Mostra: Faith, Favor and Finding the Farmers with the Best Beans
For husband and wife team, Sam and Beverly Magtanong, and best friend Jelynn Malone, deciding to found Mostra coffee to sustain farmers in the Philippines was the easy part. Yes, it was a big vision, but they felt called to do it. The hard part was identifying, how? Through faith, favor and a former missionary father, the trio not only located top grade specialty beans in the Philippines but they were able to see their dream come together full circle. Risen sat down with them at their coffee shop to learn more about their serendipitous story.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: You all have been friends since childhood, which is very rare to see any of those friendships last, let alone to grow and form a company together…
Sam Magtanong: I think we broke every single business rule. I’m married to my business partner, she’s best friends with Jelynn, it’s a family affair. Bev and I have known each other since we were 9 and 10 years old. We were neighborhood kids but she was really mean to me. [Laughter] Growing up she was my sister’s friend and she was just not a very nice lady. Then you grow up a little bit, we got together in high school, we got reacquainted and it was love at first sight. We’ve been married for sixteen years and together for twenty. Jelynn and Bev have been best friends since they were little kids, and their families have known each other since they were little kids as well. We all moved out of the area, we all followed our dreams and then all came back to San Diego because this is where we had roots and this is where we went to school and our kids now are going through the same school system that we grew up in.
RM: That’s so great. Filipino heritage is shared by you all, but Sam, you actually immigrated to the U.S. when you were young and your father was a minister?
SM: Yes, I’m a pastor’s son. I think we got it backwards in the sense that normally if you’re a missionary family you come from the States and then you go to underdeveloped third world country. However, I was born in the Philippines and I came here to the suburbs of inland North County [San Diego] and grew up in the gated community of Rancho Bernardo. [Laughter]
My father retired after 40 years in the ministry so we came here [United States] on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention. At the time and they petitioned my father to pioneer the first Baptist church of Mira Mesa specific to the Filipino-American community. For three years [in the mid 1980s] he was head pastor for the Filipino congregation in Mira Mesa while we were living in Carmel Mountain Ranch. Then he resigned from the Southern Baptist Convention to pioneer his own work and became an independent pastor. So that’s how I grew up, going to bible study – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. How I got fed was through all the potlucks every night and that’s what I brought to school the next day.
We stayed directly with the farmer who had about fifteen hundred trees. It was amazing. We saw the coffee. They roasted the coffee over a skillet, we had a motor and pestle, they grounded it the old way. Then they told us their process and how it has to come down on bags on top of donkeys or horses, and from there they transfer it to motorcycles, and from motorcycles they transfer it to a pickup truck, and from a pickup truck they go back into the city.
RM: Fast forward, collectively, you decide to start a coffee company, it’s growing, you know there’s this big demand for it, but when and how did you find the farmers in the Philippines that you’re working with directly now?
Jelynn Malone: All of this is serendipitous, because we really didn’t know anybody and were completely disconnected. We literally put it out there and had good intentions and then it was all orchestrated by God for how it worked out in this way.
SM: In 2013 the company started, 2014 and 2015 we were able to go back to the Philippines for the first time to source coffee. My father goes to the Philippines every year and spends a significant amount of time there, like up to six months. He basically saves all of his money, or all of the allowance we give him since he’s retired. Then he’ll go there without a permanent address, basically doing mission work in the Philippines. When his money runs out and he’s given all the clothes on his back, he’ll call for a plane ticket home. I’ll pay for it, then he’ll come back.
So he did some of the preliminary work for us. I said, “Dad find us where the coffee is.” We knew that coffee has to grow in the highlands, five-thousand feet or higher, so that helped identify several places in the Philippines that would be conducive for the coffee. In the northern part of the Philippines in Baguio and Benguet, and then in the Southern part of the Philippines, an island called Mindanao it’s the highest peak in the Philippines and you get some of the mountain ranges there. Mindanao is less accessible because of the politics and the fighting between insurgents and some of the muslims. So, getting into Mindanao made us a little nervous but coincidentally it was easy access for us because my mother is from there so my father actually spends a lot of time in Mindanao. My dad went to my late grandfather and said, “Where are the coffee farmers ?” My grandfather is a rice farmer who tilled the land for sixty years and never left. He said, “Go up to the mountains and just start talking to people.” So that’s what my father did, he went up to the mountains and just started talking to the farmers. He came back to the United States and said, “Sam, if you go to the Philippines next year I’ll take you to where the coffee farmers are.” My dad was able to build relationships because of his pastor skills and he was invited to probably a dozen different farms.
Beverly Magtanong: But then hold on, Sam’s dad came back with samples of coffee from different farmers in the mountains. So again, another serendipitous thing, because farming for coffee can go so many different ways. When it comes to specialty coffee, there’s a grading structure so he brings back different samples, there’s maybe five or six only. Five of them looked really bad, like there was just no way ever that we would be bringing in that coffee. Then there was one coffee, from one farm, and again we don’t grade coffee but we thought, this looks like the Brazil coffee we have. It looked similar enough that we decided to get it graded by professional graders. They look at the color, they look at if there’s any insect infestation, they’ll roast it and then they’ll cup it. Out of a grading scale of 100, your coffee has to score at least 80 and above to be considered specialty. They roasted it, graded it, cupped it and it scored a 93!
SM: So, I went back to my dad and said, “That one box that you brought, where did that come from? We need to go back to that farm.” We made plans for my father and I to go back to Philippines in 2015. We went from Manila to Davao, from Davao to North Cotabato, from there we trekked up the mountain. We had to get permission. We put it out to the local people that we meant well because it’s tribal land. We had to walk up the mountain and we stayed overnight where there was no electricity. We stayed directly with the farmer who had about fifteen hundred trees. It was amazing. We saw the coffee. They roasted the coffee over a skillet, we had a motor and pestle, they grounded it the old way. Then they told us their process and how it has to come down on bags on top of donkeys or horses, and from there they transfer it to motorcycles, and from motorcycles they transfer it to a pickup truck, and from a pickup truck they go back into the city. All that was just Mindanao so I thought, if I can get this coffee, what more do I have to do to get it back to Manila? Well, it had to go on a bus, and then from a bus it goes either ferry route or boat to Manila. Then from Manila, you get it to Long Beach. So logistically it’s very difficult, at least for Mindanao coffee.
We bought the entire 2015 harvest. Again, it’s a small plot of land, but the farmer was telling me his story that they don’t have the resources to bring it to market so what’s happens is the traders, on behalf of a corporation like Nestle, would come up to the mountains and would buy all their coffee and they’re literally selling it for pesos on the dollar, sub dollar per pound, sub commodity price and it just wasn’t sustainable for them. So, when I told them, through my father in the dialect, how much I was willing to pay for their coffee, it was just mind blowing.
BM: It was like the Publishers Clearing House [winning a sweepstakes] for them.
JM: Sam called us in the States and he’s like, I offered them this rate and they are celebrating like they just won and we were crying so hard because that was the dream, to help the farmer.
BM: What was so amazing for the farmer was that they were working with some Canadian company who was teaching them organic ways of farming. So they were already doing that and that is why his coffee looked that way. But all the farmers around him were saying, “Why are you continuing to do that? It’s so expensive, you’re putting in more work and you’re not getting more money. He said, “Well we’re not getting any more money doing it the other way either, so let me just try and continue doing this and maybe something will happen.” And look!
SM: We brought fifteen hundred pounds back in 2015 and once we had the coffee we thought, Okay what do we do with it? What’s the best way to get it out there and to tell the story of this coffee? We can sell it in the shop, we can sell it in bags, but what we ended up doing was partnering with a brewery, their name literally is The Bruery, out of Placentia/Orange County, world famous brewery, they do a lot of experimental work and coincidentally that year they were about to release a new beer series called Share This. The series of the beer is called Share This and it features one ingredient that would be prominent in that beer. Then they would tie it to a charity where the proceeds, or a portion of the proceeds, would go back to that charity. So the first ingredient for their first beer called Share This was coffee. They ended up using the Philippine coffee and partnering with a charity called The Free Wheelchair Project. Their mission is to give adaptive equipment and wheelchairs to underdeveloped countries and those who need it. So based off of that collaboration project with us, The Bruery was able to give $50,000, which was basically a dollar per bottle sold, to The Free Wheelchair Project which allowed about 600 disabled children in the Philippines to receive wheelchairs.
SM: We have a bottle of it in the shop. Some of the highlights for us were that they put Mostra coffee on the bottle – we’re only a two-year-old company [at that time], they put a map of the Philippines, and they talked about the story of the farmer and where the farm came from. Amazing. And then The Free Wheelchair Project was a beneficiary of the sales. So I think it came full circle for us in terms of business marketing branding, and charity work and then being able to bring the Philippine bean out.
SM: That was a big win, so we continued to look for partners that have a shared vision and mission to Philippines. We found a coffee company called Kalsada Coffee. The founders are Filipino-Americans, based out of Seattle Washington. When the founder [of Kalsada] was doing her masters at the University of Washington, she discovered a picture from 1904 of Philippine coffee being sold at the Pikes Place market and that’s what sparked her interest of being able to help the Philippines out. With a very similar timeline, four or five years, she was in Philippines helping to support farmers and to teach them organic farming techniques. We connected with them in 2017 – they work with the farmers specifically in the Benguet/Baguio area – so it’s very accessible it’s like nine hours north of Manila. We bought one bag in 2017, that grew to six bags in 2018, and in 2019 we bought a third of the harvest, and now in 2020 we’ve requested to hopefully buy their entire harvest which would be twelve tons of coffee.
RM: So you’d buy this whole harvest and still be working with the original local farmer too?
SM: Yes we need as much coffee as we can get. See, the economics of Philippine coffee is they don’t produce enough to even sustain the local consumption and they have to import from Indonesia and Vietnam for almost 60% of their local consumption – even though they’re a coffee growing country. So if they can just grow more, and if they can have buyers that are buying it at a certain price point, that’s sustainable for them and it benefits everybody. We just want as much coffee as we can buy that’s a certain quality.
RM: Sam, what does your dad think of all the success from Mostra? Afterall he was the one who found the bean that started it all. Does he look at himself as an integral part?
SM: Yes he’s proud and he’s helpful. He goes to the Philippines every year. Mindanao is just a marginalized island in the Philippines they get a lot of insurgent activity there. So coming from that specific part of the country, my parents are hopeful that we can continue to do good.
JM: What I think we didn’t consider is that Sam’s family were farmers in the Philippines, a different industry, but I didn’t connect the dots at first. It’s an added layer of special that we are actually connecting directly to Sam’s family and his roots and all that.
RM: In a way, they raised a coffee missionary.
SM: That’s right.
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