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Indonesia’s gems (from left to right): Dandang Selection jasmine tea, Opa Severe Degree of Fermentation (SDOF) oolong tea, Moroccan mint tea from Solo-based PT Gunung Subur Sejahtera, Gardoe Super jasmine tea.
While Indonesia has little to say about wine, it talks an awful lot about tea.
The country belongs to the top-ten tea producing countries in the world. It counts among the countries from which the world’s well-known tea sellers, such as Twinings, source their tea.
State-owned tea plantations, formerly controlled by the Dutch, have been exporting their best teas for more than 200 years, whereas the current private ones have been doing excellent trade since the country’s independence.
With Indonesian tea producers exporting their best offerings and leaving their lesser-quality ones to the home market, jealousy has been stirred up among members of a Jakarta-based group called Pecinta Teh (Tea Lovers).
When this issue was recently raised on the group’s Internet-based discussion forum, its tea-producing members remained tight-lipped.
Back in the 1800s, the Javanese began their habit of drinking tea in the morning but the tea was made from second-rate leaves. First-class tea leaves were controlled by the Dutch and exported.
This explains why tea from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) was popular in Europe until World War II, and why the finest Kayu Aro black tea from the Kerinci highlands in Sumatra was reportedly the favorite tea of three successive generations of Dutch queens, including the current Dutch Queen Beatrix.
Nowadays, the majority of Indonesians still drink second- or lower-class black tea in loose-leaf form — like their predecessors — or in tea bags. The top quality tea is exported as before and the leftovers relegated to the masses.
As a result, Indonesians, even the rich who could afford it, generally have no idea that their country produces top-quality tea, let alone tastes it.
A particular case in point is Sumatra Oolong Barisan, sold by German tea company TeaGschwendner. In order to taste this high-quality, delicate oolong tea, I got to know Indri Kristanti, a fellow Pencinta Teh member. Indri went to Germany to buy the tea and traveled back to Indonesia to arrange a tea tasting together with some other Pecinta Teh members in a small gathering in Bogor, West Java.
It is ridiculous that we Indonesians have to go to a foreign country to buy the best produce from our own backyards. However, this tea is produced exclusively for the German company under a special order agreement that prevents it from being sold at home. This is a common practice, not only for tea but also other export merchandise like footwear.
Such agreements, however, don’t seem to apply to state-owned tea plantations which, according to the former tea commodity director of state-owned plantation company PTPN VIII, Agus Supriyadi, sell their teas in US dollars at auction to international buyers in bulk, that is a minimum of 20 tons.
“We also entertain domestic buyers who can afford to buy our teas at export prices; so, it is not true that top Indonesian teas are only for export, “said the recently retired director. “Contact our marketing manager, Wawan Purnawarman, if you want to buy our special-grade premium teas,” he told me, adding that these teas cannot be sold in supermarkets or grocery stores because they have no brand names.
Indonesia has also been chosen by the Taiwanese to produce the tea they are famous for, oolong tea, exclusively for their home market. Take the Kepahiang oolong tea from Bengkulu, Sumatra, produced by PT Trisula Ulung Megasurya, as an example.
This company does not bother to sell its tea at home because it dedicates its whole production for the Taiwanese market. It exports its tea two or three times each month to Taiwan, according to Umi, an employee and reseller.
She added that the company started to sell its best tea in Jakarta via a distributor following high local demand after introducing it in the Bengkulu administration’s pavilion at last year’s Jakarta Fair, which displayed produce from the Indonesia’s 33 provinces.
Recently, this premium tea was offered at Duta Buah, a fruit store near my home, only to be withdrawn a few months later. Retailing at Rp 47,000 (US$4.9) per 100 grams, the tea didn’t sell well.
“It is way too expensive,” said one of the store’s shop stewards. Indonesian loose-leaf teas sold in supermarkets or groceries are normally priced at less than Rp 10,000 per 100 grams.
This explains why they promoted the Bengkulu tea as “health tea”, rich in antioxidants that would help combat bad cholesterol, to justify the price at cooperatives and drug stores rather than treating it as tea to be consumed just for the pleasure of drinking.
Although it is no longer available publicly, the tea can still be purchased directly from its producer or via resellers, like Umi.
This discreet way of selling is also preferred by Lily Gunawan, a director of PT Gunung Subur Sejahtera in Surakarta, Central Java, for her top-end jasmine tea, Gardoe Super, which is made for a local niche market according to a rare, elaborate Chinese form of processing she inherited from her grandfather that takes one month to complete.
The dentist told me this tea was available at certain small grocery stores in Surakarta and its surrounding areas, but the management wanted to withdraw it and discontinue its production because its production costs were so high the company wasn’t able to carve out a satisfactory profit margin.
At a recent Pencinta Teh gathering, I bought the tea from her at Rp 45,000 per 250 grams, which is the highest price I have ever paid for a jasmine tea. The company also produces for the Middle Eastern market premium mint teas that are not for sale in Indonesia.
I managed to get some from Lily because I know her personally. The same is also true when it comes to buying top-notch export-bound teas from other private tea producers.
So, the key here is a personal relationship. If you personally know the producers or the owners, the chances are that you will get some of their top-end, unique, export-destination teas which are unavailable elsewhere in the domestic market.
— Photo by Arief Suryobuwono