For a moment in history, in three short years from 1887 to 1889, Lipa City in Batangas had its Golden Age.
It was brought about by coffee, the magic global commodity that gripped the world in the mid-18th century. Coffee was brought to the Philippines by the Franciscan friars from Mexico in 1740 through the galleons that plied the Acapulco-to-Manila trade route.
It was propagated by the Augustinians in the Batangas towns of Lipa, Lemery, Ibaan and Taal. The Augustinians chose these four towns because of their cool mountain weather that made them conducive to coffee production.
If you go today to Lipa City, you will see remnants of its Golden Age in the ornate Spanish-style ancestral mansions that persist today in its narrow streets.
The thick metal grills of their gates and windows have resisted the test of time, the so-called Materiales Fuertes of the coffee boom of Spanish colonization.
The “windows below the windows” with wooden sliding “doors” underneath the two-inch-thick narra window sills were opened on special occasions, such as the Flores de Mayo after the Quaresma (Lent), or the colorful processions during the town fiesta.
The rise and fall of Lipa’s coffee empire, the moment of its glory, was like a lotus flower that blooms at dawn and recedes by mid-afternoon, or like Japan’s cherry blossoms which explode today and wilt within a few days. Such is the nature of the sudden rise-and-fall of empires, like Lipa’s coffee.
In the 1870s, Brazil, the largest producer of coffee worldwide, was hit by a deadly coffee infestation called Coffee Leaf Rust (CLR), a type of fungi.
This spread quickly to other coffee-producing nations worldwide, as in Africa, Sri Lanka and Java.
Batangas was insulated from this global infestation somehow, and “from 1887 to 1889, the Philippines was the only source of coffee in the world.
” (“Coffee Production in the Philippines,” Wikipedia)
During this period, Lipa alone produced about 10,000 metric tons of coffee exclusively for the entire global market at double the 1865 world prices, making its Barako coffee variety (Liberica) famous worldwide.
This fantastic windfall was estimated at 2.5 million pesos, equivalent to about P1 billion today.
Modern-day international traders claim that this is a gross underestimation if we talk of one town virtually supplying the whole world.
They say it was more like five-fold or P5 billion, if you consider the extreme global coffee shortage, making Lipa coffee as good as gold.
Thus began the short-lived Golden Age of Lipa with its majestic mansions and with its horse carriages with silver harnesses plying Calle Real.
The decadent coffee magnates had their personal silversmiths and goldsmiths.
The most famous goldsmith was the legendary Pedrong Kuba.
The French Diamond trader La Estrella del Norte in Manila put up a branch in Lipa.
After three years of splendor and opulence, in 1889, CLR finally reached Philippine shores, and decline was as quick as ascendency, hastened by insect infestation.
Almost all coffee trees in Batangas were decimated.
By 1891, coffee production was reduced to one-sixth of its 1889 bounty.
There was the story of the daughter of a coffee magnate “walking” the entire length of the Lipa Cathedral aisle on her knees, clutching a coffee branch, begging the Lord to restore their fortunes, but in vain.
By that time, Brazil started recovering from the CLR, quick to claim its former glory.
Surviving coffee seedlings were moved to Cavite, and Batangas coffee farmers started reverting to other crops.
Of course, the coffee industry of Batangas did not die.
It also recovered, like in Brazil.
Today, there are inconspicuous coffee stalls at the back-end of the Lipa market selling bulk.
Coffee persisted, but there was a new enemy as deadly as the CLR fungi, namely, foreign multinationals.
The advent of instant coffee gave rise to a great demand, which broke the marketing clout of Lipa. Revival would come much later when instant coffee was again replaced by the traditional brewed coffee that launched the Golden Age of Lipa.
(“Coffee Production in the Philippines,” Wikipedia; “Coffee for Christmas” by Annabellee Plantilla, Manila Times, 27 December 2008)
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