Meet 20-year Old Barista Migs Santiago and His Barista BoxNovember 5, 2014
Kids these days. They make you wonder what the heck you were doing in your earlier 20s. At 20, all I cared about was waiting for class to end so I could play Left 4 Dead—hands on the mouse and keyboard navigating my way inside an abandoned, zombie-infested shack, while surreptitiously stuffing McDonald’s fries in my mouth.
Today, you’ve got teenage bloggers from all points of the spectrum and extremely young photographers whose works astound veterans in the field. You’ve got determined restaurant owners disguised with faces looking like they just graduated from high school, and fresh college graduates equipped with a list of accomplishments that run longer than your 5-year resume.
Miguel “Migs” Santiago is one of these intense millennials. Fresh from his teens, he has gained a lot of coffee experience under his belt. He’s still in university, by the way, wrapping up his senior college duties with a thesis replacement called The Barista Box, a tiny coffee shop on wheels, serving third wave coffee in the Ateneo.
“This used to be an L300,” Migs says, slapping his truck like an old buddy on the back. “We bought our first machine—it was a Rocket. We started doing bazaars, and then when the opportunity arose to do something bigger with all this, we jumped at the chance.
“Bringing The Barista Box to the Ateneo community was a risk. I mean, you wouldn’t expect university students to drink straight black coffee, but I guess it was the experience of having coffee brewed in front of you. Slowly, people started taking notice, there became a market in the university, and the rest of it is history. It’s pretty cool ’cause we’ve already acquired a bunch of regulars like Sir Eddie Calasanz (Ateneo philosophy legend), buying coffee from us twice a day. He likes lattes.”
Take the time to stalk some of the more prominent third wave coffee people today, and you’ll see Migs’s name pop out among them. Being such a young player in the third wave coffee market—and being a student at that, I ask Migs about the pressures he faces with regard to his craft. “Well, it’s mostly school stuff,” he laughs. “I’d like to think it’s less pressure since I don’t have to think about the money part as much just yet, especially at this stage. Lots of people set up coffee shops to earn a decent profit. Right now, I’m not yet constrained with that mindset to sell 200 cups a day.”
Migs’s passion for coffee all started a couple of years ago. “The reason why I wanted to be a barista was partially because I wanted to be a chef. But I couldn’t cook for shit. I really wanted to be in the service industry; I wanted a place to start.”
While walking past CCA Katipunan, a tarpaulin advertising specialty coffee courses piqued Migs’s interest, and there he found himself sipping his first cup of specialty coffee. Raoul de Peralta, head barista of Toby’s Estate, prepared Migs’s first cup. “It wasn’t even any of the third wave stuff. It was just a latte, and coming from a commercialized coffee background—I’ve never really tasted anything like it. I felt like I made a connection with that cup of coffee.”
From there, Migs took a short course in PBCA (Philippine Barista & Coffee Academy) on making espresso, and then he took another lesson at Craft with Sly Samonte. “While I was at Craft, I finished the workshop and I asked if they needed an extra barista with no pay. All I wanted was the experience behind the bar. I spent 4 months there. I think the timing was also perfect since this was when all the other third wave coffee shops started popping up. I went with Sly to work in The Curator, then I also worked with Yardstick as a temporary barista while they were still in Apartment 1B,” Migs recalls.
And then, Migs decided to bring his evolved understanding of coffee to school. “My experience from these stints made me look at coffee differently from then on, and I decided to bring this knowledge to campus. Back then, there was really no good coffee place near Ateneo, so I brought my own coffee to school. The reason why it’s called The Barista Box is because it literally started with a box of brewing equipment. I’d bring a burner, a steaming pitcher, and an Aeropress to school and brew coffee for myself. I always had a kilo of coffee in my bag which I obviously couldn’t finish on my own, so I shared it with strangers—not even my friends—I’d randomly approach other students and be all, ‘Hey, do you want some coffee?’ Yeah, some were a bit creeped out, but then I’d bring out the kit and everything would be okay.”
Third wave coffee shops are spreading like an outbreak, with the term tossed around loosely and sometimes, even carelessly. How do you respond to a seething barista who refuses to give you sugar for your coffee? How do you politely turn down a barista’s intimidating push to drink your coffee black? Is that really how third wave or specialty coffees are meant to be like? Migs chooses to steer clear from labels and simply calls The Barista Box “a little coffee shop that serves good coffee and good food (soon!). There’s just so many politics that go into the terms ‘third wave’ and ‘specialty coffee’ so might as well not call ourselves either of them.”
“We identify ourselves along the lines of EDSA BDG and Craft. Third wave, for me, generally denotes everything after the commercial wave. It’s more of a mindset—all about service, all about proper knowledge when it comes to coffee—how to brew it, etc. It’s a more independent way of doing things than how commercial coffee shops do it—not so much on the syrups or the flavorings, but more focused on the farms and the coffee itself. You know, the different notes that go into a single espresso shot. It’s all about a heightened understanding of what it takes to make a good cup of coffee.
“We believe coffee is a personal ritual, and we understand people have their own ways of drinking it, even mixed with different types of sugars while still being able to discern the flavor. I mean, the way we like it is black, with no sugar, with just a bit of milk, but we keep sugar at bay. At the end of the day, it’s centered on community. I think it’s just about interacting with our customers and making sure they are happy with the cup of coffee we serve them. It’s all about making that connection, you know what I mean?” he asks. I take a sip of my iced espresso with milk. There is no need for Migs to explain anything else. I completely understand what he means.