Java-101, a Trip Through Central Java Coffee Growing Areas

The drive from Jakarta to Semarang on the north coast of Central Java takes around 10 hours. The trip takes you up out of Jakarta and then through the small towns of Indramayu, Brebes, Tegal, Cirebon and Pemalang before you arrive in Semarang. At this time of year the drive is slow- the rainy season has started and in many places outside the cities the road is still only a two way highway with no median barrier separating on coming traffic. Typical Indonesian moments are frequent…where can you go when a bus is hurtling head on towards you at 100km/h and not slowing down? What to do when your car is mobbed by villagers voting for a new mayor…or passing the crushes carcasses of trucks, vans, minibuses and container trucks, you just have to wonder how long your luck will hold!

The route from Jakarta through to Cirebon follows the fertile coastal plain. This area is known as the “Pantura”, from the Indonesian “Pantai Utara” or “northern beaches”. Lust rice fields line both sides of the road. The encroachment of commercial development is unfortunately eating into the greenery. Large malls, Ruko (shop) complexes and industrial parks are being built everywhere. In between these however is still some of the prettiest rice land in Asia. The farms are still worked traditionally and the effort that goes into the management of these pieces of agricultural land is impressive. Where the road follows the coast mangroves and other shoreline vegetation are interspersed between rough wooden shacks selling Crab, fish and shrimp. The Indramayu area is famous for its mango’s- so many varieties and so sweet they melt in your mouth.

After passing through the tea town of Tegal (Old Dutch buildings mixed in with new development) and skirting Cirebon- the road leaves the coast and climbs up through the foothills. Teak forests and rubber plantation replace the rice paddies. The going on this section is slow- especially if the rain is falling, but the scenery is well worth it. The road climbs through the towns of Subuh and Batang. Roadside stalls sell a variety of tropical fruits-including the exotic Jackfruit and spiky, smelly Durian. This is not coffee country but I did take the opportunity to stop at a warung and try a local Kopi. The coffee was mixed with nutmeg ad red sugar- sweet and bitter at the same time. It was wok roasted robusta- ground up using a traditional sandstone bowl and pestle.

Semarang itself is a port city- located on a narrow strip of land between the coast and a divide of large volcanoes. During Dutch times this was a major trading port- serving as a feed for the hundreds of plantations located in the narrow strip between the north and south coasts of Central Java. The Dutch built an impressive rail system that carried the coffee, sugar, rubber, cloves and tobacco from the hinterland to the warehouses located along the port cities canals. The city is still the provincial capital for Central Java and is a very pleasant place. The hills above the city give fantastic views across the city to the big blue Java Sea. From this cooler altitude the volcanic peaks behind are also majestic- towering and dominating- dark, heavily forested and quite threatening.

Semarang has perhaps the best preserved examples of both Dutch architecture and Dutch town planning in Indonesia. The downtown area is filled with examples of Dutch colonial buildings. There are numerous old warehouses, offices, hotels and churches that are still now in use. Old ornate lamps line the wide streets. In this part of the city the traffic flows in an orderly fashion. As one moves into to newer areas of any Indonesian city the lack of recent town planning becomes increasingly evident. One such place is Toko “Oen”, a self proclaimed ice cream palace and patisserie; it has been operating for 67 years. The took (shop) is located on Jl.Pemuda (number 52- phone 3541683) in an old Dutch building. The interior of the shop is truly exquisite- high ceilings, stained glass windows, big shuttered windows opening onto the street. Lots of teak- the window frames, ceiling panels and of course the furniture. The ice cream is good as well, although the instant Nescafe coffee was out of place in such a setting.

After a brief walk around the city area we ventured out to the new warehousing area located behind the bus station and near Port Semarang. The area was hot and dusty, with evidence that during the wet season roads in this part of town flood. Holes are deep as a motor scooter had been carved through the asphalt and into the alluvial mud below by countless container trucks passing through. We negotiated the mud and holes and slowly made our way to one of the region coffee broker’s warehouses. The warehouse complex was made up of 4 large buildings. When we arrived there were several 20′ containers awaiting loading and we came just in time to see the workers finishing stuffing another container. The warehouse was filled with 60kg sacks of Central Java Arabica and Robusta. I guess I would estimate there were 20,000 bags stacked neatly in the warehouses (although as the broker exported over 11,000 metric or 611 x 20′ containers last year, I may be under estimating!). Machinery sorting beans using the gravity sort method were working away furiously at one end of the place- sorting the grade 1 beans from the rest. Drying units, sortex machines and of course the workers themselves all contributing to grading the best beans for export. I was impressed with how well the place was run and the good natured attitude of the workers. I was also mightily impressed with the sacks and sacks of green beans and the wonderful aroma of the greens…a smell I truly love!

A short while later we were on the road out of Semarang- hustling with the container trucks and buses for right of way. After crawling up out of the city we made our way to our first stop- a government owned estate about an hour outside the city. The estate grows both robusta and Arabica. The Arabica is a smaller bean, softer and very flavorsome. With the production of this estate being only around 50 metric ton of Arabica, most of the coffee is brought up by one European specialty roaster. The plantation was quiet- in between seasons the workforce required drops markedly. In the colonial days the private owners compensated for the lack of revenue at this time of year by diversifying their crops. This estate has hectares of rubber trees as well as some tea and cinnamon plantings. Even though we arrived on Friday at about the time Sholat Jumat (Friday prayers) begins, we were meet with typical Javanese hospitality and shown around the plantation.

Next stop was the city of Wonosobo and the famous Dieng Plateau. The Plateua is 120km inland from Semarang at an altitude of over 2000 meters. This area is cold, wet and apart from an uncanny resemblance to the New Zealand town of Taihape, is famous for its agricultural output of potatoes, carrots, onions and tobacco. It also has a well known temple complex called Candi Pendawa lima and (by the way) is the gateway to some very interesting and unique Indonesian Arabica coffees. It is very rare that I complain of the cold in Indonesia- but on the drive to Wonosobo I was really feeling it. The rain was bucketing down and even with the cars AC off I was shivering. Opening the window made things worse as the cool air mixed with the rain almost formed ice as it blew through onto my face.

It was dark when we arrived in the town (it was 15.30!) and nothing seemed to be open. To make things worse the rain had become persistent, carrying with it a dampness that is unusual for tropical climates. We checked into the wonderful colonial era Krisno Hotel- a fabulous place of 115 rooms which had occupancy of 0% before our arrival. The hotel is located on the way out of town and was a Dutch resort in the days before World War 2 and independence. Today it has been fully restored and probably deserves to have more guests. It’s a pity that the weather does not play its part here and help out. Walking around the empty lobby I had the chance to admire the stained glass, the teak fittings and later had the pleasant experience of enjoying a beer in the empty bar. It may sound strange, by sitting in an empty bar in the middle of Java listening to Jazz and the soft clicking of the ceiling fans overhead IS actually an experience to be savored. Far from the literally maddening crowds of Jakarta….a feeling of real relaxation at last!

Wonosobo regency and the area between the town and Dieng Plateau did indeed have both Arabica and robusta plantings. The majority of the trees we found were in small hold plantations in and around settlement areas. Altitude is an important factor in growing quality hard Arabica greens. Certainly the altitude in this area of Java seemed ideal for coffee- although sometimes the high rainfall may affect the quality of the cherries. Being out of season it was difficult to tell. The coffee grows at this altitude well. The trees cling to the side of the hills in some places- some shaded with bigger tropical trees. A lot of the small villages up here grow Arabica for the buyers based in Semarang. The coffee is dried and processed up in the Wonosobo highlands. A lot of the location processing is done using dry processing, although with the availability of water in this area not being a problem wet processing is becoming more widespread. Once processed the coffee is sent to Semarang for finishing- sorting, drying and polishing using modern machinery. I did have the opportunity to try some Arabica from one of these small village growers- I have the greens with me and will test roast and cup them.

The drive down from the plateau through to the royal city of Yogyakarta is a drive past volcanic cones, rice fields and teak and cocoa plantations. Along the way coffee grows wild at the side of the road. Some of the robusta trees reach as high as 30 feet- untended they develop a sprawling, scraggly canopy. Through the change in altitude we actually did come across some trees with ripe cherries. Again these were mainly robusta trees. The Central Java Southern region also has some very good lower altitude Arabica plantations. With a different microclimate and soil conditions the beans cup very differently from those grown around Wonosobo.

Back at the roastery today- tired but satisfied. We are around 500 meters above sea level ourselves and up in the hills. At this time of year it rains religiously at around 15.00. As I type It is bucketing down outside…thankfully I have the San Marino up to heat and pressure and am onto my 4th double. Cheers everyone.