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03/11/14 Sly Samonte of EDSA Beverage Design Group

With enough of a food scene to devour lately, it was high time Manila had something more refined to wash it down with. Sly Samonte had witnessed the handcrafted drinks revolution in Singapore and returned to the Philippines to challenge the country’s chain-dominated coffee culture.

A first venture, Craft, had him serving quality brews and conducting workshops on roasting beans right. After meeting Jericson Co and David Ong, Craft regulars as pumped about making better beverages as he was, the three soon put up The Curator, a coffee and cocktail bar in Legazpi Village.

Amid the buzz for craft beverages since then, Samonte and his crew introduce EDSA, a retail lab intent on liberating the libations realm even further.

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Taking up a massive two-storey space across its namesake monument, EDSA is, in Samonte’s words, “a platform for beverages to progress.” With a microbrewery, water treatment facility, soda and beer walls, and a 200-bottle vinotec at their disposal, client-collaborators can create, bottle, and sell their concoctions. Customers can come in and rent a spot in the venue’s 15-seat coworking space—or try whatever’s brewing, loose as that term is used here.

Looking at an official launch after Easter, Samonte talks to NOUS about letting the spirit of collaboration flow and moving local drinks forward, as purposefully as the thoroughfare his promising new space stands on.            

What inspired EDSA in the first place?

The team really wanted to come and bring all the great experiences we had from other countries. In the Philippines, we’ve had this whole importation mentality for so long. Now, we all want to move away from that. We want to create better beverages for the Philippines. We have so much great raw ingredients and we never tap into it. This is why the space got put up: we wanted to find local coffees, herbs, plants that we can turn into bitters—look for these things that make our country great. Because we were taught, ‘Leave. Get out of here. Don’t be in the Philippines, it sucks.’

Have you always been involved in the food and beverage industry?

I worked for Unilever, handling consumer understanding for ice cream on a regional and global level. Our family is from Pampanga so we tend to have a very strong food-loving culture. I’d make coffee for my mom when I was young. My uncles drink whiskey. The desire and the passion have always been there.

Working in Singapore, I saw the rapid change of their culture. Boutique beverages started popping up—handcrafted, special, local. My love for coffee really grew because I was able to expose myself. Soon, I put up Craft Coffee Workshop to address the coffee black hole in Manila. I mean, it’s great that we had all the chains but we wanted to have other options: fresh-roasted, well-made, someone really putting their mind into it for a community.

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Why did you think the time was ripe to get people to go out of their way for a drink?

It’s the foodie culture. Food bloggers, Sunday markets, apps—everything is food-centric. Now everyone in Manila considers themselves foodies. Traveling around the world, I’ve seen that once you see local food become more sophisticated, the beverages will follow very quickly. I’m glad the wine came up. We used to get all the worst wines in the world and then people started bringing temperature-controlled wine, that sort of thing.

I’ve also noticed that the food and beverage scene now is more collaborative rather than caught up in competition.

Yup. I think all the guys who are opening up their own bars and coffee shops understand that we’re not really competing with you, we’re competing with chains and larger businesses. People are like, ‘Oh, it’s great that you’re doing that. I’ve always wanted to do that’ rather than say, ‘Ah, naunahan ako.’ We really have to bring the standard up together or else it’s just going to be continuing in this crab mentality that everyone talks about. I think people have realized that you have as much knowledge as everyone else because you can access it online. There’s very little competitive advantage in terms of knowledge but executing and doing it well, that’s where I think the real gain is.

When it’s fully up and running, what do you see happening here?  

Well, it’s what’s been happening already that’s gonna continue. It’s people who are passionate about beverages, who have an application for it in some part of their life, will come here and find something out, join the journey. Whether it’s for beer, wine, cocktails, coffee, water—they’re gonna have someone to talk to about it. That’s what we want: we want conversation. And we want that in a place that inspires creativity, and is done in a way that really shows the world the Philippines is doing something interesting.

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Any immediate projects you’re excited about?

Well, of course we’re excited to introduce the space and our journal, Angkas. We want to feature people in the industry who are changing things, and communicate that through rich media, social media, and eventually a long-reading format.

We have a lot of interesting people working here. One of them is Kalsada, a very young and adventurous outfit of Americans and Filipino-Americans who want to bring Philippine specialty coffee onto a world stage. They’ve been on the ground for only a year but they’ve learned so much and made friends with tons and tons of farmers across Luzon, Mindanao, and Visayas. The other one is Craftpoint Brewery and they’re collaborating with us to set up the microbrewery. These guys are looking to make the best beers that are available locally. The point is we want something better. We’re not necessarily driven by capital gain. Of course we need to have a business that’s sustainable but excellence really takes precedent.

Do you think marketing this concept will be a challenge?

Not really. Sometimes we don’t even understand what’s going on and why we’re doing it, so we don’t really expect other people to. But they take what they need from the space. Now also, people are realizing that time is precious with all the natural disasters. We’ve always said that life is too short for bad beverages. That’s kind of been the model of our team.

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