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Coffee Guru Sly Samonte Has a Plan to Put Philippine Coffee on the Map

Even on its first day, the EDSA Beverage Design Studio is bustling with activity. I arrive at ten in the morning and head straight up the stairs at once, heading for the shared work area on the second floor where the real magic happened. A series of conference rooms/offices are arranged around a central four-sided bar that dominates the space, with sliding glass doors and shelves filled with vintage memorabilia serving to preserve the privacy of each work space.

Some of the “rooms” are occupied. In one, a few individuals are seated around a table engaged in a lively discussion. In another, people are hunched over their laptops, quietly working. A barista walks over to the bar and starts preparing espressos for the guests, he switches on the shiny metal machine they use to make coffee and sets out empty glasses on the counter. A tall man in a buttoned down shirt and not too formal but not too casual slacks checks on the barista’s work. Satisfied, he moves on, effortlessly gliding from space to space. One moment he’s giving he’s giving his two cents at the morning meeting space, the next he’s exchanging silent nods with the busy people using their computers. He is Sly Samonte, the owner of EDSA BDG and a co-founder of local 3rd Wave Coffee pioneer, The Curator.

“My dad likes to say it started from birth,” Sly Samonte says of his love affair with coffee. “They even say that my first word was coffee.” Though he quickly adds, “I’m not sure if that’s true, but they wanted to emphasize how it has been in my life since I was young.”

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His body shifts in his seat, settling into a more relaxed position as he recounts his earliest memories. According to Sly, coffee was all he could smell for a while, as his mom was an avid brewed coffee drinker. “She’d go about two cups of coffee a day for work. As I grew older, I started buying and making coffee for her. So I started making coffee at a young age.” Her preferred preparation was simple, a ground coffee that was served in a drip brewer. Most of what he drank was from Colombia and Brazil as those were readily available in the States. This early exposure taught him the basics of coffee preparation, but it wasn’t until he was older that he learned about the finer details of coffee.

“I’d carry my own little burner and make my coffee wherever I went.”

“My first espresso drink came from the mocha pot brewer. I used to drink a lot of coffee from there.” Having prepared coffee all his life, he carried the habit with him everywhere, even when he went traveling around the world. “I’d carry my own little burner and make my coffee wherever I went,” he shares.  During his years studying in a university, he started to enjoy Italian style espresso made with beans from seven to eleven origins.

Through his travels, Sly eventually ended up in Singapore. “I was moved out to Singapore by my (then) company about seven years ago,” he explains. He lived in the Lion City at the same time the place was going through a coffee renaissance of sorts, with numerous cafés introducing new origins, blends, and fresh specialty coffee to their customers. “Places like Oriole Cafe and Papa Palheta were doing things that were different, such as sourcing their own coffee.” At first, he made that scene the source of his daily caffeine fix. “At the time, my girlfriend was the one who lived close to the roaster,” he says with a small smile and soft laugh. “She started to complain that she had to drink and bring so much coffee.” To save them both the trouble of going and back forth for coffee, she bought him a small espresso machine and they began preparing their own coffee at home. Eventually, Sly moved on and got his own roaster from Taiwan. With the help of this new equipment, he started preparing coffee for himself straight from the bean.

Sly Samonte co-founded Craft Coffee Workshop with Raymond So.

Moving back to Manila, though, presented a few problems, not the least of which was that it meant Sly had to give up Singapore’s quality coffee. One solution was for Sly to open a business that produces specialty brews himself. “The first thing I had to find was a good coffee machine,” he began. “Eventually my network led me to Raymond So. I bought a few machines from him for my house, which got us chatting about the coffee scene. From there we started conceptualizing a small, home style roasting business.” From that idea came Craft Coffee Workshop, which Sly and Raymond opened in New Manila.

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Sly parted ways with Craft when the company decided to move towards a more commercial franchise-friendly direction.

Craft Coffee Workshop, now Craft Coffee Revolution, was only the beginning for Sly and specialty coffee in the Philippines. While working at Craft Coffee, Sly was debating whether to base himself in Manila or Bangkok for the foreseeable future. He eventually parted ways with Craft, when the company decided to move towards a more commercial franchise-friendly direction, but he couldn’t let go of coffee. He decided to stay in Manila.

“I ended up getting together and talking to two of our customers, David Ong and Jericson Co, whom I had taught a class for,” he says. Their discussion led to The Curator, an experiment testing how well coffee and cocktails work when served together. Initially, The Curator was just a popup bar but they eventually got their own space behind the Cyrano Wine Bar.  Despite The Curator’s initial success, the three founders still weren’t content.  Serving quality coffee and cocktails was only part of Sly, David, and Jeric’s intended goals. “Even before Craft, I always wanted a coffee bar with a little alcohol. I’ve also always wanted to put up a beer brewery and micro roaster,” Sly admits. Coffee and alcohol aren’t the only drinks that Sly enjoy, however. “I gave up soda many years ago when I started training for triathlons, so I enjoy sparkling mineral water.” Instead of the usual sugary sodas most people drink, Sly prefers to make fresh sodas at home. His homemade beverages, along with the experimental spirit present in The Curator, would be taken to a more collaborative stage with the establishment of the EDSA Beverage Development Group.

“This is our space and we run it, but know that it’s not about us.”

“I was already thinking about a place where you can do both serious and creative work, while enjoying good beverages.” This vision led to the collaborative space of EDSA BDG. “The studio serves as a platform for beverage creators, craftsmen, and the creative of the country to progress,” Sly emphasized. “The studio is separate from the EDSA design group,” Sly explained. “This is our space and we run it, but know that it’s not about us.”

On its first week alone, EDSA has met with three coffee companies, Kalsada, Kaapi Royale of India, and Rusty’s Hawaiian. “Kalsada wants to champion Philippine gourmet artisanal specialty coffee and bring it to more mouths around the world. They have people in the US and Europe who are helping them bring that dream to life, while the team here sources and finds coffee they can sell.” The sourced beans that are displayed in EDSA include Arabica from La Trinidad, Atok in Benguet, and Robusta from Ifugao Asipolo and Candoni, Negros Oriental.

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In regards to their own beverages, Sly and his team are buying directly from Kaapi Royale and Rusty’s Hawaiian. “Kaapi Royale is the only farm in the world with certified Robusta,” Sly said. “They’ve been able to break through a specialty scene focused on Arabica and introduce Robusta. Then there’s specialty coffee company Rusty’s Hawaiian from Ka’u, Hawaii. Ka’u wasn’t a place for coffee, but they managed to create a specialty scene for it and placed the US on the map for their coffees.” These partnerships stem from the enjoyment he gets from both coffees. “Recently I’ve been enjoying Kaapi Royale’s Robusta coffee and the flavor is just mind blowing,” he gushed. He has also been enjoying Ritual Coffee, a San Francisco company that sources from Colombia. “They have some excellent coffees from there, very sweet and very well-roasted.”

“What EDSA is mainly trying to do is increase the quality of coffee we drink.”

“What EDSA is mainly trying to do is increase the quality of coffee we drink,” Sly specifies. “People’s tastes will be elevated with specialty coffees, but also through better premium coffee that they can have access too.” Increasing this access will be achieved in part through the bottled beverages they’re developing, such as the cold brew. “Cold brew will be on a bigger scale so more people can enjoy a healthier coffee with no sugar and no hydrogenated fat creamer. Instead, we use real UHT milk for the cold brew.”

Sly also intends to bring new flavors through EDSA’s boutique production of beverages. “We’ve started on two shrubs, namely ginger and a bitter melon. We acquired the ginger from a community agriculture program called Good Food Community. They deliver a young ginger that has a distinct, almost fiery flavor to it. We highlight the ginger’s flavor in the mules of the bar and in our ginger soda. From this, we hope to launch a handcrafted ginger syrup you can mix with soda water so it becomes a ginger ale or a ginger soda. The other ingredient would be a bitter lemon syrup you could place in iced teas instead of a sweetener. This gives the drink more complexity. We also hope to mix it with gin and tonic.” The lemons, also from Good Food community, and are sourced from a single orchard in Benguet. Sly’s attention to each component of the beverage, particularly the ingredients responsible for the taste, guarantees that the group’s beverage developments never suffer.

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Health is another part of the better experience that Sly hopes to communicate to his customers. He believes that natural ingredients make these beverages taste better. “Our beverages will be made from fresh ingredients in our country,” he emphasized. Eventually they hope to also use santol, guava, and camias as well. The sugars for these fruit sodas would be cane sugar rather than high fructose syrup. “One of the things I’m personally going after is that we have sweet beverages that are better for you.  But I’m not saying they’re good for you,” he said to clarify. “You should still have it as a treat and enjoy them less often than more.” Sly himself makes sure to balance his beverage consumption to be able to compete in triathlons and for long-term health benefits as well. Yet he knows that such a lifestyle doesn’t need to be deprived of flavor. “We want to make these drinks more tasty and healthy using Philippine ingredients. Although we enjoy these fruits in a more traditional sense, we hope to enjoy them from a more modern viewpoint.”

Whether Sly and EDSA succeed in their lofty goals, only time can tell. But with Sly’s vision and his considerable drive and ability, it’s hard to imagine how he and his team can fail. “We’ll probably have another facility bigger than this,” he says of his five year plan. “Coffee wise, we hope to be working directly on a farm; retail wise we’re hoping to successfully put Philippine beverages on the map.”

2 Responses

  1. Great article, I was very curious to learn about who was behind The Curator since they don’t seem to be overly concerned with making a profit, rather making quality coffee and talking about it.

    A note for the editor: Its Colombia not Columbia. If a Colombian saw that…

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