Cordillera Administrative Region

Brewing change: This Baguio entrepreneur is giving Cordilleran farmers a leg up

Mari-An C. Santos

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Brewing change: This Baguio entrepreneur is giving Cordilleran farmers a leg up

WITH A VIEW. At the flagship Highland Brew Legarda branch, digital nomads enjoy hot meals and even hotter cups of coffee.

Mari-An C. Santos/Rappler

The café uses coffee beans sourced from farmers in the Cordillera region, aiming to promote their world-class coffee

BAGUIO, Philippines – After media giant ABS-CBN was forced to close down during the COVID-19 pandemic, Baguio-born Shaun Marrero found himself at a crossroads. 

His tech business, one of the many allied services that relied on the big network for revenues, was in dire straits. It came to the point that he and his wife were moved to tears in desperation.

“So, I decided to go to the mountains to talk to God – to ask: Why?” he said. To do that, Marrero went to the third highest mountain in Luzon: Mount Timbac in Atok, Benguet.

While there, he met and struck up a conversation with a local, who invited him to enjoy a cup of coffee. 

“That’s a typical gesture in my province,” Marrero, who has lived in Benguet all his life, said. “We talked about each other’s lives, and throughout the conversation, I couldn’t help but notice that the coffee I was sipping was so distinctly flavorful, unlike any I had ever had.”

Marrero asked where the coffee was from, and his new friend revealed that it was from their garden. The man said that they had many coffee trees but no one wanted to buy their beans, or if they did, they wanted to buy them for too low a price. 

“Waiting for a year to harvest them, then processing them is tedious. It was not worth the mere P200 per kilo that traders wanted to pay for them,” Marrero recounted. 

The situation was so bad that the family was considering converting the land planted with coffee trees so they could engage in the more lucrative endeavor of vegetable gardening instead.

Incidentally, the high elevation and cold climate in Atok make it a favorable place to grow Arabica beans.

Germ of an idea

As Marrero bid goodbye to his new friends, they sent him off with some coffee beans. As soon as he got home, he searched the internet for information about coffee. He visited other coffee farmers and roasters – there are many around Benguet – to get a better idea of the situation. 

“I was like a sponge absorbing everything that I could!” Marrero said. 

He was so moved to help the coffee farmers get what was only fair and commensurate with their labor that he forgot about his problems in the process.

He submitted his business concept to SM Baguio in the middle of the pandemic. But his fair trade idea so impressed the mall management that they immediately made an offer.

Cafe Arabica coffee
LOVING ARABICA. Get a caffeine fix even on a warm day with the ice-filtered coffee. Mari-An C. Santos/Rappler

Before his foray into the café business, Marrero did not have any experience in the food and beverage category. “But I made up for it with my passion and compassion,” he said. He also found partners who helped make Highland Brew what it is today.

The first branch opened in SM Baguio in November 2021, serving different drinks and pastries in a garden setting.

Helping hands

As much as the café can, the ingredients they use are from farmers and vendors in and around the Cordillera. 

The coffee beans are sourced directly from Atok and Itogon in Benguet, Sadanga, and Sagada in Mountain Province, Kalinga, and Nueva Vizcaya. The kini-ing (smoked meat) and longganisa (pork sausage) are from Benguet, and suman (sticky rice) is from Mountain Province. The local chocolates are from around Baguio and Benguet. 

About 50 farmers benefit directly from doing business with Highland Brew, and Marrero estimates that hundreds more benefit indirectly.

Marrero said he decided to work with local coffee farmers because he wanted to give them a fighting chance to be known for their world-class coffee. 

“I have always believed that when you support local producers, you support the community. And when you support the community, they will help build the country’s economy and make everyone’s life better – with no one left behind. Just as they offered me encouragement when I was at my lowest, I want to give them hope and help them in their livelihood,” he said.

On Independence Day 2024, his flagship 60-square meter branch along Legarda Road opened its doors. It is a much bigger space with a working kitchen that whips up their signature and best-seller Smoked Meat on Brioche. There is no other way to describe this hefty and satisfying sandwich but a medley of savory and sweet, where kini-ing is the star resting on a fluffy scrambled egg and perfectly paired with a light smear of mango jam.

Cake, Dessert, Food
INNOVATING A CLASSIC. The fluffy bibingka cheesecake is filling and satisfying. Mari-An C. Santos/Rappler

Purists can have a steaming cup of black coffee. Chocolate lovers can enjoy a cup of Mount Sto. Tomas Choco Batirol, either hot or iced. Or, enjoy a bowl of Dark Choco Champorado topped with your choice of tuyo (flaked dried fish), sliced almonds, or Chocnut.

For a refresher, one can opt for Iced Purple Lavender Lemonade or Mount Amuyao Mocha Crumble over ice.

For dessert, their Bibingka Cheesecake is a soft and fluffy re-imagining of the Christmas classic, and the Baguio Ube Cheesecake has generous dollops of ube jam.

Marrero said he named the beverages after mountains as a way to promote the Cordillera because “the real beauty of our region is in those mountains.”

On any given day, the Legarda branch is abuzz with students and digital nomads enjoying their coffee-and-cake combos while typing away furiously on their keyboards. Maybe they come for the Wi-Fi, but many of them linger for the delicious coffee and food.

There’s a comfortable hum of (respectful) activity that makes it pleasant to look out the floor-to-ceiling windows to the street outside where life zooms by. – Rappler.com

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