Thanks for visiting! In this section, we share our experiences in the places where coffee is grown. Traveling to origin and learning about the environment and culture of coffee growing countries are vital parts of what we do. We value coffee as a medium for cultural exchange, and we hope you enjoy these accounts of what we have experienced and learned.
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.
From the Road: Salaam from Sumatra2-7-10
Hello friends and family,
Gayo country is a long way away. It takes about 30 hours to get to the island of Sumatra, but once you get to the port city of Medan you’re not there yet. It takes another 11 hours of driving to get to the Gayo highlands surrounding the placid Lake Tawar. Takengon, the city by the lake, is the headquarters of the Gayo people, an ethnicity which has a rich cultural heritage and long history. The Gayo have farmed and fished these highlands for thousands of years, and have their own language, culture, and traditions. It’s a beautiful land – rolling mountains lined with farms and topped with forests, and Gayo villages nestle along the steep, winding roads of this country. This is coffee land – about 90 percent of the Gayo people’s income comes from coffee growing and export.
I’m here to visit our partners, the Gayo Organic Coffee Cooperative, and their leader and exporter, Mr. Irham. Irham is a special person – he has been working in coffee in this area his whole life, growing up collecting coffee from local farmers, driving it down to the port city of Medan, and selling it to exporters. Doing this, he gained the respect and trust of the local farmers, and, about 4 years ago, after the tragic Acehnese civil war ended, Irham was able to start exporting coffee himself. We got the tip and began buying coffee directly from him. In the meantime, Irham led the formation of the Gayo Organic Coffee Cooperative, a democratic cooperative of organic coffee farmers.
As we continued to buy the cooperative’s coffee, we wound up discovering something special – coffee Irham marked “Jagong” was distinct from the rest, with a cleaner, more delicious flavor. Turns out, Jagong is a washing station in the valley of the same name, and I visited for the first time in 2007. It was an amazing find – most coffee here is processed casually on the roadsides. The Jagong mill, on the other hand, is a truly artisanal mill where farmers bring their cherry for crafting. The motto of the Jagong Mill “Jagalah Kebershian” which means “keep it clean” is a perfect descriptor for the mill – it’s a completely unique place in the Sumatran highlands – a place where coffees are fully fermented and washed before wet-hulling and drying.
The Jagong mill was apparently built as something as an experiment by the Dutch, trying to develop better, more consistent coffees from the area. During the Achenese war, the mill was abandoned, and Irham was able to negotiate a purchase – so the Jagong mill is now owned by the Gayo Organic Coffee Association, and we are the main buyers of this coffee. In the confusing and chaotic landscape that is coffee from the Gayo highlands, I’ve come to consider this mill and its coffee – grown in the surrounding valleys and washed in Jagong – the treasure of the Gayo mountains.
So, of course, Jagong was the first stop on our trip here, and I was also out to solve another mystery: this year, our favorite coffee was marked Atu Lintang. Was this another Jagong? Since Irham speaks no English and I no Gayo, email was no help. I finally figured it out on my first day here – Atu Lintang is the name of the valley right next to the Jagong valley, and the Atu Lintang farmers bring their coffee to Jagong for processing. Jagong wins again! See what I mean about something special? I was therefore able to concentrate my travels on these two valleys. Trekking around was made easier because the roads have been much improved this year – the trip from Takengon which used to take 3 hours now takes an easy one-and-a-half!
I am filled with respect for the farmers of Jagong and neighboring valleys. The Gayo have a reputation for being extraordinary devout and hard-working, and they are fiercely protective of their culture and heritage. Every farmer knows that this coffee is special, and that it is unique to these highlands. Local legend says that this was the very first place in Sumatra where coffee was planted, and I believe it. These are still the spice islands, as well, and farmers grow cinnamon and cloves on their farms, along with fruit trees like tangerine, snakefruit, and the famous spiky durian. Irham and the farmers have been working harder in recent years, focusing on cherry ripeness. Ripeness, of course, means sweetness, and we’ve indeed noticed that the sweetness of Jagong coffee has increased in the past few years. We spent time discussing how Counter Culture can support further forays into coffee perfection, and we're working on some very special coffees from these farms. Stay tuned for that.
I’ve also had a great time traveling with Irham and his family. Tragically, Irham’s brother, confidant, and partner died suddenly last year, and this has been tough on Irham and the cooperative. Luckily, Irham’s two children, Andi and Ina, were ready to start taking some responsibility. It’s charming to see serious, stern Irham gently showing his children the details of the coffee trade. Andi now sits as the cooperative’s president, and 24-year-old Ina has moved by herself to the big city of Medan to tend to the coffee exports. It’s a big responsibility, but she is ready for it, and she’s especially excited to take coffee quality to new heights in the next generation. It’s exciting and it makes me so happy to be laying the groundwork for a durable relationship in Aceh – a place that has known so much instability. “We work together to improve quality,” Ina said to me in English first thing yesterday morning, a phrase which she had clearly been practicing.
Anyway, I’ve got tons of notes and have been making lots of plans. After 4 days in the highlands, we made the 11-hour drive back to Medan yesterday, and will spend today visiting the dry mills and port facilities. Then, this afternoon, we fly to Java for the next leg of the trip. Yes, you read correctly, Java. I’ll tell you all about it next week.
Meanwhile, I miss you all. See you soon.