By: Nathan Borla
In the Philippines, Coffee is king. Perhaps more revered than tea and sometimes even water, Filipinos place high importance on coffee as their main source of a jolt of energy in the morning to start off their day with a jump in their step. With over 93% of Filipino households purchasing and consuming coffee products once a week, coffee has certainly become a Filipino staple drink, mainly because of the sharp, bold, and caffeine-driven energy boost that it brings to the table.
More than its benefits, Filipinos widely consume coffee as a part of daily life, often drunk over conversations, paired with a heavy meal during lunch, and even merienda later on in the day. Coffee-drinking is ingrained in the culture of the Philippines evident in not just its colonial history from the Spanish and American coffee drinkers, but also in modernity seen in the constant sprouting of coffeehouses and the emergence of speciality custom roasted and brewed coffee in artisan circles.
I had found myself pondering about the reason behind Filipinos’ love for coffee. More so, why didn’t tea develop as the staple beverage of Filipinos when tea is widely consumed by various nations and civilizations throughout history spanning across centuries.
Tea or “Tsaa” drinking in the Philippines is often a niche topic when we are referring to true teas, mainly white, black, green, and oolong tea. Even if we were to consider tisanes or herbal teas in this conversation, you’d often find yourself wondering why Filipinos aren’t accustomed to it even if they have been exposed to herbal medicine for hundreds of years. If we were to approach it in a historical context, tea arrived in the Philippines earlier than coffee, brought by Chinese traders during the pre-colonization period. Later, they would settle in several parts of present day Manila, which would probably lead us to think that tea would have become a staple in the Philippine diet considering the amount of influence the Chinese culture had on Philippine culture.
Alas, this was not the case. Today, when you ask Filipinos what their conception of tea and tea drinking are, the answer will usually be these three varieties: Bubble Tea, Salabat, and Tea bags. Bubble Tea, which is originally from Taiwan gained popularity in Metro Manila during the mid 2000s, when Bubble Tea (commonly known as Milk Tea in the Philippines) was brought from Taiwan to the Philippines pioneered by Milk Tea giant, Serenitea. Salabat or Ginger Tea, on the other hand, is a more traditional version of herbal teas. We often associate Salabat with our parents and grandparents making us drink the hot beverage whenever we had fever, colds, and the flu. Malunggay or Moringa Tea and Calamansi Tea are also very popular among the elders as relief for colds, fevers, and sore throats as well. Lastly, we have the supermarket tea bags popularized by Lipton in the Philippines, usually lemon or green tea in flavoring and very sweet that caters to the general tea drinking population in the Philippines.
As you may have noticed, Filipinos associate tea as alternative forms of medicine and not really as a normal beverage you would drink on a daily basis. More so, tea’s health benefits and taste are overshadowed by coffee. One of the reasons why coffee has always been the staple was that the farming of coffee really took off when a Spanish Fransican Monk introduced the plant in Lipa, Batangas in 1740 and coffee plantations started to grow in nearby cities and municipalities. This growth was steady till the coffee rust hit the plantations and almost wiped out every coffee plant within these farms. It was thanks to the Americans that the Philippines now enjoys a more resistant type of coffee plant, which led to the creation of the readymade instant coffee, which would later develop into the 3-in-1 coffee that Filipinos all love.
The concept of “nagmamadali sa umaga” really helped facilitate the growth of Filipinos’ love for 3-in-1 coffee as it could be prepared within a few seconds, filled the hungry tummy in the morning, and energized them to get ready for a day’s worth of work. Plus, some of them were freeze-dried coffee, which meant that they would last longer on your shelf. Filipinos always have to wake up early and be on the go for if they did not, they would probably be stuck in traffic and be late to work or school. Tea on the other hand, specifically loose leaf tea, had to be prepared in a very distinct manner and would often take a few minutes to do so thus it was not really the first choice Filipinos had. More so, tea bags have a limited popularity in the Philippines however it still did not gain the same popularity with coffee, milk tea, and powdered iced tea.
This is not to say that loose-leaf teas are not gaining traction in the Philippines. Along with the third wave of coffee focusing on the artistic qualities of its preparation as well as the ethical sourcing of the beans comes the surge of the loose-leaf tea wave in the Philippines as well. While tea connoisseurs, sommeliers, and general tea lovers have been present in other tea drinking countries such as the Turkey, United Kingdom, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, the Philippine market for loose leaf teas is ever promising and presents an opportunity for sellers and potential tea lovers.
Along with artisan, home coffee brewers investing in equipment to further their craft, health consciousness in the Philippines is also on the rise, which gives loose leaf teas a shot at being a staple in the Filipino beverage arsenal. This indicates that more Filipinos are willing to invest in their health and in high quality ingredients and equipment for a more flavorful and unique beverage at the comfort of their own homes. Some may find the experience of the preparation being the ultimate satisfaction for themselves, which fulfills some Filipinos’ yearn for artistic qualities. I can even hypothesize that this trend has only gone up due to the COVID-19 pandemic, wherein individuals couldn’t go outside to buy their favorite coffee beverages; as a result, they decided to buy their own equipment to prepare it themselves. Even contributing more to the health consciousness aspect are Filipinos trying to strengthen their immunity as a response to the pandemic that has really changed Philippine society in tumultuous ways, one being their diet and two, their habits within the confines of their own homes, and lastly their habits with the outside world.
If this is the case, loose-leaf teas have tremendous potential in capturing a market share in mainstream beverage consumption. True teas and herbal tisanes are known for their distinct and subtle flavors which can be infused with other ingredients such as spices, herbs, seeds, and the like. These true teas and possible infusions have infinite combination possibilities which contribute to the unique flavor of the tea, which may appeal to the experience aspect of creating a beverage people can call uniquely theirs. More importantly, these teas are very much healthy, often filled with antioxidants, vitamins, and nutrients that can improve not just overall wellness, but may target specific organs or illnesses. The effectiveness may vary as more research needs to verify its effectiveness, but scholars have already linked tea drinking to lower risks to heart disease and mortality rates. Couple this up with the exercise and a healthy diet, then it should really promote a healthier body and mind for Filipinos and people in general.
Perhaps some may find themselves adjusting to the taste of tea as we Filipinos have always had our sweet tooth in our cuisine. Some Filipinos may even be looking for that strong and bold coffee taste found in the famous Kapeng Barako. However, this health trend may very well be the catalyst the Philippines need to usher in a new era for teas to be propelled into the spotlight, an era where Filipinos find joy in the experience and taste of creating their own artisan coffee and indulging in healthy loose-leaf teas and the benefits it can bring to a health conscious society.