Celebrating Manila’s Cheap Coffee Renaissance

Obligatory photo to accompany article: Hockey legend Paul Coffey. Source: http://hfboards.hockeysfuture.com/showthread.php?t=1641273
Obligatory photo to accompany article: Hockey legend Paul Coffey. I’m not saying he’s cheap, though; I have no reason to believe he is not a perfect gentleman. Source: http://hfboards.hockeysfuture.com/showthread.php?t=1641273

Something wonderful is happening in Manila right now – something that too few people are commenting on, even as that effervescent, unmistakable sparkle of magic fills the air! That is, cheap coffee is starting to get really good.

For too long, coffee in Manila has been divided between between the dodgy and the highfalutin. On the dodgy end of the spectrum, you could plop yourself down at the local corner store and order a sachet of 3-in-1 instant coffee mix for a few pesos, and get an incredible sweet coffee-like beverage that is more palm oil and sugar than actual coffee. (I will make an exception for Kopiko Brown and Black, two instant coffee mixes that contain even more empty calories than their competitors, and don’t get much closer to tasting anything like actual coffee, but do have the significant advantage of actually tasting really good.)

On the other end of things, there has long been no shortage of places for the beautiful people and those who wish to be seen as beautiful to plop down more than 100 pesos for a cup of actual coffee or, more popularly, a shot of espresso and 500 calories of sugar and whipped cream. When you want to take the best possible selfies while also getting a bit of caffeine in the process, Starbucks, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and their various competitors are always there to satisfy your cravings. I personally avoid these options, not just because of my pathological cheapness, but also because I am opposed to paying western prices or higher for a cup of coffee that is being served to me by people making decidedly less-than-western wages. All the more so in a country that grows a good amount of its own coffee, if only anyone would bother to drink the local stuff – which I can say isn’t the best coffee I’ve had, but is actually pretty damn good! (Please, support your local barako farmer!)

So what if you just want to have a good, strong, black cup of coffee in Manila without spending a farm labourer’s daily salary to get it? Well, in the past you didn’t have a lot of options, but for whatever reason, it seems like the gulf between 3-in-1 and Starbucks is being filled with more options everyday. Check ’em out!

(Disclaimer: I’m going to admit right here that all of these cheap coffee finds aren’t necessarily new; some may just be new to me. But enough of them are genuinely new entries into the coffee market, and do reflect an unmistakable rise in the standards for affordable coffee in Manila and the Philippines. I will also write absolutely nothing about the food at any of these establishments, because this post is about coffee, and also because I am an insufferable gluten-free food snob.)

McDonald’s: This is one of the oldest cheap-but-decent coffee options, and it’s no longer the best one. You can get a large cup of pretty-decent Arabica for only 42 pesos, which is great, but the quality depends a lot on when they last bothered to make a fresh pot, which in many cases tastes like it was quite a while ago – so much for the safe predictability of fast food. However, in the course of your travels you may find yourself in a provincial area where the only other coffee option has “Sweet ‘N’ Creamy” in its name, and then you will thank your lucky stars that clean, air-conditioned McDonald’s restaurants are selling their very acceptable coffee throughout (almost) all corners of the Philippines. Plus, you can usually get a free refill!

Dunkin’ Donuts: Like McDonald’s, DD offers decent and affordable coffee… in two cup sizes! (See what I did there? Hehehe.) It has a bit more kick than McDonald’s coffee and is less likely to be atrociously stale, and like McDonald’s coffee, its chief advantage is that it’s often the best cup of coffee available when you’re in the middle of nowhere and want to drink something other than RC Cola or the grease from fried chicken. But although a lot of Dunkin’ Donuts locations are designed around the usual fast food model of making people as uncomfortable as possible so they leave as soon as they finish their food, many of their newer branches are – dare I say it? – actually kind of nice. The best ones almost have a cafe ambiance, like the new location on Aurora Boulevard near Robinson’s Magnolia, or the branch in SM Megamall. Who said you have to pay 110 pesos for a cup of coffee just so you can drink it without sitting in a pool of somebody else’s vomit?

Mister Donut: I have a lot of trouble telling Mister Donut apart from Dunkin’ Donuts, and not only because they both have the singular or plural form of the word “donut” in their names. Like DD, Mister Donut has begun creating disorientingly nice cafe-style shops in some locations, like the one in Trinoma. Actually, I recently sat down at the Trinoma location while waiting for a friend and told her to find me in the Dunkin’ Donuts, which led to her wandering in circles for a while. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose? Unfortunately, their coffee is quite watery and not nearly as good as DD’s, never mind the indignity of having to order a “Mister size coffee” (that would be a large).

Jollibee: On one unlucky day nine years ago, I wandered into a Jollibee and ordered a cup of coffee. The substance they served to me was reminiscent of brown water with the faintest hint of poop, and it was bad enough to stop me from drinking Jollibee coffee again for the next eight years. But last year, while outside a scuzzy nightclub in Cebu City, I engaged some local idlers in conversation, and the topic came to the cup of Jollibee coffee that one girl was holding in her hand. She assured me that it was actually pretty good, and although I had no intention of consuming caffeine at 1 AM, and also rarely accept coffee advice from people outside nightclubs on Mango Avenue, I nonetheless took a mental note of it. Months later, while wandering around Legazpi City one morning in desperate search for a caffeine infusion, I decided to give Jollibee coffee another try, and was pleasantly surprised. So, the good news is that Jollibee coffee is pretty good; the bad news is that almost no Jollibee branches serve it outside of breakfast hours, and I am never awake during normal breakfast hours. Still, if you’re more likely to be awake before 10 AM than I am, you could do a lot worse!

Shakey’s: Shakey’s was my favourite pizza place in the Philippines back before I became a gluten-free asshole, but now I keep coming back for their coffee! I don’t think the staff are especially happy about this, as Shakey’s is a restaurant, not a coffee shop, and their establishments tend to fill up with customers ordering large quantities of food while I sit there sipping my 55 peso coffee (with one free refill!), enjoying their free WiFi and using up an entire table. Shakey’s founder Sherwood “Shakey” Johnson, who got his nickname from the shakes caused by malaria-induced nerve damage, would probably not be amused. Considering all of this, the actual quality of the coffee is sort of beside the point, though I can say it’s potable but not really that good. I do try to leave a decent tip on top of their mandatory service charge to atone for my table-hogging sins, so hopefully Sherwood “Shakey” Johnson won’t haunt me from the grave.

7-Eleven: And now we get to the convenience stores. Until recently, convenience stores in Manila only offered fairly lamentable instant crap coffee. However, they have increasingly begun replacing their instant diarrhea dispensers with snazzy new machines that freshly grind your beans and produce a fresh-brewed cup of steaming hot coffee with your name on it (note: your name will not actually be printed on the cup). That’s the good news; the bad news is that, even with the two-minute wait for a cup, 7-Eleven coffee is still not very good at all, with an unpleasantly astringent taste. On the other hand, at least it’s very, very cheap – cheaper than any of the other options here – and there are certainly times when I can’t find a better place to feed my debilitating caffeine addiction. Plus, they call their line of coffee “City Blends”, and then I remember City Wok from South Park and giggle.

Lawson: This Japanese convenience store chain has joined Metro Manila’s convenience store wars with several brand new branches, including their flagship location on Ayala Avenue, which looks very impressive from a distance, until you get close enough to see that its shiny new floors are absolutely filthy due to constant foot traffic. In addition to many, many food options, which I have forbidden myself from writing about, they also sell vending machine coffee. Unfortunately, it is also not very good. Supposedly you can plug your electronics into the outlets at the tables – a real rarity in a country which boasts the most expensive electricity in Asia – but I’d rather bring my laptop with a full charge and go somewhere with better coffee. But to be fair, they do have good foo… I mean, I’m not writing about food.

Family Mart: On the other end of things, here we have the creme de la creme of convenience store coffee. Family Mart is another new chain of higher-end convenience stores that has overrun Manila’s business districts, offering slightly overpriced bags of potato chips to white-collar workers. They also have machines which produce coffee with a lot of whirring and buzzing noises, and they make a big deal of using beans from UCC, a Japanese coffee company. I know UCC must be good because the actual UCC Cafes in Manila are too expensive for me to ever, ever visit, but luckily Family Mart provides a more declasse version. And hey, the coffee is actually pretty good – fairly strong, but smooth and consistently tasty. Sipping an Americano at the tables outside the Family Mart in Ayala Triangle park while watching the beautiful people pass by – you know, the kind of people who don’t get their coffee at Family Mart – is surely one of Manila’s best cheap coffee experiences.

Honourable Mention – Picked Cafe in Tunasan, Muntinlupa: Every place I’ve mentioned up until now is a huge corporate chain, which is not a coincidence. Unfortunately, independent cafes in Metro Manila tend to either be very high-end, selling tiny cups of fourth-wave nonsense for 150 pesos, or just plain bad. Preparing decent coffee requires the right processes, and cheap independent options without either the corporate standardization, automation or proper barista training needed to produce a decent cup of coffee will often sell you a not-very-good mug of kapeng barako for 50 pesos. (I’m also a bit biased because I spend so much time in Makati, a place where there are usually only two kinds of food: fast food and surprisingly expensive food.) And that’s why this well-hidden coffee shop in Tunasan – literally the very end of Metro Manila, a few hundred metres from the boundary of Laguna province – is such a wonderful discovery. Aside from the charming decor and free electrical outlets, their well-trained baristas will also whip up a pretty damn good Americano for only 50 pesos. I’m sure the staff wish I’d order some food once in a while, but maybe they should have thought of that before they put gluten in everything!

In fact, I’ve written this post and the last one in one Americano-fueled blogging spree at Picked, and I should probably publish it and go home before they start forcing me to eat pasta. So, off I go to prepare a dinner consisting entirely of sweet potatoes and practice rigpa meditation. Until next time, my friends – stay cheap!

2 thoughts to “Celebrating Manila’s Cheap Coffee Renaissance”

  1. I totally agree with the Family Mart on Ayala Triangle people-watching comment. I was mildly surprised to taste a decent brew as I waited for 3 hours for my friends to pick me up from Makati enroute to Laguna last March 2016, on a Holy Thursday. Having had only 3 hours of sleep in two days, I really needed that caffeine fix at 7am on a hot sweltering morning. Good thing there was okay aircon in the shop. And a table all to myself! As the cops bought their takeaway coffee, I read the local daily, sipping away on my hot cuppa, not really taking comfort in the fact that Filipinos’ sense of time and punctuality is still not the best.
    I also would recommend Shakey’s Pizza’s fresh brew. I usually sit a while for a cup before going window shopping at the Shakey’s on Congressional Avenue. But my latest coffee escapade at Shakey’s was actually right across the Commission on Filipinos Overseas building near Vito Cruz in Manila, where I wasted an entire day for a piece of document I didn’t really need in the end. Ah, coffee bliss after a harrowing 12 hours…

    1. Sounds like a lovely story of waiting! Yeah, Shakey’s is a good place for coffee, but since I’d rather get my junk food at S&R, I end up literally just end up getting my coffee with free refill and mooching the WiFi. And in spite of my best efforts to assuage my guilt by leaving a big tip at the end, I can’t help but feel that I’m not exactly the kind of customer they were hoping for when I leave a few hours later. Damn!

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