Tracing the Roots of An Iconic Indonesian Beverage

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“The Road to Java Coffee” Exhibition (Photo courtesy of Tunggul Wirajuda)

The sight and smell of well-roasted coffee beans hold the promise of a new day, both in the literal and figurative sense of the word.

Whether brewed in a coffee machine or doused with hot water in the residual form or kopi tubruk in Indonesian, the savory goodness in every cup has a way of making one’s day, whether its drunk to start off the morning or as a leisurely drink in the evening.

But coffee expert Prawoto Indarto is all too aware that there’s much more to a cup of coffee than the public realized, a fact he highlighted during the recent launch of his book “The Road to Java Coffee” at the Bentara Budaya cultural center in Jakarta, and an exhibition of photos from tome.

The bilingual English and Indonesian coffee table book traces Java’s major role in the global coffee trade, a phenomenon which started when the Dutch East India Company or VOC exported Arabica coffee grown on the island to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

“Coffee from Java was so lucrative [for the VOC], that its name became synonymous with high-quality coffee throughout the world. One of the reasons the VOC made tremendous profits from the drink was because of the coffeehouse boom throughout Europe” explains Indarto, who also highlighted coffee’s stimulant properties in shaping history.

“Coffeehouses were renowned as intellectual centers during the Enlightenment, as their regulars included figures such as Isaac Newton, Voltaire and Napoleon Bonaparte. Java coffee’s popularity soon spread to the United States, to the extent that it became one of three coffee strains, along with Mocha and Bourbon, that was allowed to be imported to the country in the beginning of the 20th century.”

He also pointed out that the Arabica coffee grown in Java played an equally important role in developing the beverage from Sumatra to Papua.

“Coffee strains such as Mandheling and Gajo of North Sumatra, as well as the Wamena coffee grown in the Papuan district of the same name, can trace their development to Java coffee, This originates from the development of coffee as a cash crop during the 18th and 19th centuries” Indarto says. “Java coffee is also noted for its resilience. The crop was hit by a blight in the second half of the 19th century, yet managed to bounce back to reclaim its preeminent position in the global coffee market.”

“The Road to Java Coffee” took an unflinching look at the human cost of the blight, which caused a famine in Java that killed thousands of people.

Indarto points out that the book is as much about getting Indonesian people back to their roots as it is a history lesson.

“Indonesians are still largely ignorant about the history of coffee in this country, though ironically, Java has become a byword for high-quality coffee elsewhere in the world. I guess it has much to do with depriving them of the nation’s best coffee, which are bound for export in Europe, the United States and other developed countries” he laments.

“As a global brand, Java coffee predates Starbucks by nearly 300 years. But many Indonesians are still unaware of this fact, in contrast to the coffee’s fame overseas,” he says.

“The Road to Java Coffee” was published to raise the public’s awareness and pride in Java coffee. Its time they are made aware of the beverage, as brisk domestic sales will provide the sector with a solid, stable market that is just as viable as any export markets.”

Lehman “Agam” Pahlevi Suleiman, chief of the Specialty Coffee Association of Indonesia, agrees. “One way to spread public awareness about Indonesian coffee is to hold coffee tours in areas where the crop is grown in Java, Sumatra and East Nusa Tenggara. The outings are also a viable form of ecotourism and good firsthand knowledge about harvesting coffees” he says.

“Efforts to this end are already held in West Java by Taiwanese coffee buffs, as well as coffee exporters in North Sumatra along with their Singaporean and Malaysian partners. There is much that Indonesian coffee has to offer for the country’s coffee buffs, among them a greater range and variety of flavors, whether they be bitter, sweet, sour and chocolatey, for its coffees.”

He encouraged the use of baristas to raise public awareness about the finer points of coffee.

The Indonesian Association for Coffee Export and Industries estimates that the country’s coffee exports stand at $1.24 billion dollars to Australia, Japan and Taiwan and as well as other markets.

Going through the pages of “The Road to Java Coffee” is a path worth taken.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on May 13, 2014

Click here to read the original article

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