There was a time in the gentler and untroubled days of old, when one could put water into the bottom of an aluminum coffee chamber and, measuring scoops of coarse grounds from a tin can, pour them into a basket-like metal strainer at the top. The apparatus was covered and placed on an electric stove, and heated water was gradually forced up a tube connected to this strainer into its perforated lid, thence seeping through the coffee and flowing back into the bottom in a continuous brewing cycle.
A glass valve atop the pot stopped perking once the overall temperature neared 100℃, and one then removed it from the heat source. “Coffee boiled is coffee spoiled,” an old Turkish saying went. It would then be time to decant the simmering brownish liquid from the percolator and serve coffee, perhaps with a few drops of Bear Brand milk to enhance the flavor even more.
But what kind of coffee did the java enthusiasts of early 20th century Manila brew? Before imported brands like Chase & Sandborn and Hills Bros. became widely available from the US military bases at Clark and Sangley Point, and before local manufacturers started making their own instant coffee, what did our parents use? Without the benefit of mass advertising and social media in those halcyon times, we’ll need to rely on vintage paper labels and print advertisements to take a short trip back into Philippine coffee during the American era.
In the late 1920’s, a somewhat hyperbolic brand called “Ang Hiwaga Ng Cape” was retailed by Bulacan coffee and chocolate maker Almacen El Contento (literally “Happy Store”), in San Vicente, Malolos. Its 800-gram bag featured a goddess emerging from the ocean’s depths, handing leaves of a coffee plant to a maiden waiting onshore. A mixture of coffee and cereals, its package contained a rather peculiar text that enjoined the knowledge-seeking drinker to foreswear reading a coffee history book, and instead, simply taste the brew.
The same grocer had other equally intriguing brands. Its “Coffee of the Angels” trumpeted its pure, clean and fragrant brew, with a vison of cherubim floating on a clear blue sky, one holding aloft a cup of steaming coffee, on a 400-gram pack. Apparently a soap maker as well, Almacen El Contento also marketed the “Dalawang Magkaibigan,” brand, a purely locally grown brew.
The printing press notation at the bottom of the paper label suggests that this may be a circa 1930’s beverage. Interestingly, the Malolos address and the various brands support the largely contrarian view that coffee in the Philippines may have been first cultivated in Bulacan, and not in Lipa, Batangas, as is commonly held. British writer and traveler Henry Piddington noted in the seminal “The Philippine Islands” by Blair and Robertson that the mayor of Bulacan ordered all residents to plant the crop despite the absence of a market for coffee. This, even if, as Piddington reported someone’s observation, “que no habia compradores ni consumidores” (or “that there were neither buyers nor consumers”).
In the pre-Commonwealth era, well-known Cantonese food and wine purveyor Ah Gong sold beans branded as “Red Bag” coffee, and packaged them in 1-lb bags and 18-lb cans. The Ah Gong & Sons store was in Echague, Manila, although it had a warehouse near the La Quinta market as well. Not much is known about “Red Bag” coffee, except that it was roasted daily (“tostado diariamente”), suggesting that these were locally-sourced beans simply packed in red-colored paper bags, hence the trademark. Buyers who save the empty packages could exchange them for valuable prizes (“guarde los paquetes vacios seran cambiados valiosos premios”), a pre-war example of a rewards promo campaign.
In the early 1900’s, the Spanish language maintained its hegemony despite the American colonialists’ effort to replace the dominant tongue with English. This may explain why the text of this 1930’s ad is still predominantly Spanish. The image of a stylish and bejeweled lady daintily holding her coffee cup may mean that “Red Bag” coffee was meant to appeal to the upscale market. Indeed, Ah Gong, who was reputed to be well-traveled, was listed as a wine distributor in the 1932 Manila Carnival Commercial Handbook. He was also a recognized restaurateur who once leased and operated, in early 1900, the famous Hotel de Oriente at the Plaza Calderon de la Barca in Binondo.
In the late 1930’s, domestic coffee consumption had outstripped that of chocolate, and while bean production had expanded, harvests were still unable to meet local demand. Hence, some commercial companies were forced to resort to importation.
“Jai Alai” seems unusual as a coffee brand, but La Tondena, Inc. (yes, the distillery founded in 1902 by Tan Quin Lay, a.k.a. Carlos Palanca) was its exclusive distributor. Packed in both square and round tin cans with the image of a pelotari, “Jai Alai” was imported from Hawaiian coffee plantations, with one print ad noting that it was grown on the slopes of “Kilauea sa Haway.” Mt. Kilauea is one of the active volcanoes near the Mauna Loa and Hualalai slopes in the Kona Coffee Belt, where the eponymous “Kona” brand is produced.
But why this trademark? The Basque handball game of jai alai was introduced in Manila in 1899, and originally played in a small fronton at the Casino Espanol. With the game’s increasing popularity, American architect Welton Becket designed what was to become the iconic Manila Jai Alai Building in 1940, a stunning Streamline Moderne structure that was a classic until its sad demolition in 2000. The sport and the building were very much in vogue that La Tondena may have used its popularity to brand its coffee.
The distillery also distributed “Savarin” coffee, touted to have been served at the famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Named after legendary French epicure and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the coffee was created by Samuel Schonbrunn, a Jewish immigrant who parlayed the strong ties of Jews with coffee to make this famous brand.
“Rooster Coffee” was packed in vacuum-sealed cans, and made by La Campana Coffee Factory, Inc. Chinese businessman Tan Tong (later to be christened Ricardo Tantongco) organized this company in 1950, and housed it in Binondo alongside his other enterprise, the La Campana Gawgaw Packaging. The Tagalog text of these 1952 ads suggested that their coffee was freshly roasted, and canned using the most modern technology of the times.
Why the coffee was branded the unlikely name of “Rooster” remains a mystery. Perhaps it was a reference to fighting cocks, which were often said to be injected with high doses of caffeine (along with amphetamines and epinephrine) to make them more aggressive during matches. Or maybe it evoked early mornings when roosters crowed and woke one up to the aroma of a freshly brewed cup of coffee.
In the early years following the Liberation, other traders and importers entered the coffee market with their brands. “Table Queen Coffee” was distributed by Yaras & Company, and promoted as being “fit for a king.” Socialite and Social Welfare Administrator Pacita Madrigal Warns endorsed “Royal Coffee” (maker unknown). The El Camello Coffee Factory made the “El Camello” brand, while ABC America’s Best Coffee & Cocoa Co. sold “Republic Coffee.” Holsum Foods, Inc., which still operates in Caloocan today and produces 3-in-1 coffee, packaged “Wonder Coffee” during this period.
As the shadows of the post-war era gave way to the 1960’s, soluble and instant coffees would soon take over the market. Consolidated Food Products would introduce “Presto” in 1962, and “Blend 45” a year later, and Commonwealth Foods, Inc. would follow suit with its triad of “Café Puro,” “Café Bueno,” and “Café Excelente.” Even revered chocolate bar maker Serg’s Products, Inc. came up with the short-lived “Quina Instant Coffee,” and competitor Goya used its eponymous trademark.
While the 1990’s signaled the entry of foreign coffee chains – Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, Gloria Jean’s – indigenous cafes made their mark as well. And today, many local growers and retailers have introduced a myriad of freshly roasted local beans alongside third wave methods of extraction, and maybe the coffee cycle has come full circle. Years from now, when grandchildren wonder what coffee their forebears brewed and sipped in the new millennium, names like Sagada, Kape Maria, Mount Apo, Commune, and Amadeo will be, in equal parts, enlightening, entertaining, and eye-opening to the future coffee researcher.
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