Journey in a Cup: Kalsada Coffee

Coffee connoisseur and Kalsada Coffee founder Carmel Laurino shares how her personal coffee journey inspired her to move from Seattle to Manila

Interview Emarrah Sarreal
Images Kaye Lavin and Rennell Salumbre

Carmel Laurino, photographed by Rennell Salumbre

How are you? Please introduce yourself.

I am Carmel Laurino, and I’m the founder of Kalsada Coffee, a social enterprise working with smallholder coffee producers in the Philippines.

What attracted you to pursue coffee?

The inspiration stemmed from a dusty, old photograph I found while doing research in one of the libraries at the University of Washington. It showed a small stall, operated by the “Filipino Coffee Company”, in Pike Place Market. Aside from my curiosity surrounding this photo, my decision to pursue coffee was also rooted in my desire to learn more about my heritage and culture. I grew up abroad and wanted to connect to my parents’ home country. Pursuing coffee allowed me to do just that.

Your passion for coffee is inspiring. Can you share with us your experience tasting coffee for the first time?

I can’t remember how old I was, but I remember having to mix my mom’s instant coffee—you know the Folger’s soluble?—and adding milk and sugar to it. It was so sweet! I do, however, distinctly remember the first time I cupped specialty coffee. It was at Stumptown Coffee’s roastery in Seattle. In that place, we were able to travel across the coffee belt one region and one cup at a time, ending with a cup from Ethiopia—the birthplace of coffee. That was the first time I’d tasted coffees side by side. I remember being so wide-eyed and exclaiming: “I taste blueberries!” That was the turning point for me. How could plain, black coffee taste like blueberries?

That does sound like a wonderful experience! Let’s bring the experience closer to home. Kalsada Coffee currently partners with coffee farmers in Benguet and Bukidnon. Which coffee cup from your partners has made an impression on you?

They’re all so amazing and different! I don’t think I could pick just one.

What was the state of coffee farming like when Kalsada first started?

In the community we now work in, each farmer was processing in their own backyard. There wasn’t a centralized area for them to collectively work together. This situation put a lot of the responsibility on the farmers, which explains why most coffee farmers eventually focused on other crops. One of our missions at Kalsada Coffee is to sustain the country’s coffee farms. The Philippines has such a great coffee history, and it would be a shame to let it fade away. This was also one of the reasons why we wanted to pay farmers more. In our opinion, farming is the most crucial and difficult part of the entire coffee journey. So we make it a point to pay the farmers over $1 per pound more than Fair Trade.

“One of our missions at Kalsada Coffee is to sustain the country’s coffee farms. The Philippines has such a great coffee history, and it would be a shame to let it fade away.”

That old photograph that you found played a crucial role in setting you on this path. As the Philippines reawakens to find its place in the global coffee industry, what do you think can our country offer? What makes our coffee unique from the other types of coffee?

The Philippines can offer so much! For the global coffee industry, the Philippines represents a new origin, a new profile, and unique characteristics. We’ve only been working at farm level for four years, and each year, we are amazed by what we learn and uncover.

In this issue, we’re exploring Manila—its beauty and its boundless creative energy. In the last few years, we think that coffee has played a significant role in the city’s reawakening. What can you say about this?

Since Kalsada Coffee opened four years ago*, we noticed that more specialty cafes are setting up shop in Manila. These cafes cater to more curious consumers that want to understand the nuances in flavors, as well as learn more about where their product is made and how it’s valued across the supply chain. We hope more and more consumers continue to stay curious, ask questions, and drink more local coffee!

Before we end this interview, we’re curious: What is a typical week like for the founder of Kalsada Coffee?

There isn’t one! Last month*, I had one of my busiest weeks. I was a panelist for a workshop on MSMEs held at the Asian Institute of Management. After that, I boarded an overnight bus to Baguio to spend a night at our community partner’s farm in Benguet. Then, we did a coffee crawl in La Union, after which I had to go back to Manila immediately •

*Originally published in Kanto’s Manila issue, 2018. Edits were made to the article.

Emarrah Sarreal is currently living out her realization that there is no such thing as “work-life balance”. Accepting that work is a part of life has given her so much peace and clarity in setting boundaries and prioritizing things. As a freelance writer, she’s on a quest to find the right level of sure-footedness to stay sane in this fast-paced world.

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