From the Road: The Secret Coffee Farmers of East Java2-16-10
Ok, first, let’s review the history: coffee was brought to Indonesia by the Dutch, who first planted coffee on the volcanic island of Java. Within just a few years, Dutch plantations on Java were more productive than any on earth, and “Java” had become synonymous with coffee itself. Then, disaster struck: in the 1870s, a disease called "coffee rust" appeared and destroyed the Dutch plantations, which were planted in the wet, warm lowlands of Java. In the 1890s, they re-established plantations on the dry, high Ijen plateau in the east of the island. These plantations, or “estates,” called Djampit, Pancoer, Blawan, and Kayumas, were run by the Dutch colonial government for decades. That is, until Indonesian independence in the 1940s, when the new Indonesian government established a special branch to manage the estates called the PPT. Therefore, every coffee buyer knows that all Arabica coffee in Java comes from these 4 estates, is sold by the PPT, and is known as “Estate Java.”
Here’s where the story gets personal: in 1987, while working my first job as a barista, a coworker handed me a cup of coffee and said, “Taste this.” I did, and experienced my first coffee epiphany: the coffee was deep, chocolaty, and velvety, and had a kind of savory, dark cherry undertone that I found incredibly delicious. The memory of that cup of coffee is burned in my mind. It was, of course, an Estate Java – from the Kayumas estate. And, there you have it – my first coffee crush was Kayumas Estate Java. By the mid-1990s, however, good Estate Javas seemed impossible to find. There wasn’t much coffee available, and what was available was lackluster and had none of that delicious character I remembered. When I visited Java for the first time in 2003, I discovered the reason: the PPT had grown bureaucratic and apathetic, caring little for quality or tradition. “Why should we care about quality?” one official actually said to me, “We sell everything we produce anyway.” Touring the estates, I saw firsthand what had become of a formerly grand coffee tradition: casual picking and processing, the elimination of shade trees, contempt for sustainability, and little quality control. Bitterly disappointed, I gave up on Java coffee altogether, and resolved never to return.
So why am I here? Well, there is an interesting twist: it turns out that over the past 100 years, employees of the 4 estates who lived in the mountains surrounding the Ijen plateau would occasionally pocket a few coffee seeds, and plant their own coffee trees in their own backyards. Intended initially for their own consumption, these estate workers soon learned that they could roast and sell the coffee to nearby townspeople for a little extra cash. It needed to be kept on the lowdown, since everyone knew that Java Arabica was officially grown by the government on the estates, so even most Javans didn’t know about these hidden coffee farms. Over the years, these secret coffee farms spread, and by the time I visited in 2003 there were hundreds of hidden coffee farms in the mountains surrounding the very estates I was visiting – I just couldn’t see them. When I asked my hosts – from the PPT, of course – if there were any other Arabica coffee farms in Java besides the estates, they told me flatly no. That wasn’t true.
Enter a coffee trader named Asnawi. Asnawi was a buyer and seller of Robusta coffee; the lower quality, disease-resistant variety of coffee with which the Dutch replanted the lowlands in the 1880s. Asnawi had a good relationship with Robusta farmers, and was helping support quality improvement and development in family farms. One day, a farmer came to him and said, “Mr. Asnawi, why don’t you buy coffee from us, too?” He was, of course, a leader of a group of secret Arabica coffee farmers near the Kayumas estate. Asnawi contacted the Indonesian Coffee and Cocoa Research Institute to learn more about Arabica coffee, and together they put together a project to help the secret farmers process high-quality Arabica coffees, instead of the poorly-prepared coffees they were selling to the local market. When I heard this story, I immediately arranged a side trip from Sumatra to Java to check it out.
I flew from Medan to Jakarta, and then to the East Java capital of Surabaya (which gets my vote for favorite place-name: it means basically “crocodile vs. shark”). I then made the loooooong trip up to the mountains surrounding the Ijen plateau. When I arrived at the outskirts of the Kayumas estate, you could have knocked me over with a feather: there, hidden under abundant shade trees were the glorious little secret Arabica farms, in the backyards of the workers who planted them. I visited a number of these farmers, some quite old by now, to hear their stories. First, I met Samsul Arfin and his son. Samsul has lived in these hills his entire life – his father worked on the Kayumas estate. When Samsul got his own farm when he was 25, he obtained some coffee seeds from his father and planted them behind his house. He now owns 8 hectares, which he has planted with coffee, ginger, cloves, avocado, jackfruit, vanilla, mango, and starfruit, among indigenous albasia, mahogany, and teak trees. In 2005, he began learning about quality coffee production, and he now sells his coffee to Asnawi for export, more than doubling his previous income.
I spent 2 days traveling these hills, meeting the farmers, having coffee in their houses, and touring their farms. I even got to see one of the backyard roasting plants they still use to sell roasted coffee to neighboring villages – in a homemade, hand-cranked roaster heated with firewood! I was inspired by these farmers and their story, and I can’t wait to try some of this year’s crop – the coffee fruits are still tiny and green on the trees. I spent my final days in Java tasting last year’s crop – past its prime by now – but I leave the island refreshed, my romance for Javan coffees rekindled.
I’m on my way home now, I’ll see you soon.