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Problems brewing in Tugu coffee grounds

Duncan Graham

The Jakarta Post

Wlingi, East Java  /  Thu, August 24, 2017  /  08:54 am
Problems brewing in Tugu coffee grounds

Coffee story: A mural at the Kawisari plantation. (JP/Erlinawati Graham)

When the Tugu Hotel in Malang changed hands around 20 years ago, the manager suddenly died and the new owner had to take over.

“I didn’t know anything,” said Wedya Julianti. 

“I had been trained as a doctor. I had to learn management very fast. It was a stressful time.”

Whizz ahead to present time and the boutique hotel is now one of the most prestigious in the East Java city. 

The Tugu Group led by Wedya’s husband, Anhar Setjadibrata, has expanded into hotels in other cities and a restaurant-art gallery in Menteng, Jakarta’s Embassy Row.

Recently added to the company portfolio is a coffee plantation. History then recycled; the manager died and Wedya was again tossed into a business she knew little about.

“I questioned the people who’ve been working here for years but whose opinions were never sought,” she said. 

“They were politely waiting to be told what to do though they’re experienced. They became my teachers.”

The 850-hectare estate was started in 1870 as the Babah Coffee Plantation. Now known as Kawisari, it’s in wild country west of Malang, above Wlingi and close to Mount Kawi. 

This is the mysterious mountain famed as an alternative route to happiness, a weird mix of gravesites and temples, theme parks and crass commercialism. It is the Lotto Land where good fortune comes — so they say — to the pious and patient.

The location seems to have been propitious for Wedya, who claims she has the only estate in the area not making a loss. That did not come from passive prayer because the boss lady is no absentee landlord, but a hands-on innovator and inquirer. 

Neighbor plantations have been abandoned or bankrupted by high costs and low returns, the bushes unfertilized, the ground untilled.

Her bleak observation was endorsed by Zaenudin, former director of the Indonesian Coffee and Cocoa Research Center based in Jember, and now an independent consultant.

Wedya JuliantiWedya Julianti (JP/Erlinawati Graham)

“Sadly most government-funded research goes into crops like rice and corn,” Zaenudin said. 

“Yet coffee is still an important part of the economy.”

Indonesia produces just over half a billion tons of beans a year. A third is consumed in the archipelago. 

Coffee in all its forms is a staple of lifestyle magazines featuring photos of designer cups topped by decorated froth, the fashion for sophisticates with time and money in abundance.

The idea is to link coffee with elites and so ramp prices, but in reality most is drunk at roadside stalls by everyday workers sipping kopi tubruk (instant coffee) in chipped glasses; the first part of the ritual isn’t debating aroma but scraping grounds off the lip. The cost is usually around Rp 5,000 (US$0.40).

Even the nation’s thirst can’t keep the industry blooming for this labor-intensive business resists mechanization — though Wedya has introduced powered string-trimmers to replace sickles for weed control. 

Inventors seeking a challenge more complex than driverless cars should consider a bean harvester able to stride up and down slopes that would defy goats while carrying 35 kilograms of crop. That is largely done by skilled pickers who can feel which berries are ripe; the women’s strength and cheerful resilience has impressed Wedya, who like most urbanites had little idea of the back pains involved in getting their daily heart-jolters.

Local produce: A well maintained bush at the Kawisari plantation.Local produce: A well maintained bush at the Kawisari plantation. (JP/Erlinawati Graham)

She is a one cup woman with no time for the heavily advertised pre-mix sachets — only 8 percent coffee in some brands — plus sugar, milk powder, “thickeners” and even salt.

Wedya no longer practices medicine. Once she worked in public neurology wards where every patient’s needs were different and watchfulness vital. 

It is an approach useful in handling coffee bushes which are also susceptible to stress and disease, particularly leaf rot. The fungus attacks Arabica favored for high-end coffees so the more resistant — but less desired — Robusta has been widely planted. Now Arabica, originally from Ethiopia, is being reintroduced. 

Kawisari is no place for picnickers. Though the views are a visual knockout, physical concussion is a risk along the tortuous tracks shredded by artillery barrages of rain. The old buildings are plain Dutch functional. This is a work zone selling between 800 and 1,500 tons of beans a year, depending on the weather.

Japfa, the giant Singapore-based food conglomerate is building a monster dairy farm above the plantation, beheading hills and re-shaping the topography with scores of diggers and bulldozers. Clearly the investors see future profits in white drinks, not black.

Checking things out: Wedya Julianti in the plant nursery at the Kawisari plantation.Checking things out: Wedya Julianti in the plant nursery at the Kawisari plantation. (JP/Erlinawati Graham)

The company plans to start milking 4,000 cows in March 2018 — generating 200 tons of waste daily, much of it liquid. Wedya said the developers have assured her water quality downstream will not be affected but she still worries.

Apart from the environment and economics her main concern is management.

“Change has to come slowly,” she said. 

“I now know that handling human relations is the most complicated part of business. We have to work together. If you look after your workers they’ll look after you.

“In the past the manager here was king. The staff were just told what to do; all the under managers were men,”

“I’m gradually changing that hierarchy. Now we are quietly promoting competent women and paying wages twice monthly to help with home budgeting,”

“Fortunately I like learning. I want to know so I ask. And I get told because women find it easier to talk to a woman. I’m very blessed.”

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