|The town of Sagada nestled in the Mountains of Cordillera|
A six-hour drive up one of the world’s most dangerous motorways, and five thousand feet above sea level, lays the stunning town of Sagada, high up in the Mountain Province of Cordillera. Lime stone cliffs, lush thick pine forests, along with what seems like endless rice terraces, surround the town of Sagada. The culture in the area is vastly different from the rest of the Philippines, as majority practice Animism. The belief that everything has a spirit and nature is to be respected is very evident in the organic development of the town. The houses are made of natural material, garbage is disposed of properly, and the youth have picnics in caves. There is very little Spanish or American influence, which means the town still retains a lot of tradition.
Sagada’s lush terrain along with it cool temperature is ideal for growing coffee. This was the reason for our visit: to see how the world’s most expensive coffee, civet or alamid coffee, is produced. Our search led us to Melay and Gohan Sibayen, a couple who have dedicated their lives to sourcing and roasting the best coffee available in the Cordilleras.
With the support of Bote Central (a member of The World Fair Trade Organisation), the couple were given an 18-day roasting machine so that the sourced coffee can be freshly roasted at the back of their cafe, saving on costs and giving the smaller farmers an even better price. Some of the coffee gets sent to Bote Central and some is kept in their café in Sagada, and sold to passing travellers.
The café opened five years ago, the same time as the birth of their daughter Bana. Since then they have sourced and continue to source organically grown coffee, and Civet coffee from around the Mountain Province. They have encouraged the DTI, the local Department of Trade and Industry to recognise coffee as a lucrative crop, which should be encouraged amongst farmers. Now, Cordillera is recognised world-wide for it’s good quality and wonderfully aromatic Arabica coffee. This is still something that is reasonably new to a lot of Philippinos who are used to instant 3-in-1 pouches, but things are gradually changing, as more coffee shops are popping up.
|The hanging coffins of Sagada|
So we wanted in on the buzz. Gohan took us for a scenic stroll through Echo Vally, where, as the name suggest, you can get a good echo reverberating through the Vally. We had some fun here, then headed down to see the hanging coffins, a tradition which is unique to Animist cultures, as it is believed the spirits can be free instead of buried in the ground. What I found so fascinating was how anybody got both the coffin and the body up such steep cliffs, and then even managed to nail it to the rock.
We walked further down the vally. The soil became slimier and the vegetation denser. My grip-less, white canvas trainers were not prepared for the hike, and I could feel every rock and twig underneath my feet. I wondered how Gohan was doing this in flip flops! As we approached an opening of a cave, Gohan pointed in the distance “look, that’s a coffee tree!” I honestly had no clue what I was looking at. Then as we moved further on, I realised a cluster of small trees with bright red berries hanging off them.
|A coffee tree|
We were specifically looking for civet poop, and in a dense muddy forest, it’s not easy to find. We were told Civets live around limestone, and after eating the coffee berries, they find a high spot on which to sit and digest their dinner. This is were we would be likely to find their pricey droppings. We searched around for a good while but found only one bean!
|Pooped civet coffee bean|
We continued up to another farm, where some new Arabica plants were being grown. We stopped to have a rest and chomp on some oranges.
As we munched away, Gohan explained how the farmer had designed the plotting of the plants to create a bio-diverse farming area. He explained the trees grown around the coffee plants were there to act as green manures, weed control and also as a shade for the little Arabica plants.
|Young Arabica coffee plants|
So off we set again on the search. We didn’t find any more droppings, but we did find some civet “spit outs” which apparently can be classed as second class to the poop beans.
|Spat out civet coffee beans|
Happy with our findings, we heading back to the café. Along the way we passed a running stream that led to another cave opening. Gohan told us there are 118 cave opening in the Sagada area, all connected. Some of these caves are accessible, but only with a guide. Others are only for experienced cavers. The intricate network is familiar with the locals as ceremonies are still held deep down in the caves, even to this day.
|A cave with a running stream below a Sagadan house|
Once back at the café we studied the difference between the civet poop bean, and the spit out bean. The difference was obvious even to the untrained eye. The reason why civet coffee is so revered in taste, is the process of bean selection and digestion done by the civet. Firstly it picks the most ripe bean, then if the whole bean is digested, only the soft flesh of the fruit is broken down, whilst the bean stays intact. The emzynes in the civet are said to enter the bean creating shorter peptides thus creating more amino acids. The taste of the coffee is smoother and chocolatier then regular coffee. As you can see from the picture below, the digested coffee bean has a rougher surface then the spat out coffee bean. As the spat out coffee bean has also been exposed to the enzymes, but for a shorter period of time, it is second class to the digested bean and still reaches a high price.
|Left: Pooped bean (rougher exterior) Right: Spat out bean|
So now it was time to try some civet coffee. As expected, it was lovely. It was the first properly brewed coffee I had since leaving Vigan. The taste was not exactly as I expected though. There was a hint of nuttiness, almost hazelnutty. It was defiantly smoother then regular black coffee, but also had a drier after taste. Anyways… I’m no coffee expert, but I did defiantly enjoy it, especially after the long hike and whilst enjoying the beautiful views over Sagada.
|A cup of civet coffee and a beautiful view|