Field notes

Coffee lovers fuel surge in speciality cafes in Indonesia

'Third wave' coffee culture sweeps Indonesia, boosting demand for high-quality speciality brews and interest in locally sourced beans

On the fertile slopes near Lake Toba - the world's largest volcanic lake - in North Sumatra, Indonesian farmer Warmanso busily tends to row after row of coffee trees, plucking stray leaves off ripening cherries.

Like hundreds of villagers in Desa Dolok Tolong, the 40-year-old grows the Mandheling Arabica, one of the world's most popular gourmet beans which, when roasted, ground and brewed, produces the smooth, rustic earthy flavour that drives beverage connoisseurs wild.

"Sumatran coffee is very popular now. In 2010, I had to search for buyers but now, they come looking for me. They will call me to secure the beans even before they are harvested," he told The Straits Times from his under-a-hectare farm. He pockets up to 8 million rupiah (S$841) a month from the crop's biannual harvests - triple the average farmer's income.

Indeed, the global "third wave" coffee culture is booming in Indonesia and, with soaring interest in locally sourced beans, small farmers like Mr Warmanso are doing a roaring trade.

Many Indonesians grow up with "kopi tubruk", the breakfast staple of bitter black coffee served in warungs or small shops. The entry of Starbucks and other foreign coffee chains in the early 2000s helped elevate coffee drinking to a middle-class habit.

In the past five years, avid drinkers have become even more sophisticated, ditching yesterday's "second wave" hot, iced or blended offerings for high-quality speciality coffee.


At Macehat Coffee in Medan, workers sort out fresh cherries before they are pulped and dried and roasted. ST PHOTOS: ARLINA ARSHAD

Driven by better exposure to good coffee while studying or travelling overseas, they are now more curious about the art and science behind coffee production and have come to realise that their country boasts some of the best beans, including Sumatran Mandheling, Aceh Gayo and Bali Kintamani.

This coffee craze has sparked the growth of new professions such as baristas, and start-ups selling ground and roasted beans, coffee grinders, espresso machines and brewing tools.

"This is the third wave, where making good coffee is like an art," Mr Dianto Gho, managing director of Sari Makmur Tunggal Mandiri's Wahana Estate, which supplies home-grown coffee beans in Indonesia and abroad, told The Straits Times.


At Wahana factory, dried coffee beans are sorted and sifted in a woven tray to remove dust and impurities. ST PHOTOS: ARLINA ARSHAD

"Coffee is not just bitter, not just single origin, varietals matter just like wine. A Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot are all red wines, but different varietals can have different taste. Processing also plays a role."

SPECIALITY CAFES BREWING A STORM

Hundreds of artisanal cafes have sprouted in capital Jakarta and major cities like Medan, from fewer than a dozen five years ago.

GROWING POPULARITY

Sumatran coffee is very popular now. In 2010, I had to search for buyers but now, they come looking for me. They will call me to secure the beans even before they are harvested.

INDONESIAN FARMER WARMANSO. His under-a-hectare farm in Desa Dolok Tolong is on the fertile slopes near the world's largest volcanic lake in North Sumatra.

They offer a more intimate and personal experience, with some sourcing the beans directly from farmers, roasting them in-house and concocting their own signature blends.

"There's a real interest in the product itself," Common Grounds co- founder Aston Utan said. "Coffee is not something completely new but it's sort of a revolution of something that's been around for a long time."

Start-ups such as Medan-based Otten Coffee are also making it easier to set up a cafe by importing coffee machines and other brewing needs. "We hope to encourage Indonesians to drink speciality coffee. A lot of our own speciality coffee now is exported because people here drink low-grade ones," Otten's co-founder Robin Boe said.

To the affluent urban customers they serve, sipping premium coffee and savouring cakes in a tastefully designed, comfortable setting have become a must-do.

Dr Stanley Setiawan, 43, a dermatologist who frequents speciality cafes, said: "It has become a lifestyle. We could find various types of coffee here... so it's like an adventure for coffee lovers to try them out."

COFFEE NO ENOUGH

As the demand for speciality coffee rises, the production of local beans has not been able to keep up, businesses say.

  • Indonesia's most popular speciality coffees

  • SIDIKALANG, LINTONG, MANDHELING
    Origin: Sumatra
    Characteristics: Some of the world's famous and best-selling coffees.

    The high iron content in the volcanic soil gives Sumatran coffee a heavy and earthy taste and a pungent aroma.

    LUWAK
    Origin:
    Named after a form of coffee-processing rather than a region or people
    Characteristics: One of the world's most expensive and rarest coffees - at around $40 a cup - the coffee is harvested from the Asian palm civet cat, or luwak, which consumes ripe coffee cherries and defecates the undigested seeds.

    The seeds are collected, cleaned, roasted and ground. The digestion process changes the chemical make-up of the beans, giving the beverage a smooth, earthy and nutty taste.

    GAYO
    Origin:
    Aceh
    Characteristics: Bitter, savoury flavour, with a mild acidity.

    TORAJA COFFEE
    Origin:
    Sulawesi
    Characteristics: For people who dislike the bitter aftertaste of coffee. Toraja is rich, full-bodied with fruity and sweet undertones.

    BAJAWA
    Origin:
    Flores
    Characteristics: Grown on fertile volcanic ash plains, this coffee has a slightly fruity and floral aroma with a hint of tobacco aftertaste.

    KINTAMANI
    Origin:
    Bali
    Characteristics: Mild flavour, medium acidity as well as a fresh and fruity taste, which comes from being grown together with citrus fruits and vegetables using the "intercropping" system.

    WAMENA
    Origin:
    Papua
    Characteristics: Mild, soft flavour with sharp pungent aroma define this coffee from Indonesia's far eastern mountainous region.

    The low acidity comes from being grown at high 1,500m altitude and cool 20 deg C temperature.

Only around one-fifth of the 1.2 million ha of coffee plantations in the country grow the high-quality Arabica. Lack of transport infrastructure, shabbily maintained mountain roads, less sophisticated cultivation methods by traditional farmers and poor weather further hamper production and supply.

Competition to secure the best beans is stiff among 400 coffee companies, dominated by five to six major players, as well as independent local and foreign buyers.

Mr Casey Blanche, head roaster of Singapore cafe Oriole Coffee + Bar, which imports Indonesian beans, said a drought last year had affected the quality of beans and raised prices by 10 to 15 per cent.

He added: "With our business, we seek out the best beans, not the cheapest."

But even money is not enticing enough. Mr Dexxon Jioe, who manages Macehat Coffee in Medan, said some farmers still refuse to deliver only ripe red cherries - the trademark of quality beans - despite being offered double the market price.

"It's labour-intensive to pluck only the ripe cherries so many say no. After all, since demand exceeds supply, they could sell them off ripe or unripe. We stay small so as not to compromise on quality," he said.

Large companies like Wahana get around the problem by running their own coffee plantations and mills.

Wahana, which employs 1,000 workers on its 250ha estate, maintains a steady stock of quality beans by ensuring that workers follow strict standards, from growing and maintaining the crops, and selecting and processing the coffee cherries, to sorting and packaging the beans, said Mr Gho.

Despite the limited market, newcomers, including multinational companies, have jumped in to seize a slice of the US$7 billion (S$9.8 billion) industry, Association of Indonesian Coffee Exporters chairman Irfan Anwar said.

Coffee exports were valued at US$1.19 billion in 2015, up more than 15 per cent a year earlier, according to Trade Ministry data.

In 2008, the value was US$1.08 billion.

"All the key players feel that the future of coffee is very bright, very positive," Mr Irfan said. "We are worried they (the newcomers) come in to win the competition... We hope they can support each other."

But in a country where one in 10 people lives below the poverty line, the artisanal coffee aficionados are still a minority.

Commercial Robusta and the instant 3-in-1 coffee variety remain the king of coffee.

Trishaw rider Yusuf, 55, said: "One Starbucks can buy nasi goreng and kopi from warung for breakfast, lunch and dinner! Drink nice coffee and go hungry? No way."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2017, with the headline 'Hot shot'. Print Edition | Subscribe