Harvesting Coffee In Java – Care, Attention And The Social Aspects Of Coffee In The Community
In the village the streets are quiet and empty. It is a little after midday and the children are at school, the adults going about their daily routine in the fields higher up the slope of the volcano. The only noise is the occasional cackle of hens and a mournful mooing coming from the dairy sheds in the centre of the town. Sunlight filters through the canopy of taller trees, speckling the coffee grown below in a pleasant, clear half-light. The coffee trees are a mixture of Arabica, with some taller Liberica trees reaching up to fill gaps left in the canopy above. The trees, without exception, are laden with coffee cherries, red and ripening under the warm Indonesian sun.
It has been months since the flowers on the trees bloomed, flooding the village with the sweet jasmine like floral scent that coffee is famous for. If someone could capture that scent, bottle it, they would produce perhaps one of the most sort after perfumes in the world. As the flowers die off, green buds of fruit develop in their place. Arabica is self pollinating, but this does not prevent big, black Indonesian jungle bees from visiting the blossoms during flowering. The honey Coffee flowers produce is also delectable, pale, sweet and with an unmistakable Melati flavour. Wonderful, but the flavour is of course nothing like coffee at this stage.
Over months the buds on the trees develop, hard green and luscious. The trees are guarded by the villagers through this time. Natural sprays made from tobacco leaves soaked in water are used to ward off both leaf diseases and bugs that can damage the development of the fruit. Composts made from last years coffee pulp, mixed with cow manure and rotted grass are used around the base of the trees. With a complex root system (both shallow and deep) the trees need good fertiliser as well as the right amount of rainfall and sunlight to produce great quality fruit. The result can be sampled right now. The cherries are ripening to a deep boysenberry red. The flavour is more like a ripe black currant, mixed with some kiwifruit and passionfruit essence, sweet, fulsome in character. An experienced roaster could perhaps pick some of the flavours he or she would expect to be able to extract from coffee at this stage, but really the process here onwards determines what the coffee would taste like in the cup.
As the shadows lengthen, the villagers begin to make their way back to their houses. Some carry 70kg bundles of grass for the cows. Others carry a range of farming implements- hoes, scythes and spades. The villagers work with other neighbouring towns in cooperative fields on the slopes of the volcano. Rice as well as corn is cropped here. The coffee is also cooperative- but on a smaller, localised scale. Coffee is grown on very small parcels of land around individual dwellings, as well as in long, winding groves planted on communal village land. Chickens run wild under the coffee trees, often creating enough noise that would put a herd of elephants to flight. Chickens play an important role in nurturing the coffee trees. Apart from producing nitrogen rich manure, they also help to dig up the earth under the coffee, allowing manures to feed nutrients through onto the roots. Their foraging helps to control pests and reduce the growth of weeds.
As the cherries ripen care is taken to make sure moulds and mildew do not damage the skin on the fruit. With good, filtered sunlight this is normally not a problem. However this year there has been unseasonably high rainfall, especially in the late afternoon, which has meant the outer skin of the ripening cherries have to be watched carefully.
The villagers spend the rest of the afternoon working with the coffee. As cherries do not ripen uniformly, they need to be picked by hand from the trees over a 2-3 week period. The hand picking method is still now the very best way of insuring the raw product to be dried is of the very highest standard. Baskets made from rattan and batik clothe are carried on the waist. These baskets normally only carry around 5kg of ripe cherry. Once they are filled they are brought back to the collection station at the village heads house. The community has a drying facility built here- with outdoor and indoor concrete pads. The coffee that has been freshly picked is sorted and laid out for dying under the sun. The village has a “semi-wet” process that involves some use of water baths inside also.
It is all very relaxed, the picking and collecting of fruit under a late afternoon Javanese sun. The community uses coffee as an excuse to chat and socialise while picking. The first pickers are the older Village Ibu2. They use hooked sticks to pull the higher branches of some Arabica down, so they can get the best, ripest cherries. As the afternoon goes on, the children and finally the men arrive and help with the harvest.
About 30 minutes before prayers the men, then the women, make their way back to their terracotta roof houses to mandi and change their clothes. Islam is a very important part of life in the village- for young and for old. The Mosque, a whitewashed Arabic styled building in the centre of town, is surrounded by coffee trees. The lush green leaves and vibrant red of the ripening cherries grow right up to the wide, tiled veranda that runs around the outside mosque. On Fridays, when Sholat Jumat takes place around noon, prayer mats are placed amongst the coffee trees.
The imam’s call to worship whispers amongst the coffee grove’s as the last rays of sun stab through gaps in the canopy overhead. With prayers comes the end of the working day and dusk. The temperature drops just a couple of degrees in the evening, a late thunder shower rolling down from the volcanic slopes dampens the humidity. Coffee has been grown in communities like this for centuries. The romance the west feels about coffee has been a daily part of this village’s life for just about as long.
Alun Evans © Merdeka Coffee, Indonesia, 2007. May be used or reproduced only with author’s permission.