There are so many striking things about Indonesia; the people are so friendly, warm and welcoming, the incredibly diverse cultures are ancient and fascinating, the landscape varied, and jaw dropping and somewhere steaming away in this heady mix is the coffee, something of a superstar in the waiting.
Of all the coffee giants in the world; Latin America, Africa, India etc, I feel Indonesia is slightly overlooked. Especially Sulawesi. You may see some packs of Java beans out there, but nothing much else. The variety of Indonesia’s coffee cornucopia is poorly represented and we’re missing out big time.
Indonesia has the perfect conditions for coffee (and cacao) growing. Coffee and chocolate, what a combo! There is a youthful espresso fuelled movement swinging into existence bringing quality coffee back to it’s roots and cherries, so to speak. Led by the sprawling megalopolis that is Jakarta, there is a growing trendy cafe culture over here, hip and buzzing, Indonesians are getting to enjoy their coffee and not just export it away. We have been lucky to sample a bewildering array of brews and take in some plantations, each island produces very different styles of beans, within those islands are various regions, each with their own character and the tumbling coffee kaleidescope continues.
Perfect cremas are not always the case though. Many Indonesians don’t drink coffee as we Euro coffee snobs like it. The local brew is something like a long Greek/ Turkish coffee. Needing a few minutes to settle into a dark cuppa with some funky sludge greeting you towards the latter stages. It is normally pretty decent, better than packet instant, but this new roasted and toasted trend is very exciting. Young guys with hipster quiffs and girls wearing brightly coloured hijabs let loose on Italian-made coffee machines to extract the maximum wow and yum. Jakarta is filling up with bespoke cafes and the big chains are lumbering in; Starclucks are making their insidious presence felt and bizarrely use beans from Guatemala!! Speaks volumes.
TANA TORAJA – A COFFEE AFICIONADO”S PARADISE
So Toraja is a remote region in Central Sulawesi, one of the largest islands in Indonesia, roughly the same size as France and basically, one big jungle. Toraja is reached by spectacularly rutted and windy roads, a mountainous region famous over here for producing some of the best Arabica in the country and is also home to an incredible tribal culture (see here).
Coffee is not a big deal in Toraja, they may drink it occasionally and most of the traditional houses in villages (see the top photo) had a little ornate wooden pot full of ground coffee. The beans are normally roasted in a steel pan over an open fire, which leads to inconsistent heat and inevitably a mixture of burnt and raw beans. I have tried roasting beans using this method in Luzon, Philippines and is seems that no matter how much care you take, there is little chance of avoiding charred bits with pale interiors. This could be why the Torajan’s didn’t generally cherish their beans. The same could be said of cacao (chocolate beans) which also grows everywhere, their brilliantly red and yellow pods poking out of the canopy.
A friend told me about a Belgian couple who brought some local people a selection of fine European chocolates. The village Torajan’s were amazed that these bitter little beans had been fashioned into something so delicious. A chocolate revolution is surely the next step for Indonesia’s foodie folk, probably with some cacao smoothies along the way.
One of the largest towns in Toraja is Rantepao and this is were we met two of our coffee superheroes, Mika and Eli. Eli runs a tiny coffee roasting business and cafe with his wife, Kaana Toraya Coffee, using a perfectly eclectic range of machinery that he built himself and techniques he learnt from a Hawaiian tourist in the early 90’s. Eli has made two roasters, the largest one powered by a large water wheel. A stroke of engineering genius. It is very peaceful to sit and watch it in action. The sound of flowing water and the tantalising aromas of coffee beans roasting. The equipment may look a little basic and battered in places, but the outcome is sensational and very high quality. We tried the traditional style of beans, dried leaving the husks on and also the standard washed style bean that we are familiar with, but then the bombshell came calling, Hani! Hani is a technique that I feel would be huge in the coffee shops and nooks of Europe and beyond.
HANI – A NEW STYLE OF COFFEE
The word sounds like honey and the flavour is like honey, much sweeter and fragrant than a washed bean. It is achieved by leaving the natural juices, released by the coffee berries when being picked and processed, on the coffee bean when drying (over here this is generally done on huge racks under the sun or in small quantities by the side of the road). This means that the berry is darker in colour. Dried pre-roast coffee beans are actually a yellowy green colour. These hani beans smell strongly of honey! It’s magic!! Especially for a vegan!!!
Eli and his wife kindly sold us a small bag of Hani for our backpacks, we are travelling with a little cafetiere contraption that means when we get a bit remote mountain cave or deserted island hammock we can still enjoy a top cup of joe. Eli loves exporting his families organic, hand picked coffee all around the world, if you’re in the business, you’ve got to try some Hani beans! Something truly unique. Also, you will never find a man who smiles more than Eli. Its highly infectious:)
After being immersed in the full coffee story, from bush to mug, we felt like a little sunset stroll around town. Rantepao is a dusty little place, clustered around a busy main thoroughfare. Tourism has made it’s presence felt and there are a couple of biggish hotels, normally catering for large tour groups. There is an impressive protestant church beside a slightly larger bright green mosque, there is a bustling bazaar selling everything from knocked off Rip Curl t-shirts to locally grown spices and finely carved machetes. On each street corner you’ll find the ubiquitous fried snack vendour, giant pans of oil bubbling away inches from frantic swathes of traffic. Pisang Goreng (Fried Bananas wrapped in a light pastry) are famous here and served in a number of ways, all sweet and tantalising. You’ve also got the usual piles of battered tempeh, tofu, corn fritters and sometimes chicken.
We were enjoying the energy and smiles encountered, many children and teenagers were practicing for their Independence day parades, something like a mass cheerleader-athon mixed with an army cadet march. All mini well pressed uniforms, papier machete tanks and tiara clad back flips. Many proud parents watching on beside Denis’s Massage Parlour, Jane and I causing minor waves of excitement, everyone shouting “Mr, Mr, hey Mr”. This is a normal reaction to tourists in Indonesia. Jane is also a Mr it seems! We have now posed for hundreds of selfies which, most of the time, is a real laugh.
JAK KOFFIE – JIMI HENDRIX & AMERICANO
It was by pure chance that we found Jak coffee, not much more than a doorway on a side street. The brilliant graffiti caught our attention. We instantly realised that it was a special little place, the decor was really cool and Mika (the main man) had the biggest, warmest smile on his face. It is not uncommon in Indonesia to find cafes with rows of jars, filled with freshly roasted beans to choose. A rare treat for sure! Mika was playing some great tunes and had painted a large picture of Jimi Hendrix on the wall. Never a bad interior design idea! The walls are lined with Mika’s work, he’s really a photographer moonlighting as a barista, plus the occasional antique lampshade or red phone.
Mika is very knowledgeable about most things it seems and spoke passionately about local history and culture, bringing life to it all, we learnt more in 1 hour than we did in 1 month of travel. This was the real story of Indonesia, right now, from the people creating the new waves and shapes. My Americano was mindblowing; rich and deep, made with organic beans from the East of Toraja. Maybe you think a cup of coffee cannot border on or even tickle the mindblowing. This was a coffee bomb!! The flavours and aromas were intense. Having said that, it was my fourth coffee of the afternoon and most things were a little intense. Mika picks and chooses who he buys from, keeping things fresh, organic and interesting. I have never seen someone take so much care over making a coffee. The process elevated to an art form.
‘NO COFFEE MAFIA PLEASE!’
You have probably not heard about Torajan coffee, primarily because large corporations from Japan and China buy it all up and make it into generic rubbish. This obviously means that prices are low and farmers suffer. There is no fair trade in these parts. Mika is fighting the good fight himself and attempting to showcase what Toraja can really do, saying “NO coffee mafia please!” We loved his passion which sparked off in all kinds of directions. He even had signs (see below).
Mika and his friends also bake some amazing cakes; stout brownies, chocolate croissants. The local crowd are loving to experiment with new styles of cooking. Anyone fancy a croissant sandwich? This is anti-Starclucks world, local people taking control of their produce and making something bespoke and high quality (and a few bucks) with bags of good ethics and integrity.
Jak Koffie is a slightly surreal experience really (in a good way), it’s like steeping through a hip portal, you feel like you’ve been transported to Soho, London or Gothica, Barcelona. That is until you step outside and are nearly taken out by a twelve year old on a motorbike eating a fried banana. Mika is like Indonesia’s answer to a fully caffeinated, cheery Che Guevara and I wish him my wholehearted best and hope we’ll soon see the amazing coffee’s of Toraja in more Western shops and cafes.
If you’re in Toraja, Jak cafe is a must. An a urban chic oasis in the endless steaming jungles of Sulawesi. You’ve also got to try Hani coffee, a totally new coffee drinking experience. Rantepao is a great place to sample the old and new faces of Indonesia as they mingle and take flight. The only negative that we’ve encountered in Indonesia is a short visa and it’s now leave. Selamat Tinggal!
Jak has no website yet but you can find more info and contact details here.