Roasting coffee, brewing change

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Julius D. Mariveles
An amateur cook who has a mean version of humba, the author has recently tried to make mole negra, the Mexican sauce he learned by watching shows of master chef Rick Bayless. A journalist since 19, he has worked in the newsrooms of radio, local papers, and Manila-based news organizations. A stroke survivor, he now serves as executive editor of DNX.

Coffee Culture Roastery is an artisanal roasting house and coffeeshop in Bacolod City. It turned four last November 12, in the midst of a pandemic and bad economic times.

DNX Lifestyle sat down with Thomas Sproten, a German married to a Filipino, and one of the three founders of the roastery-coffeeshop.

From sourcing coffee from communities in Negros to why the production system is skewed against coffee to the nuancing of the elements that make a good cup to the blend of art and science in roasting, Thomas and DNX dove into the nuances of coffee and why there is a growing shift to instant java in an island where good coffee beans can be sourced.

An acacia tree stands tall in what used to be a vacant lot in Alijis village, just a few meters east from Araneta, the N6 highway leading to the south, where national hero Ninoy Aquino’s statue stands, sometimes with a flower pot on its head.

The tree is more than four years old, and its leaves mottle the afternoon sun when Thomas Sproten sits under its shade.

Towering, tattooed, his sunkissed skin screams freaking Bali no less – that idyllic, dreamy place for surfer dudes.

Thomas and his wife, Bom Bee, lived in that place up until 2015 before he, a German from Dusseldorf and she, a Filipino from Bacolod, decided to come home to the Philippines.

And stay in Bacolod.

“Ako gali si Thomas Sproten,” he says to the camera, his Hiligaynon as fluent as any Negros native, the sharp phonetic edges of German gone.

He admits he understands Hiligaynon more than he can speak it.

“Makaintindi lang pero indi gid man makahambal damo; pigado (I can understand but can’t speak a lot; poor),” Thomas tells DNX as he sips what could be his seventh cup of java for the day from a small drinking glass.

We – the DNX crew and a few of Thomas’ close Filipino friends – sat around a wooden wire spool repurposed as a table.

The conversation criscrossed politics, coffee, food, ideology, like in a surrealist’s table except that Thomas sounds more like a pragmatist crossed with a postmodernist looking like Jeremy Irons at some angles.

“I like that,” he says when told he looks like the dashing English actor as he takes another sip from his glass and uncrosses his legs.

coffee maker

Thomas loves freshly-brewed coffee but he is no fresh migrant to the Philippines.

He had worked here in Negros for years as a development worker, which explains why he is keen to the dynamics of conflict in this boot-shaped island where rebels and soldiers continue to clash.

A conflict outlived only by the discovery of coffee.

Or perhaps Juan Ponce Enrile.

Flavor. Mouth feel. Acid.

These are technical terms to describe coffee in the same way a photographer uses terms like sense of place, lines, shapes and colors to rate a photograph.

You see, Thomas is a certified Q Arabica and Q Robusta grader and CQI-Q instructor.

Yes, they do get certified by the Coffee Quality Institute.

In simple terms, a grader is “an individual who is credentialed by the CQI to grade and score coffees utilizing standards developed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).”

In short, it’s like having a blackbelt for karate or tons of experience for a journalist.

Experience? Check. Certification? Check.

Thomas has it all.

The story of Coffee Culture Roastery is quite unlike the usual businesses that run the narratives of business opens, owner face problems, problems solved, business prospers.

thomas

It ain’t Maalaala Mo Kaya, darling.

Thomas, though, admits his love affair with coffee was both “instant attraction” and something that “also grew.”

In fact, when he was working as a development worker, Thomas did not even notice the coffee trees until these were pointed out to him

The lines were long when the Roastery opened four years ago, “I felt overwhelmed,” Thomas says.

There was no sign outside and perhaps people were guessing what the store was.

The main structure built on the lot owned by Bom Bee’s family houses the industrial-grade commercial coffee roaster, the German side of the business, some might say the science sh*t that precisely roasts the coffee beans sorted by Thomas.

It has to be roasted at this temperature, Thomas explains when asked how Arabica or Robusta should be heat-treated before grinding.

While Thomas handles the Doctor Strange stuff, a blend of magic and science, he admits Bom Bee worries about the pesos and cents.

Which explains why around three tables were soon added at the back of the roastery.

Near the acacia, a tiki hut gazebo accommodates several patrons, apparently regulars who bring laptops and spend a considerably longer time at the cafe.

Thomas and Bom Bee made a brave choice in opening a cafe away from the heavy foot traffic of downtown Bacolod, at least three kilometers away, and Lacson Street.

But it was an “obvious one” to Thomas who chose it for the fact they would not be paying rent.

A choice that obviously paid off when the pandemic struck.

While most businesses that pay rent are now closing, including those in Lacson Street, Coffee Culture Roastery is still open, perhaps sought out too by coffee drinkers who want to stay away from crowded places or those that are too near the proper.

Or perhaps by those who want to get away from the maddening pace and anxiety caused by the pandemic.

And reclaim a bit of their sanity.

It is not known how this good twist of fate happened to Coffee Culture Roastery in the midst of a pandemic.

What is known is before the pandemic hit, Thomas and his partners have decided to source coffee beans from small communities in the province, some in areas where he used to work as a development worker.

An apparent continuation of his social development thrust, providing farmers the opportunity to sell their produce at better prices while allowing farming communities to showcase their produce that could rival the best in the world.

Thomas does not pretend to be a political guru and does not make political or ideological posturings.

Or what some might derisively call “analysis paralysis.”

He can only shake his head and sound puzzled as to why even local coffee producers would prefer those three-in-one mixes and fancy-sounding but sugar-heavy coffee in sachets.

He can only venture an educated guess.

“The culture is not suited for coffee growing.”

Which is not a flight of fancy.

With most of the 30 million hectares planted to sugarcane located in Negros, sugar had been the backbone of the local economy since the Spanish instituted the hacienda system under which vast tracts of lands were planted to sugarcane.

Sugarcane, a type of grass, had been the fount of wealth of the hacendados – once a dominant economic and political force that profoundly shaped the fortunes of the island.

And the nation.

It is too early to presume if Coffee Culture Roastery can get out of the woods in the face of a pandemic.

The same for any other business in Bacolod City, the economy of which pulsates with the sugar industry.

What is certain is that Thomas Sproten will continue roasting beans sourced from local farmers and, once in a while, drink coffee with his friends under that tall acacia tree.

That way, country folk are bound to those in the city by an invigorating drink discovered by goats a long time ago in Ethiopia.

A bond false revolutionaries who shirk away from production and economic work try to do by force of arms but have failed to achieved even after half a century.

Roasting coffee might look ordinary.

But Thomas Sproten might not have realized that he, in the process is also brewing change.

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