Whether you’re an avid traveler or an occasional tourist, we’re pretty sure you’ve lusted over La Union’s dreamy beaches at least once. Everything about it—from the numerous bars and restaurants lining the highway, to the hippest hostels and inns, down to the incredibly beautiful sunrise and sunset—spells the perfect getaway from the bustling metro. But that popularity comes with a price, as La Union’s shores are slowly being dotted with garbage left behind by the sudden influx of visitors.
Thankfully, there are still organizations and people with the beach's best interest in mind—or in this case, a modest coffee shop. Nestled within Urbiz Garden along San Juan beach, Clean Beach gives justice to its namesake by being an advocate of protecting and keeping La Union’s shores trash-free.
"Clean Beach is not just a coffee shop, it’s more of a message," says Camille Pilar, owner of Clean Beach and a writer based in LU. "Our dream is to turn La Union into an example for other developing beaches. If we can balance development with care for the ocean that translates to action, then we can say we’ve made real progress."
When Camille moved to La Union back in 2014, the province was already going through a big surge in tourism and business. She worked for El Union Coffee where she learned the process behind making a cup of specialty coffee. "One of the best things about working in LU is that you can surf whenever the conditions allow. But we would get sad whenever we saw trash out lined up along the beach. We would pick up trash whenever we could, but we knew that there had to be a way to reach and involve more people," she admits.
So when the opportunity with EDSA Beverage Design Group came along, Camille and her partner, Harold, opened up Clean Beach not only to create a relaxed, hangout spot for solo or group travelers, but also to promote environmental sustainability.
Recently, they launched the Beach Baskets initiative where people are encouraged to help clean up the shores. "It works like this: anyone can borrow a beach basket from our shop, and they can use it to collect random trash and debris that they pick up from the beach. It’s our way of reminding visitors and guests to be more mindful of their trash," the owner explains.
In return, they give participants a free glass of their special house blend iced tea called the Beach Cleanup Iced Tea. They also give P10 discounts for those who bring their own tumblers and to-go cups. "We want to reward good habits," Camille says. "We don’t want takeout cups because they contribute to waste no matter what material they’re made of. We also don’t sell bottled water. We let customers refill their water tumblers at our shop for free."
Clean Beach is also earning a reputation for their premium, well-rounded coffee blends. "Our coffee comes from EDSA BDG. We’ve served different single origins in our shop, from El Salvador to Colombia to Brazil. We also served a single origin Philippine coffee from Mt. Apo, Davao. We lean toward the rich and chocolatey coffees for espresso," Camille explains.
For pour overs, they prefer the berry sweetness of Honduras and Panama. "All the espresso-based drinks are really good but you have to try hand-brewed or pour over coffee, too. The light texture and the bright flavors of pour overs are perfect by the beach. Their coffee falls under P90-P140 range."
The process is anything but simple, but they’ve mastered the art of balancing flavors to bring out the coffee’s natural sweetness—from calibration, to proper steaming, to using the right water—making sure that each cup is a perfect blend of earthy and sweet with a delicate and balanced aftertaste.
Snacks are also not to be missed out on when visiting the café. Some of their bestsellers include the FCS (Fried Chicken Sandwich) and the Kaya Toast with sous vide eggs made with their own kaya spread.
As for its interiors, Clean Beach is also gradually becoming one of the most IG-worthy places in San Juan beach. "Our shop was designed by Buji and Nikki Libarnes, the surfer-architect couple behind Vessel Hostel in La Union. The layout shares the same love for clean lines and wood. We’re right by the beach so we had to have something open and airy while also ensuring that our equipment could withstand the constant exposure to sea breeze,” the owner describes. She adds that they apply a Swiss army knife mentality around the space where every corner of the shop is multi-functional and serves a particular purpose, like tables big enough to fit huge groups but are still laid out with ample space for intimate conversations and an open, conversational layout. "Being in a tourist destination can be intimidating for some people because the crowds and the bustle can be overwhelming," she explains. "We wanted to create a space that would make people feel at home and relaxed while being by the beach."
Unlike typical beach-themed cafes propped with tropical prints and photos of the ocean, they remain minimal with only potted plants and sleek metal lamps subtly placed around the corners. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows make up the wide walls, making way for natural light to fill up the charming space. The mismatched chairs also feature hints of wood and rattan to match the open, wooden counters. On a few tables, board games or a sungka tray serve as the centerpieces. "We didn’t add beachy or tropical elements because the location naturally provided that," she says.
We can only hope that more businesses—especially ones that take shop at popular tourist destinations—follow the example of Clean Beach. Because despite all the toil of the technical aspects, Camille says the all the hard work is worth it. "The work never ends! But knowing that we’re helping shape a future with less plastic waste and more clean beaches makes it worth it every single day."
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