Java - Indonesia's Mystical Coffee Island (Java Coffee)

For most people the geography lesson is not necessary. Java is a name that has been closely associated with coffee ever since the Dutch East Indies Company began growing the trees on the island in the early years of the 17th Century. The Island, surrounded by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and the Java Sea, runs roughly due West to East for a little over 2000km. Rich, alluvial plains near the coast are ideal for growing rice, mango, sugar cane and other crops, while the steep volcanic slopes that densely dot the island are where most of the Arabica Coffee is grown. The combination of ideal temperatures, just the right altitudes and humidity and of course the soil types and sunshine hours mean Java has most of the natural attributes to produce quality coffee.

Java Coffee Trader Malang

Historically Java was the Island that benefited most from Colonial occupation. The Plantation systems the Dutch introduced over their 300 year stay in the tropics, still makes up the backbone of not only the coffee and tea industries today, but also the economic and logistical systems that service them. Coffee was first grown around Batavia (modern day Java) in the early 1600's. Cultivation of coffee initially was at low altitudes and quickly spread into the hills and valleys of West Java (Sukabumi, Citereup and South towards Bandung).

The Dutch encouraged the Javanese to cultivate Java coffee in smallholder systems- while concentrating on owning large, managed plantations themselves. Often taxation was gathered in the form of coffee, and as historically the Javanese did not drink coffee themselves- the forced cultivation of the crop in lieu of growing edibles lead to hardship in many areas of rural Java. Today most of the Java coffee, an estimated 93%, is still grown by villages under a system of smallholder plots. A central coop (or Kooperasi) is normally responsible for organising the sale of the coffee and returning dividends after the crop is harvested.

Species of Coffee grown in Java:. Essentially there are three species of coffee grown on the island which are regarded as commercially viable. The predominant crop is Robusta- which is grown from the Sunda Straits right through to Banyuwangi at the eastern tip of the Island. It seems botanics from West Africa thrive in the Southeast Asian tropics (Robusta and Palm Oil trees are both originally from there). Robusta yields are high and the trees are fairly easy to farm compared to their more esteemed cousins: Arabica. The volume produced does not necessarily translate into bigger profits for the farming communities. Robusta has relatively low value for the Specialty Coffee world- a farmer could expect a return as low as US$0.25-0.30kg for this crop in 2008. Most Indonesian Robusta, volume wise, actually comes from South Sumatra. Javanese Robusta at the quality end is best sourced from Central and Eastern Java. Robusta makes up around 92% of the Java coffee production.

Arabica- through a number of varietals, is the second commercial coffee crop. Arabica is found mostly above 1200 feet on the steeper slopes of the volcanos found throughout the Island. Gunung Sewu, Merapi, Preanger, Ijen all produce quality coffee. The farmers rely on 5 to 6 different varietals to produce. Kartika, Lini-S, Ateng and Tim-Tim longbean are the main types of Arabica tree found growing on Java, with a recent preference for Lini-S which has a longer, narrower bean. Most Arabica these days is wet or semi-wet processed. There is little shortage of water in the highlands of Java and improvements in training techniques means that dry processing of coffee is sadly rarely found these days. Arabica Smallholders generally sell direct to brokers, who in turn link into the demands of the specialty trade in Europe and the USA. There are still huge disparities through the supply chain of what the farmer receives compared to the broker that ships the Arabica. This created problems that, for many years, undermined the perception of quality associated with Arabica Java coffee.

A Java coffee flower

The final commercially grown coffee crop is Liberica. This species of coffee also originated in West Africa and was introduced into Java at the end of the 19th Century as a proposed solution to the rust disease that was ravaging Arabica trees worldwide. Liberica produces what can only be described as a huge and somewhat unpleasant tasting coffee bean. Planting through West Java and Central Java was intense for a short period, however the Dutch soon identified Robusta, which was disease resistant and better tasting, as the logical alternative to Arabica. Liberica can still be found today in Central Java and the coffee is one of choice not in Indonesia- but in nearby Philippines where it is known as “Baroko”

Characteristics of Java Coffee: Java Arabica for sure has a reputation for being low in acidity and high in hints of chocolate and a range of sweet berry fruits. Every sub origin has subtle differences in the cup. Central Java Arabica has big chocolate, black pepper, cinammon and raspberry- while an Arabica from West Java has generally more body, more fruitiness and less chocolate in the cup. These qualities made Arabica Java coffee much sought after in Europe in the 1700's through until the 1900's. Sadly, through disease, economic depression and war- Javanese Arabica was somewhat forgotten. The Specialty Coffee revolution which began in the 1970's revived the reputation of the origin and today Java (along with North Sumatra and Sulawesi) makes up the backbone of Indonesia's Arabica exports.

In the coffee industry Java is often referred to as Indonesian Coffee 101. The island has a large number of easily found brokers who can initiate a coffee novice on the systems found and used there. Access to coffee growing areas is, by Indonesian standards, a piece of cake and the infrastructure is good. Java, it must be mentioned, is no longer in total the misty, dreamy land of jungles, rhinos and Tigers. It is the most densely populated island in the country and with 120 million people, one of the most heavily populated islands on earth. However where Arabica coffee is grown there are still spectacular open spaces and hints of yesteryear.

Some more information of Java Coffee Growing:

Images and tect (c) Alun Evans, Merdeka Coffee

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