places the Philippines has to offer.

1. SGD Coffee 

SGD Coffee is one of Manila's best-kept secrets.  It sits in a quiet little residential nook in a narrow road near a bustling food-and-beverage district, hidden from view.  The best time to be in this place is when there is a light rain late in the afternoon, just before sunset, as the clock ticks into the blue hour.  There is no kitschy pop or pretentious jazz fusion music, just a well-lit, airy, artsy space where you can study or get some work done.

But the coffee itself is the star.

SGD gets its coffee exclusively from a mountaintop region, known as Sagada, that is much cooler than the rest of the Philippines. While most coffee plantations grow robusta and liberica, a unique climate and soil allows a special type of arabica to grow in the region.

The coffee that comes out of this variety is smooth and neutral with an oaky aroma.  It sits in that sweet spot between varieties with strong flavours and mass-market coffee.

This cafe has its own “coffee lab” that offers not just courses on coffee appreciation, but also experiments on ways to take coffee beyond the cup.  It has developed a “coffee sauce”, for instance,  that works surprisingly well with adobo, the quintessential Filipino dish of pork or chicken cooked in soya sauce and vinegar.

SGD Coffee is the place you go to when someone tells you: “Let’s talk over coffee.”

2. Catabolic Cafe 

This cafe has nothing to do with cats. The name comes from a word that means breaking down molecules to release energy.  It has, however, everything to do with the blend.  Here, the cafe blends its beans and offers an interesting mix of food and pastry to go with its coffee.

Patrons go to Catabolic for the fried chicken and waffle; fried rice and crispy ribs; sardines with truffles pasta; and rainbow cake. The cake is not as candy-sweet as it looks.  It is a classic red velvet, but dyed with different colours for each layer that is separated with a generous helping of cream cheese filling. But it is best if you share it with one or two mates as each slice is thick and tall.

The cafe blends beans from Panama, Colombia and Ecuador. The result is a long black with mellow acidity.  The cafe mocha, meanwhile, has hints of evaporated milk chasing the sweetness, which leave a less sugary taste at the back of the mouth.

Catabolic is where you go to when you want good food to go with your coffee.

3. Habitual Coffee 

If you are serious about coffee and do not care much about the decor, furniture or crowd, then Habitual Coffee is for you. This is not to say that this cafe is a shoebox or that no one interesting goes there. Quite the opposite. This cafe’s small, spartan layout is its appeal and you are likely to meet people with a passion for everything off the beaten path.

It occupies a corner of a warehouse that also houses a CrossFit gym and a speciality bicycle shop.  The decor is industrial, with exposed steel beams and corrugated sheets on a high ceiling. 

But all that is just background for the place’s raison d’etre: the coffee itself and the people who make it. To emphasise this fact, the coffee bar takes up half the space, right in the middle.  

The baristas here are champions at using the Aeropress – a device that consists of two cylinders and filters – to brew and draw out the best flavours from the beans. 

The place has Ethiopian Yirgacheffe that, brewed with the Aeropress, yields a nutty fragrance.  There is the slightly sour tang typical of this variety, but one that quickly dissipates into something fruity.  For me, it is still too acidic and strong, but that is only because I prefer my coffee smooth and neutral.  

This place has much to offer, especially for the serious coffee drinker.

4. Yardstick 

Yardstick feels like an Ikea store, with its brightly lit space, pastels, straight lines and smooth surfaces.  But it is not bland or boring because it is not just a cafe. It also houses a roastery and a training space for patrons willing to dive deeper into coffee. It offers workshops on appreciating speciality coffee and brewing your own cup of Joe.

The owners, all alumni of Singapore Management University, wanted a place Filipinos can go to if they want more than the concoctions of coffee chains that drown the java in milk, sweets and faux-library aesthetics.  They deliver on that promise.

Yardstick covers the basics and then some.  There is Dear Fred, for instance, a combination of pale ale and cold-brew coffee.  

There is also Cold Brew No. 1, which I do not think is for everyone. It is certainly not for me. The blend of Sumatra, Colombia and Brazil is velvety, bold and rich, but I prefer my coffee hot.

Other cocktail bars and coffee lovers have found ways to mix Yardstick’s cold brew with bourbon, sweet vermouth, brown sugar and cinnamon to create quirky cocktails and even candies.

5. The Curator Coffee and Cocktails 

For some reason, the best coffee shops in the Philippines are always the hardest to find because they do not like to advertise themselves with big neon-lit signs. That is certainly the case with The Curator Coffee and Cocktails, which does not even have a sign on its door or on the directory of the building that houses it. You have to knock on the door and ask if you are at the right place.

It is part of the appeal. This cafe hides a speakeasy and wants its coffee and cocktails to speak for themselves. It mixes its Ethiopian and Colombian beans here to dial down on the acidity while retaining the beans' nutty, sweet flavours. When paired with milk and sweets, the coffees become as interesting as the names they take: Dark Matter Theory Cappuccino, Winds of Winter Espresso Blend.

At 7pm, half the place turns into a cocktail bar that is ranked as 16th best in the world by Drinks International.  

You go to The Curator if you want the best of both worlds: great coffee and even greater cocktails.

6. Need Coffee 

This is the new kid on the block, but it has one of the best baristas in town .Mr Dan Roque topped the 2016 Philippine Aeropress competition.

Need Coffee opened in May, along a road lined with restaurants, bars and cafes inside the Philippines’ biggest gated community, where some 80,000 people live, south of the capital Manila. The name came at the end of an exhausting journey of indecision. After poring over hundreds of names, one of the owners blurted: “I just need coffee.”

The name certainly suits the place.  It is a cafe that is all about the coffee.  

You can have a pour-over here, for which you pick your beans and tell the barista how you want it brewed.  It is a bonus that you will have Mr Roque behind the counter.

To get the most out of your visit, ask for the Flight, which allows you to experience coffee two ways - as an espresso, and then with milk.  The baristas will tell you which brewing method will work best for the beans you choose.