The Java Bean Catalyst: A Caffeinated Caravan Through the Coffee Farms of Indonesia

Coffee is the kickstarter for many American mornings. But as any local Starbucks will confirm, sugar, soy, and syrups too often tragically trump origin or varietal in the coffee selection routine. The sweetener is mightier than the bean. [Insert Frowny Face]. 

Time to change that mocha mindset. Coffee is far more complex, fascinating, and tasty than our local cafés serving sugary swill may let on. It is a global enterprise with regional varietals, methods, and characteristics that offer deliciously unique experiences in every cup. The bean is mightier than the sweetener! [Insert Happy Face]. I see a coup brewing to take back our beloved joe. Viva la café revolución! 

The revolution can start right here in the Asia Pacific, which is home to some of the largest and most prestigious coffee-producing regions in the world. In a new and occasional series, coffee shall be our caffeinated caravan to cafés and farms across the Pacific Rim.  

In this post, the expedition commences by heading south to Indonesia: legendary for its coffee quality and home to one of the most expensive styles on earth.  

Are you wired yet? Let’s get musing and sipping … 

A Brewed Archipelago 

Although Indonesia may not be the first destination that comes to mind as you toss your favored beans into the French press, its coffee is undoubtedly familiar. Java, a word that has become synonymous with coffee, is Indonesia’s most populous island (with a population of nearly 145 million people!) and home to a bustling coffee industry that dates back to the late Seventeenth Century. Similarly, Sumatra, the friendly island neighbor to the west, has developed a global following for its smooth, full-bodied coffee rich in earth and chocolate flavors.  

As the fourth largest coffee purveyor in the world, Indonesia has a lot going for it. Two strengths stand out. First, location. The Coffea plant, native to Ethiopia, thrives in cool to warm tropical climates with rich soils. The Coffea diaspora is large and global, but is primarily huddled within the “Bean Belt,” a latitudinal spectrum of 30 degrees north and south of the Equator. This makes Indonesia, a Bean Belter with varied elevations in its mountainous regions, ideal for growing coffee. The finicky Coffea Arabica, which produces the finest gourmet coffees, prefers cooler temperatures and rich soils. Indonesia accommodates the fussy varietal with a high-altitude home in its mountains that are abundant with fertile terroir. On the other hand, the heartier Coffea Canephora (more commonly known as Robusta), which produces cheaper, more generic coffees, doesn’t mind a little extra heat, and can survive in the less hospitable valleys of Indonesia. In these islands, every bean finds a happy home. 

The second distinguishing factor is Indonesia’s small-scale production. Although the quantity grown and sold in the country is significant, it is not large enterprises reining in all of the profits. In fact, more than ninety percent of Indonesia’s coffee is produced by small farms that average only a hectare of land. At these smaller enterprises, tremendous attention and care is emphasized at every stage of the coffee bean journey. Small shops yield a brilliant brew. When aggregated, this family farm collective cultivates one of Indonesia’s most prominent and celebrated crops.  

The Stimulating Sumatran Sojourn  

I had the opportunity to visit and experience one of these small family enterprises during my recent Sumatran Sojourn to the city of Lubuklinggau. 

Long Coffee & Roastery grows both Arabica and Robusta on its farm in Bengko Village on the slopes of Kaba Mountain. Here the Coffea trees enjoy rich, fertile soils and an elevation of approximately 3,900 feet that tempers the warm topical climate. Like many small farm operations, Long Coffee is involved in every stage of the coffee process, from growing and harvesting, to drying, hulling, and roasting. This ensures that it can carefully supervise the entire process and fine tune wherever necessary. Meticulous monitoring makes marvelous mocha.  

After harvesting the ripe red cherries by hand, Long Coffee chooses a natural process for drying the coffee fruit. This is the oldest method for drying, originating in Ethiopia, and involves leaving the cherry and bean intact as long as possible. In this way, the ripe fruit and sugary mucilage on the bean have the greatest time period to interact and influence the flavor characteristics. To protect them from excess moisture and spoilage, the cherries are continuously raked and turned throughout the day and covered at night or during long rain intervals.

The entire process requires patience and focus, as it can take up to six weeks to dry the fruit and the interim period is replete with potential predicaments. Too often, carelessness carries the day. As such, over the years the process has fostered a bit of a poor reputation. However, producers like Long Coffee that painstakingly pilot the process can achieve some astonishing results with flavor profiles that are strong, concentrated, and fruity. Harboring such potential, the natural process is enjoying a renaissance with craft producers that seek ambitious techniques to create the best cup of coffee possible. 

After the cherries have been dried to a moisture level of between 11 and 13 percent, they are hulled, leaving the green coffee bean to move on to the roasting process. Time to heat things up …

For roasting, the process moves to Lubuklinggau, where I met up with Adi, java master and owner of Long Coffee, to get a firsthand try at the roasting process. To my surprise, the operations were setup right at his home on the front lanai, where the whole family invited us in and participated in the afternoon’s roasting adventure. The educational insights of learning to roast combined with the intimacy of sharing a family passion as their esteemed guest was a truly memorable experience. Most assuredly, nothing about me warrants special treatment, but warm hospitality is the fabric of Indonesian culture. Its people are extraordinarily kind and generous. Adi and his family exemplified this amazing culture.

Robusta was the bean of the hour. Firing up the William W600i Roaster Machine, it was time to feed the raw beans into the belly of the [roasting] beast. The roast time per batch is a modest 12 minutes, but careful attention is paid to the internal temperature, which is the ultimate guidepost. 150 … 185 … wait for it … wait for it … 210 degrees!

Long Coffee typically uses a Cinnamon or Medium profile for the more delicate Arabica and, for this Robusta batch, a Medium or Medium-Dark profile. As the heavenly scent began to waft amongst the group with greater potency, I knew we were nearing the climax of the java bean’s jaunt from tree to cup.   

Once roasted, Indonesians prefer to grind their coffee into a very fine powder that is added directly to hot water. The resulting cup contains more sediment than the American counterpart, but has rich bold flavors that showcase the coffee’s natural characteristics. As the cups were passed, the intense aromas were too alluring to withstand. The laborious process from growing to grinding was finally complete. All that remained was to taste and enjoy. And I was not disappointed: this was one of the best brews in memory. With a touch of sugar to accentuate the rich, chocolatey tones, this coffee could stand its ground with the best in the world.  

A special tip of the cap to Adi and Long Coffee & Roastery for a tremendous coffee excursion in Lubuklinggau. They are a shining example of the tremendous quality coming from small farm operations in Indonesia. Here, good coffee is a long, proud tradition. Want to try for yourself? Long Coffee & Roastery will ship around the world!

I raise my mug to you, java master!

In my next post, I will continue the Indonesian jaunt, exploring one of the rarest coffees on earth. In Indonesia, even its wildlife famously participates in the mocha mania, and the results are … well … unique. Stay tuned!

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