How are the growing number of coffee guerrillas in West Java fighting their battle?

by Asmara Wreksono

The war between coffee shop giants in Indonesia’s big cities has been going on since the beginning of the millennium. But how are the growing number of coffee guerrillas fighting their battle?

Stretching 5,150 kilometers from west to east, the archipelago is home to diverse conditions for growing coffee. From light and bright to full-bodied coffee, the result of being grown in this part of the world has blessed Indonesians with an abundance of varieties and flavors.  

The nearest coffee plantations to Jakarta lie in the scenic mountains of West Java, which also happen to be first plantations developed when coffee was brought by the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) to Indonesia in 1696. The coffee industry later expanded to the eastern parts of Java and the export trade to Europe started in 1711. That is when the term “a cup of Java” was first coined.  

The coffee export trade lasted until Indonesia was struck by the so-called coffee rust disease in 1876. Coffee plantations then shifted to tea, quinine and vegetables. There were too few surviving coffee plants in West Java to produce a decent amount for the industry, hence being almost forgotten until more than a century later.

West Java coffee

Coffee farmer Yoseph Kusuniyanto, 50, grows Arabica Cattura at his plantation and nursery in Lembang, North Bandung. He left his office job in 1997 and decided to try farming, joining other coffee farmers who only began planting coffee again about 15 years ago after a long hiatus.  

Yoseph experimented with a lot of varieties of coffee plants, and finally decided on the Brazilian-origin Arabica Cattura as his main commodity. “I wondered why Cattura could grow in Brazil and produce good-tasting coffee, and I wanted to try and grow it here. It worked, surprisingly, and it is good.” 

Arabica Cattura is not a common variety in Indonesia, however it grows well under Yoseph’s care. 

Compared to Indonesia’s star coffee, Sigarar Utang, which has been planted everywhere and has boosted the nation’s coffee exports, Yoseph claims that his Arabica Cattura is visually prettier. “You can plant it in front of your house and it will definitely look pretty. Actually that’s also one of the reasons why I chose Arabica Cattura in the first place.” 

Aside from looking good, the Cattura cultivar has tougher leaves, making it more resilient to diseases.

Bandung has two large areas of coffee plantations. The better known ones lies in the southern part of the city, in Pengalengan, while the other one spreads across the northern part. Farmers in Pengalengan plant their crops earlier compared to those in North Bandung, resulting in good harvests and their ability to serve a larger-scale industry.

As a small-scale farmer, Yoseph takes his time to carefully experiment, process and harvest small quantities of coffee to help his day-to-day living costs. “When finances are pressing, I sell beans to coffee bean buyers. Although I process my own beans, most of my fellow farmers from around here sell their products in the form of cherries. It’s faster, and the buyers are always ready to receive them, to be sold and sent out to other regions like Sumatra.”

Workers sort coffee beans in West Java. (The Jakarta Post/Wahyoe Boediwardhana)

Coffee beans sold to Sumatra are usually destined for blends with more famous varieties, such as Gayo. West Java coffee is considered young, with farmers said to be still learning how to achieve good harvests and therefore the region is yet to form its own identity, making the coffee perfect for blending and adding volume to other varieties. To sell Gayo coffee, for example, a seller can use one-quarter of West Java coffee and three-quarters of Gayo. 

This practice gives good prices for buyers, while at the same time getting a decent margin for sellers. But is everybody really happy? Is West Java coffee getting the recognition it deserves, and will the general public finally be able to recognize its true identity?

One of the many possible answers lies in Yoseph’s coffee plantation. As his choice of variety is rather uncommon, his coffee is not used in blends. The farmer has grown a set of fanatics for his coffee, who don’t care (or probably prefer not to know) about the method of processing. 

“I still traditionally roast my own coffee, and sell it in a ready-to-brew form. Surprisingly, people like it; I even get orders from cafes around Bandung,” Yoseph said, trying to suppress a proud grin. 

In November 2015, the West Java Plantation Service gave out 6 million free coffee seeds to farmers in the coffee-producing districts of Sindangkerta, Gununghalu and Lembang. But is this type of generosity really the answer to increasing production? Moreover, did the help actually reach the farmers? The flicker in Yoseph’s eyes died down a little: “I haven’t heard of any farmer who has received direct financial support from the government. I heard there is support, but as to receiving it, we don’t get anything as far as I know.”

A woman inspects coffee cherries. Coffee farmers in West Java are awaiting more support from the government. (The Jakarta Post/Arya Dipa)

When asked what farmers really need, Yoseph said bluntly, “Fertilizers. We need good quality and affordable fertilizers to grow better quality coffee and meet production targets. I heard a farmer friend just returned from Vietnam and he said it is cheap there. Here, the stock isn’t even available.”  

Yoseph appreciated the government’s efforts to open dialogues with farmers, which reveals another strange fact – coffee in Lembang is categorized as a plantation commodity although it is planted in a forestry area. The department of forestry actually allows farmers to plant their coffee there as the plants' deep root systems help to avoid erosion. There is even a restricted area in North Bandung, owned by the Army's Special Forces, which is only accessible by the Army and coffee farmers. The latter are allowed to plant within the area as they help to preserve the forest. 

However good this is for farmers, the fact is still disturbing, as subsidies for plantations do not exist in the forestry department’s domain. “So if I, a Lembang farmer, buy subsidized fertilizer in Subang, I will get arrested because it’s illegal,” Yosep added.

The last few years has seen the rise of West Java coffee. In 2011, coffee farmers and enthusiasts in the region finally registered the geographic indication of coffee planted on 11 mountains in the area with the Law and Human Rights Ministry's Directorate General of Intellectual Property Rights under the name Java Preanger Coffee. 

Currently, there are 32 hectares of coffee plantations in West Java, which produced 22,000 tonnes of coffee in 2015, of which 75 percent was exported. And the numbers shows no signs of stopping. But who’s watching, nay, guarding the quality?

The coffee elites

West Java Preanger coffee has reached many parts of the world, including the United States, where it has become one of the varieties roasted by the Starbucks Reserve in Seattle. Adi W. Taroepratjeka, 39, a certified Q-grader instructor, brought a bag to share with coffee lovers at the Bees Knees cafe, Bandung. Adi is one of those listed on the growing list of Q-graders in Indonesia.  

So what does a Q-grader do? They are people who have the ability, knowledge, capacity and license to taste, cup and evaluate coffee. A person must complete a rigorous six-day program which consists of three days of workshops and three days of exams at the Coffee Quality Institute to be listed as a licensed Q-grader. And, to hold on to the prestigious title, Q-graders have to undergo a calibration and recertification exam every three years.  

“The problem is, in Indonesia there is no exact data because the license has an expiration date. There are some Q-graders in Indonesia who are certified, but don’t participate in the recertification program, thus their licenses expire,” Adi revealed.  

With the title comes a huge responsibility, as the Q-grader program is aimed at having quantifiable quality standards of coffee around world. This helps coffee buyers to communicate quality within the supply chain. The system provides uniformity and a better understanding of quality, thus providing ease in giving scores to coffee in the industry.

Being one of the world’s largest coffee exporters, one would think Indonesia relied on Q-graders both for the Arabica and Robusta coffee variants to ensure quality. “In Columbia, the government has an army of Q-graders to maintain the quality of the coffee being exported.  Here, it’s different, because the Indonesian government mostly cares about volume as opposed to quality,” Adi said.

His pessimism is not illogical. “I think [our] government will prioritize palm oil because the money is there. Compared to coffee, palm oil makes more sense to be prioritized. We’re different from Papua New Guinea where they realized that they could live off coffee since day one. Roads in Papua New Guinea are constructed with money from their coffee exports. Their government is involved firsthand, tasting all coffee that is exported.”  

In a broader perspective, specialty coffee is only 10 percent of the whole coffee industry in Indonesia, and the government is working on the other 90 percent, hence the volume-oriented goals.

A shot of coffee is seen beside roasted and ground beans. Each cup always has a story to tell. (The Jakarta Post/Wienda Parwitasari)

Adi has found that having a license and authority in the coffee world does not mean he stops learning. He handed a pack of roasted coffee beans to's crew, told them to smell it and asked the party of four what aromatic tones they could distinguish. The diversity of answers, from “chocolate” to “citrus”, amazed him.

“We actually know what we smell. However, sometimes we don’t recall that smell exists until somebody says, for instance, ‘I smell a bit of orange flavor’. It’s like a wake-up call for a certain corner of our brain, so though at first we don’t realize we are smelling an aroma, we smell it immediately after somebody mentions it. And that can only happen when you actually talk to other people about coffee. People give you ideas, and you don’t just listen, your senses get stimulated. To me, that’s always fascinating,” he said.

Adi fell in love with coffee when he participated in a student exchange program in high school.  He stayed in the US with host parents who were in the habit of sipping black, unsweetened coffee every morning. Little did he know that the new habit would set a course for his life that he never expected. Starting off as a first-wave Bandung coffee hipster back in 1999, he chose to take the plunge and go professional as a coffee consultant in 2005.  

Come May 2016, Adi will run the very first Q-grader class in Indonesia taught by a certified Q-grader instructor at his own laboratory in Bandung. “I want to make coffee education cheaper for Indonesians, and also be able to translate the materials into Indonesian. I want to eliminate the points where people would think the exam is hard,” Adi stated. 

With a pass rate of only 50 percent around the world, Adi is positive about the course, and at the same time fully realizes its challenges.  

As many mere mortals drink instant premixed coffee, one can only wonder whether a knowledgeable, certified coffee elite such as Adi still drinks instant coffee. Turns out, he still does sometimes.  

“Premixed coffee gives instant gratification. All you need to do is add warm water and that’s why people love it. When you drink brewed coffee, the taste is different when you drink it hot and when you drink it cold. I like to taste the change. When you drink instant coffee, the taste stays the same whether you drink it hot or cold. That’s why while I still drink it, I find it a little boring,” he said with a chuckle.

Boring might be the right word to explain why coffee drinkers are looking for more excitement in their cup.  

Basic is the new brew

When coffee first became a trendy drink among the youth, expensive coffee machines were the status symbol of coffee establishments. Shiny steel machines bearing Italian brand names gleaming under the warm ambient lights of a cozy cafe almost guaranteed good coffee being served to patrons.  

With the trend becoming a lifestyle in large cities and an increasing awareness of what really constitutes good coffee, coffee lovers are starting to look for more rustic ways to brew their coffee. 

A pour-over coffee is seen in progress, amid the manual brewing craze that is sweeping through Bandung. Will Jakarta be next? (The Jakarta Post/Wienda Parwitasari)

Say hello to the long-abandoned art of brewing coffee: doing it manually. But just how manual is it?

Our journey took us to meet Eri Wibowo, 39, and Ahmad Fadhli, 29, who founded the Manual Brew Community in Bandung. The group was first formed to accommodate new brewers from all walks of life in sharing their brewing techniques and discussing coffee in general.  

“We like to brew our coffee using tools that are not mechanical or electric,” Fadhli said. “By manually brewing the coffee without the help of electricity or mechanical tools, the process is not consistent. The inconsistency brings up new variables that broaden the taste spectrum.  That’s the uniqueness of manual brewing and it’s exciting,” he added.  

Eri and Fadhli welcome new members to the Manual Brew Community. (The Jakarta Post/Bayu Widhiatmoko)

Patrons at the Bees Knees cafe on Jl. Taman Cibunut, Bandung, have huge curiosity about manually brewed coffee. The cafe looks nothing like the new wave of coffee shops that are spreading across Jakarta. In fact, it looks like a guerrilla fighters' headquarters. There’s no air conditioner, fancy lighting or cushy sofas, only a simple-looking pantry and a variety of manual brewing knick-knacks proudly displayed and free for guest to use.  

When visited BeesKnees, 95 percent of the patrons were wearing high school uniforms and sharing plates full of gorengan (fried snacks) instead of the glamorous croissants or other types of pastries typically seen in coffee shops. The sound of jokes spoken in Sundanese mixed with sophisticated jazz music playing from a beat-up stereo in the corner, while other patrons brewed their own coffee with care, looking slightly like mad scientists searching for the perfect potion to satisfy their caffeine cravings.

Manual brewing sounds very cost-effective for coffee lovers. But is it really? Eri and Fadhli laughed hard. “It can be a low-cost alternative to brew your own coffee. Theoretically it is cheaper to do it at home, but when you get into it, you’ll want to buy different beans, different gadgets to apply different techniques to get that perfect brew. And at the end of the day, if you start manual brewing to save costs, you’ll probably end up spending more than you expected,” Fadhli explained.  

With 40-50 members and growing, the Manual Brew Community welcomes anyone, including coffee beginners, to join their seemingly crazy obsession in brewing coffee, and not only in Bandung. “The community, from my observations, has branched out to neighboring areas like Tasikmalaya, Garut, Purwakarta and a small number in Jakarta. They keep on growing and we’re really happy about that,” Eri explained.  

Positive energy can’t help but shine from coffee farmers as well. To outsiders, competition is apparent, but they see no such thing. “Because we in the north have newly planted coffee compared to those in the south, what we feel is a sense of togetherness so we keep each other up to date with information,” Yoseph said with a smile.