Diplomatic Pouch / May 29, 2015
By Larry Luxner
If anyone doubts the importance of Indonesia to coffee’s enduring popularity around the world, consider this: for years, “java” has been synonymous with coffee. People don’t ask for a cup of brazil or a cup of colombia, they ask for a cup of java.
Overpopulated, tropical Java is, of course, home to well over half of Indonesia’s 240 million inhabitants. It’s also where Dutch colonists introduced coffee plantations along the island’s northern coast three centuries ago.
In 1699 — long before Spanish colonists introduced coffee to South America — the first coffee plantations sprouted on Java. Exports to Europe began shortly after, and before long, European coffee imports from Javafar exceeded those of Yemen, coffee’s birthplace. Traders from the Dutch East India Co. shipped thousands of tons of coffee beans to Rotterdam, and eventually Java became the largest coffee producer in the world.
These facts all figure prominently in “Aroma of Heaven,” a new 65-minute documentary made by filmmaker Budi Kurniawan and shown April 24 at the Indonesian Embassy in Washington.
Kurniawan spent five years on his film — two years doing research (including a few days at the Library of Congress in Washington) and three years on production.
“This was my personal quest,” he told the Diplomatic Pouch when asked why he made the film. “I wake up in the morning and I drink coffee. So as a filmmaker, I began asking myself where the coffee comes from — from the farmer to the cup, from the plantation to the customer.
The screening, which attracted about 50 people, coincided with the embassy’s first-ever coffee cupping — an event aimed at raising the profile of Indonesian coffee among U.S. retailers and connoisseurs.
“If you are as old as I am and grew up in Indonesia, you’d know that coffee has always been a part of Indonesian culture,” said Sidharto R. Suryudiputo, deputy chief of mission at the Indonesian Embassy. “We are unique in the way we consume coffee. When I was young, people would put sugar in their coffee — lots of it.”
The district of Gayo alone produces 136 varieties of coffee. Sadly, the film points out, local people drink Vietnamese coffee because it’s cheaper, and because for centuries the colonial authorities discouraged Indonesians from consuming quality beans so they could be exported instead.
In fact, people in Manggarai — on the island of Flores — often drank coffee mixed with corn, a sort of poor man’s coffee known in the local dialect as “kopi colol.”
Yet over the last 15 years, said Bowoleskono, “there’s been a shift with the rise of Starbucks on the global scene. People have started to shift into more specialty coffees. At the same time, coffee has also become part of a growing Indonesian trade. Our challenge is how to make people aware that the coffee Indonesia exports is actually a whole range of coffees from Sumatra, Java, Malabar, Bali and Papua. This is all part of our story.”
To publicize that story, Made Ayu Marthini, chief of the embassy’s commercial office, organized the coffee event with some leading industry aficionados. She said it’s no secret that Howard Schultz, president and CEO of Starbucks, loves Indonesian coffee.
“It’s so special. It’s so earthy, good for blending,” Marthini said. “Sumatra itself can be an single-origin coffee. The thing is that people know Sumatra, but they have no idea where it is. So our government asked retailers to add ‘Indonesia’ after the Sumatra. For us, it’s important.”
Indonesia is today the world’s fourth-largest coffee exporter (after Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia). Its largest coffee-producing region is Sumatra, which began cultivating robusta coffee in 1915 and quickly eclipsed Java in volume.
Last year, the country produced 540,000 metric tons of coffee and exported 71 percent of those beans (mostly robusta). Indonesia’s Arabica beans are noted for their low acidity and strong body, making them ideal for blending with Central American and East African varieties. Smallholders with farms averaging just one hectare in size cultivate more than 90 percent of the country’s coffee.
One local retailer pushing Indonesian beans is Compass Coffee, a homegrown startup based at Seventh and P streets. Its owners, Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez, organized the cupping.
“We were going to just do espresso here, but decided why not showcase all these Indonesian coffees? They wanted to do a coffee event, and we wanted something lots of people could be involved in,” said Haft.
The two young men, who grew up just a few blocks from their store and roaster, became friends while serving in the Marines.
“When we got out of the service, we realized nobody was doing this,” said Haft, who hopes to offer better quality than Starbucks while keeping their beans affordable. Compass Coffee’s 12-ounce recyclable cans — made at a factory in Baltimore — retail for $12.99 and feature a map of Indonesia and a short history of the variety on the label.
“We try to make coffee simple for people to understand. We use familiar words to describe the nuances of our flavors,” said Suarez.
With the success of Indonesia’s coffee cupping a foregone conclusion, Marthini is now working to put together a similar event focusing on tea.
“Coffee shops also sell tea, and we do produce amazing teas but people don’t know about them,” said Marthini, head of the embassy’s commercial section for the last three and a half years. “The role of government is to facilitate fair trade and to educate.”
For that, the Balinese native can count on Inggrie Merriman, an Indonesian who started her own venture, TehKu Tea Co., after graduating from Ohio’s Franklin University with a degree in marketing and international business.
“For a long time, Indonesians didn’t have the possibility of drinking good tea since the really good stuff got exported. So they had to add lots of sugar and milk to mask the flavor,” said Merriman, who’s been in the tea business since 2005. “My goal is to re-introduce high-quality loose leaf tea to be consumed locally, not just to get shipped out.”