Reclaiming Philippine Coffee with Boondocks Roasters: Part One

Emil Vanta of Boondocks Roasters shares his intentions to decolonize our perception of Philippine coffee and empower Filipino producers. 

BY EMILY JOY MENESES
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE

Feature photo by Eibner Saliba via Unsplash 

As previously discussed in our series on Philippine coffee production, the Philippines was once a leader in the coffee market. At one time, it ranked as one of the top five producers in the world. However, in the late 1800s, an outbreak of coffee leaf rust would bring the country’s production to almost a complete standstill. That setback would take decades for the nation to recover from.  

Today, the Southeast Asian country’s specialty-coffee industry is back on the rise, and many Filipinos living in the diaspora are devoting themselves to this revival. One such coffee professional is Emil Vanta. He’s the founder of Boondocks, a Los Angeles-based roastery that specializes in single-origin coffees from the Philippines.

We sat down with Emil to learn about Boondocks, uncover more information about Philippine coffee production over the centuries, and get an idea of the direction that Filipino coffee professionals—both in the homeland and abroad—are planning to take their endeavors.

Emil Vanta in casual clothes and a bucket hat stands between coffee trees. A cloudy sky looms behind.
“Our coffee is a reclamation of our culture,” says Emil Vanta, founder of Boondocks Roasters. Photo courtesy of Emil Vanta.

From Cavite to Los Angeles 

When asked what inspired him to start Boondocks, Emil traces it all back to his memories of Cavite, a province of the Philippines located on the southern shores of Manila Bay.  

“Being born in the Philippines and moving to the States as a kid, I had fond memories of growing up in Cavite,” he shares. “I’ve always wanted to reconnect to that nostalgia of having coffee and pandesal (Filipino dinner rolls) in the morning with my neighbors and relatives. That ritual is deeply rooted in our culture.”

A person's hands picking ripe red coffee cherries from a branch. They have a tattoo on their forearm.
Boondocks Roasters specializes in single-origin coffees from the Philippines. Photo courtesy of Emil Vanta.

Unraveling Philippine Coffee’s Colonial Roots 

Though coffee has played a big role in his life since his time in the Philippines, Emil describes the importance of recognizing the roots of Philippine coffee, and how the crop only came to the nation by way of colonization.

The Spanish first introduced the crop to the island nation in the late 16th century. The Philippines’ mountainous regions and tropical climate created an ideal environment for coffee cultivation. However, the coffee plantations were often exploitative. Local Filipino farmers worked in difficult conditions for low wages, on land owned by the Spaniards.

Coincidentally, the outbreak of coffee leaf rust happened around the same time as the Philippine Revolution in the late 19th century. This caused coffee production in the country to fall to the wayside until recent years. Today, Philippine specialty coffee is once again seeing a rise—this time, with Filipinos leading the way.

Women sort coffee cherries in a giant metal bowl on a rustic wood table.
Boondocks focuses on sourcing Philippine varieties from women and indigenous-run co-ops. Photo courtesy of Boondocks Roasters. 

Reclaiming Philippine Coffee

Through Boondocks, Emil aims to help Filipino farmers take control of their own labor and reclaim coffee as their own crop—from which they can directly reap the benefits.

“I wanted to build a community in a way that promotes my culture and celebrates its people—while also acknowledging how colonialism and imperialism are tied in with (the Philippines’ history of) coffee,” Emil shares. “The name Boondocks is derived from the Tagalog word bundok, which meant ‘mountain.‘ It took on a new meaning when it was adopted by the American military during the Philippine-American war. Now, we know it to mean a rough, remote, or isolated country.”

“The Philippines was a major coffee producer during the 18th century, and now a revitalization of specialty coffee (in the area) is taking place,” Emil continues. “I wanted to contribute to that movement. … Our coffee (at Boondocks) is a reclamation of our culture—we value our farmers and their communities, families, and trade. We understand that the quality of Boondocks can only match the excellence of the raw coffees used to produce it—a burden carried by farmers. That’s why it’s important to us that our producers are supported through partnerships with reputable green coffee suppliers who share our commitment to ethical labor practices.”

Stay tuned for part two of this story at Barista Magazine Online.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Emily Joy Meneses (she/they) is a writer and musician based in Los Angeles. Her hobbies include foraging, cortados, vintage synths, and connecting with her Filipino roots through music, art, food, and beverage.

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