My love affair with coffee is like one of them super colorful relationships, filled with twists and turns, long stretches of both true passion and empty, meaningless MOMOL sessions. O ha.
Back in the day, I used to frequent this Japanese coffee shop: a dimly lit, often cigarette smoke filled cafe with old movie posters of James Dean and Humphrey Bogart (I'm not even going to say which it is. You'll figure it out - and it will date you. haha!). On the menu was everything from chahan (fried rice) to tuna sandwiches, and of course, coffee (or rather, coffee concoctions): sweet drinks filled with chocolate and cream and honey and whatever else you could pile on there - plus some coffee. Emphasis on the "some". Yeah they were basically milk shakes.
Of course I loved it, as did the girls my buddies and I took there. It was the perfect place to chat with the ladies (*shudder*) and get to know them, and is definitely the starting point of a lifetime of “having coffee”. I felt very cool sitting there in that dim room, reeking of "yosi" (cigarettes), and with a steaming cappuccino, albeit one that tasted like candy. And thus the said affair began at this “getting to know you” stage.
By senior year of high school, during our last retreat as classmates, my buddies and I would pounce on our classic breakfast of red dyed hot dogs, cold eggs sunny side up, and rice – and wash them down with a very potent (and seemingly adult-like) instant brew with a shitload of sugar in a Styrofoam cup, its color lightened by a heaping spoon of powdered “creamer”. That certainly kept us up throughout the weekend.
Coffee became a “friend” of sorts.
At some point (I forget when), the juggernaut known as Starbucks marched into town and made quite a splash. I won’t deny – I was crushing on that mermaid pretty bad.
And how could you blame me? Their flagship at 6750 was gorgeous! 2 stories, full of couches and obscure background music and the heady aromas of coffee – it was seductive. The seduced came in droves, like zombies, and learned to sip….. frappuccinos. In their best clothes, too – I remember spotting couples out on prom night dropping by for a mocha frap.
At that point I tried to up my coffee game by trying the more “serious” offerings: apart from my staple cap, lattes soon entered my vocabulary, and - when I thought I was ready and following the footsteps of my Pops – an espresso (con panna,though, with that dollop of whipped cream smoothing out the rough edges). I felt so dirty and macho. Yes, yes, this was definitely a MOMOL moment.
It went on for a long while, all this emotionless making out with coffee. The mighty S had become a de rigueur hang out space, even a place to see and be seen. Lots of pretty young things doing their hair toss, all the while displaying their cute little frothy cream mustaches from their fraps. Cute.
Even during my travels, I’d make a beeline for Starbucks to beat my drowsiness, or any other place that served coffee. No deep feeling, no emotions. Triple espressos, usually after a long haul flight. The coffee equivalent of the walk of shame.
The day I fell I love was special. Down right torrid, even. I was in the Bay Area, and had read about this newly opened place called Blue Bottle Coffee. C and I, both intrigued, gave it a go.
I had an espresso, because my gut told me so. With no sugar sachets in sight, they pretty much discourage you from putting any sugar in their drinks – though there is a container of really nice Japanese sugar crystals if you insist – so I didn’t. It had the thickest crema I’d ever seen (that head of brown froth that forms after the barista pulls a shot)..one that didn’t go away and dissipate in 5 seconds. One sip of that stuff, smooth and not bitter, with a finish of chocolate, took my breath away. I sipped C’s cappuccino – even THAT made me curse out in it’s deliciousness. We went back for more: New Orleans style coffee with chicory, flat whites, lattes, even a mocha. Best I've ever had.
And it was the place itself – the baristas who all looked like displaced hipsters (even before I even knew what a hipster was!) all tattooed up and moving with purpose; their rows of sleek machines, grinders, and siphons (something UCC had going even before them, I might add); and one of the funkiest things I’d seen – hand filtered coffee, where you put coffee in a special filter and hand pour the water in a steady stream to produce one of the cleanest tasting cups you’ll ever sip. Apparently this was how coffee was done waaaay back in time, and it was just a method that was being reintroduced.
This was when coffee and I left the MU stage and just went for it. The Third Wave of coffee is the movement where Blue Bottle was smack dab in the middle of – a time when coffee obsessives opened shops, sourcing the best beans often straight from the people who planted them, and trying their best to extract the most flavor they could from various methods. These guys treat coffee like fine wine, and that concept just blew me away.
The only problem was that the Bottle was all the way in San Francisco. I don’t know about you – but I hate long distance relationships. I tried my best not to think of it, but the separation was unbearable. Worse, I got spoiled by it too. Where o where was I going to find someone to pull that kind of shot for me?
That quest went on for a loooong time. My espresso connoisseur father and I would order an espresso in every local restaurant we would visit. Time and time again, we were let down by watery shots, some found in the best of restaurants in the city. Restaurant peeps – you really should consider upping your coffee service game – it’s always disappointing to have a great meal be drowned out by bad coffee.
Then during my travels, I chanced upon Fuel Espresso in Hong Kong. This gweilo (Canto-slang for “white dude”) hangout, a New Zealand chain owned by a couple of Kiwi gents, made KILLER espresso and only did espresso-based drinks. Their flat white (ristretto with milk, no foam) was really fuel for me, putting a bit of strut in my stride, and their iced latte cooled me and boosted me during warm days. Every trip I made to the Fragrant Harbour made me visit Fuel every day, sometimes twice a day, even if it was out of the way. My only gripe with them was that they forbade me to take pictures of their location –although it was a great set up, I don’t get how they think it’s so “unique”. There’s nothing there that hasn’t been done before! But well gee – who cares, right? It was the coffee I was there for.
A way cooler experience came last year, when a coffee blood brother of mine – Nicco Santos – happened to be in Singapore the same time I was (see my “New Order” post) and wanted to take me to this special coffee temple, knowing that I was hooked on the stuff.
We took the subway and emerged in the middle of nowhere, walking in a neighborhood I had never been to before. It looked like the Singapore ‘burbs, if that’s possible. Nicco then pointed to this high gate, like something you’ll find at a big home in, say, New Manila, and entered.
Chye Seng Huat Hardware then proceeded to greet me like we were old lovers. Yes, torrid. Super. Where was this place all my life?
Located in an old (duh) hardware store, this was so my kind of place: airy, chill, full of light – the main room had a long bar where all the coffee magic happened,; a few cozy tables; a music corner with a vintage turntable, speakers and vinyl; a wall full of coffee machines, gadgets, grinders.. like all cool places that get to me, the atmosphere was intoxicating. And the coffee… well, let’s just say they knew what they were doing. Like Blue Bottle, they had it all – shots, pour overs, siphons, and a new creature for me: cold brews. Cold brewed coffee is simply coffee that is filtered for a loooong time (24 hours or more!) and chilled. The result is akin to sipping the cleanest iced tea, but with a mild hit of coffee at the back of your mouth. Delicious! But don’t be fooled – this shit will keep you up spinning and dancing if you fool around with it at night. The caffeine level is through the roof.
Beside the main room was an area for roasting (because that’s how respectable Third Wave shops roll!) and arguably an even cooler spot than the main room called The Annex. Basically a room with equipment and a small bar, it was used to hold coffee classes, as well as what I went there for: pairings and tastings. Nicco’s cousin, Andre Chanco (who works there as a barista) and one of his colleagues (whose name escapes me right now) did the session. I left smiling, like I had found something I had long been looking for. That was the closest I had gotten to my Blue Bottle experience, and I went home with a wealth of knowledge too.
However, Singapore and Hong Kong still aren’t in the vicinity, obviously. It’s not like I can drive over and ask for a date to Tagaytay and have dinner at Antonio’s. It was still long distance. My heart ached, and longed to listen to some balladic Journey. I needed some Faithfully. In a dark room.
But fret not, dear reader (and THANK YOU if you’ve read this far! Haha!), because this does end with a Happy Ever After.
The Third Wave has landed on our shores, in case you didn’t notice, and hopefully like our penchant for 80s New Wave, it will never go away.
One of the joints in the frontlines is this place called Craft Coffee Workshop. Located on a sliver of storefront along 14th St. and Broadway in New Manila, Craft is a great way to get introduced to the world of coffee. I had only heard about them, and was quite surprised that to find that they also knew the people who ran Chye Seng Huat through my man Nicco. It was high time to investigate.
The 3 gentlemen who run it (Raymond So, Peter Ong & Sly Samonte) are obsessive, like most of the Third Wave generation: they source their own beans, roast them, and do everything they can to get good flavor – siphon, cold brew, espresso shot, pour over. Its vibrant and alive inside - some people even mistake it for a bar – and if it weren’t a little far from me I’d go there everyday. The crowd is a mix of people who live around the area, and young med students from nearby St. Luke’s --- all looking for a place to be still and enjoy the java. At least you know that if you cut your finger or bump your head you will be in awesome hands.
The baristas and owners will gladly discuss you about what exactly is going on in your cup, and if wish to learn even more, they sometimes conduct classes in their second floor “extension”. The good people behind this place have managed to grow a small community – a “Cheers” for coffee – and the surroundings are all the better because of it. I was there one night when they held an impromptu “latte art” competition – regulars and baristas went at it head to head, producing tulips, ballerinas, and..uhm.. ganja leaves made of milk, as the crowd cheered them on and judged the winners as well. Good fun!
So that’s my love story in a nutshell. From Manila to the San Francisco Bay Area, to Hong Kong, Singapore, and finally back to Manila, I am happy to say that the torrid affair has blossomed into marriage: Life long and strong, an endless love. Lionel and Diana would be proud.
BLUE BOTTLE COFFEE (66 Mint Plaza, San Francisco, CA .. +1 510.6533394; 1 Sausalito, San Francisco Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA .. +1 510.6533394)
FUEL ESPRESSO (Shop B47A, The Landmark, 12-16 Des Voeux Road Central, Central, Hong Kong .. +852 2869 9019; IFC Mall, 1 Finance St, Central, Hong Kong .. +852 2295 3815)
CHYE SENG HUAT HARDWARE (150 Tyrwhitt Road, Singapore .. +65 36960609)
CRAFT COFFEE WORKSHOP (66 Broadway Ave., New Manila, Quezon City, Philippines .. +632 5703436)