Coffee came to the Dutch East Indies archipelago in the late 17th century. The legend of coffee itself makes fascinating reading (Kaldi and his dancing goats!), but for Indonesian purposes coffee arrived here in an organized and less mythical fashion on VOC (the Dutch East Indies company) trading galleons, via Yemen and the Dutch enclave of Malabar. These first coffees introduced were Arabica, direct descendents of 6 coffee trees the Dutch managed to smuggle out from Yemen and plant in the Botanical gardens in Amsterdam. The trees were well suited to the tropical conditions found on Java and quickly thrived and produced cherries. The first plantations were located close to Batavia (modern day Jakarta). Later plantations were established in Sulawesi, Maluku and Sumatra. Independently Colonial rivals Portugal planted Arabica in East and West Timor as well as in Flores. Coffee, along with nutmeg, cloves and other spices, became the backbone of the VOC economic machine. Infrastructure to get crops out of plantation areas led to development of port and later rail and road systems that still exist today. After the demise of the VOC the Dutch colonial government took over many of the business activities in Indonesia. At one stage sale of these commodities made up almost 30% of the entire Dutch GDP.
In the late 1800’s rust disease hit the coffee crops of Indonesia. The disease was debilitating, wiping out most of the Arabica trees in Java, as well as in the outer islands. The Dutch colonial government responded by replanting- firstly in a subspecies called Liberica (which proved to be almost undrinkable) and then mostly in the more resistant Robusta variety. Robusta still makes up around 90% of the coffee crop grown in Indonesia today.
There are four main sub types of Arabica found in Indonesia. These sub-varietals are locally called- USDA, Kartiki, Lini-S and ABG-III. Of these the most widely grown are Lini-S and Kartiki. The differences are mostly in the yields on the tree and sometimes in the size of the cherry.
Robusta is a hardier tree. The beans from the Robusta plant have a higher level of caffeine than that found in those from Arabica plants. Robusta is often used in instant coffee and has half the chromosomes found in Arabica. Robusta makes up the bulk of the coffee exported from Indonesia, but it is the regional Arabica’s that make the archipelago famous.
The coffee beans you see after the roasting process have come a long way from where they started, as “cherries” on Arabica plants. Coffee trees flower twice a year, the flowers being fragrant, white bunches that hang from the trees. Only 25% of these flowers will go on to be fertilized and produce small buds that later grow into coffee beans. The beans take several months to ripen. Once they have reached a level of ripeness where the outer skin turns red, the picking begins. The majority of our partners hand pick, so the selection process is far better than the bigger estates that often strip pick using machinery.
Arabica trees can grow up to 30 foot tall, if not pruned. Most farmers try and keep their trees to around 8 foot or shorter, so the cherries can easily be reached during picking. The seasons for picking vary across the archipelago. In Sumatra the season runs from November to January, in Java from early June through to September.
Generally Government run Estates and small-hold farmers use one of two different methods to process the picked cherries into what’s called “green coffee”. The “dry” method is predominately used in Sumatra and by small hold farmers in Java, Bali and Flores. This method involves drying the beans outside under the sun. The beans are laid out either on a concrete pad, or on sacking laid out on the side of the road. The process can take several weeks if done properly. Over this time the beans are raked and turned as often as needed to ensure a universal drying effect is achieved. Once the outer area of the bean begins to fall off, the coffee is ready to have the pulp removed. Normally this is done by machinery- although some of these mulching machines are still hand driven! The final product is a green bean, about 1/3 rd of the size of the original cherry.
The second method of drying coffee is the “wet” processing system. Wet processing means the bean can begin the final preparation stage immediately after being picked. Instead of drying under the sun the cherries are processed through a water system. This leads to the outer skin softening making it easy to remove. The system works well although there are often times when the sugar in the beans can ferment, causing the flavor of the beans to be affected. Most large estates in Java use this system as it speeds up processing and generally makes selection of the final green bean much easier. The quality of green bean from wet processing is generally higher.
It is estimated that almost 97% of all coffee in Indonesia is grown by small-holders. The definition of a small holder is a farmer who grows coffee on a plot that is around 1.2ha in size or smaller. This is in sharp contrast to coffee being grow in Central and South America, where most coffee grown is on Fincas (Estates). The number of farmers growing coffee as a main or a subsidiary crop is conservatively estimated at being around 8 million. The sheer number of growers and the geographical isolation of where coffee is growing in Indonesia, makes this country one of the most unique collection of origins in the coffee world.
Indonesian Coffee has always had a special place in the specialty coffee niche. Consumers have been able to enjoy Kayu Mas Estate Java, Mandehling, Gayo Mountain Arabica and Highlands Toraja Arabica for many years. The new wave of Indonesian Specialty Coffee goes a lot further- bringing coffees from many new, exotic and exciting growing regions- Bali, North Sulawesi and West Java to name just a few. The future for Indonesian producers is to move away from the historical dependence on Robusta and to bring to the coffee drinking world these new and exciting origins.
© Alun Evans, Merdeka Coffee- all rights reserved. May reproduce or republish with permission and accreditation to original author.