Indonesian Coffee: Exploring Its Rich History and Continuing Importance

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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How did Indonesian coffee become the king of specialty coffees worldwide? Let's explore the over 400-year history of these delicious, diverse coffees.

How did Indonesian coffee become the king of specialty coffees worldwide? Let’s explore the over 400-year history of these delicious, diverse coffees.

Indonesia is famous for its breathtaking landscapes and rich cultural heritage. It also stands tall as one of the world’s finest coffee producers.

Since Dutch colonists brought Arabica coffee to the island of Java in the 17th Century, the region’s terrain, rich volcanic soils and favorable climate ensured a world-class coffee-growing environment. Since then, Indonesian coffee has become a global player in the coffee industry.

In this post, I’ll explore how this Asian coffee industry came to be. I’ll cover where coffee grows in the country, what makes it so special and the future of Indonesian coffee.

So, grab your favorite mug of fresh-brewed java (excuse the pun) and join me on this incredible journey exploring the fascinating world of Indonesian coffee.

A Brief History of Coffee Production In Indonesia

The Dutch East India Company introduced Mocha Java Arabica coffee beans to Indonesia in the 17th Century.

Pieter van den Broecke, a Dutch colonial administrator, stole the first Mocha Java Arabica coffee plants from coffee plantations in Mocha, Yemen, and took them to Amsterdam.

Coffee Cherries for Civet Cat to Eat

Unfortunately, the climate was unsuitable for commercial-scale coffee growing in the Netherlands. So, the Dutch exported this Arabica coffee plant to the island of Java, in what was then known as the Dutch East Indies.

They began coffee cultivation on the Kedawoeng Estate in Batavia (now Jakarta). However, repeated floods and other unfavorable weather conditions caused this first plantation to fail.

Fortunately, these tenacious Dutch settlers didn’t give up, instead planting coffee seeds at higher altitudes. On the third attempt, they established successful Arabica coffee plantations. As it happens, this Mocha Java Arabica variety thrives in the ideal climate and rich, volcanic soils.

These first Indonesian coffee beans were a favorite in the European markets due to their delicate taste, low acidity and complex flavor profile. As a result, a booming Indonesian coffee export economy flourished during the Dutch colonial period.

Global Trading of Indonesian Coffees in the 18th Century

A decade after establishing the first coffee plantations on Java, the Dutch created Europe’s first botanical garden in 1638. Here, they planted Arabica coffee seeds and seedlings. As a result, lucrative commerce in these plants and beans enabled the Dutch to dominate Indonesian coffee production.

Consequently, in the 17th and 18th Centuries, Amsterdam became the world’s coffee capital. This progressive profitability incentivized the Dutch to establish further plantations in other areas – including Sumatra, Bali and Sulawesi – to meet the burgeoning demand.

Indonesian Coffee in the 19th Century

In 1830, the Dutch government further instituted Cultuurstelsel, an exploitative cultivation system requiring farmers to produce coffee for the Dutch Treasury. Indonesian historians refer to this colonial policy as tanam paksa (enforced planting).

Arabica Coffee Plants

Undoubtedly, this exploitative Dutch government policy increased the yield of coffee cherries on plantations and was a boon for Dutch coffee production in Indonesia. Still, the Dutch abolished the policy in 1870 after an outcry locally and in the Netherlands.

Another significant event was an outbreak of Coffee leaf rust disease among Arabica coffee plants in the late 19th Century. Coffee leaf rust devastated Mocha Java plantations, forcing farmers to switch to Robusta varieties, which were more resistant to the disease.

With the establishment of Robusta coffee trees, a new era of Indonesian coffee began. 

The lowland regions of Sumatra and other islands provided the ideal growing environment for this hardier varietal.

Coffee, Indonesia and the Growth of the Industry in the 20th Century

Indonesia’s coffee industry continued to develop well into the 20th Century. This catapulted the best Indonesian coffees to greater prominence in the world market. Every growing region in the country began establishing and developing its own growing and processing techniques. This resulted in distinctive and varied flavor profiles.

Take, for instance, the processing of Sumatran coffees: the giling basah or wet hulling process. It involves pulling the parchment from the coffee beans while wet. This results in the full-bodied coffee with distinctive low acidity and earthy, dark chocolate notes for which Sumatra is famous.

After Indonesia gained independence from the Dutch in August 1945, the colonial authorities gave citizens the rights and ownership to develop existing coffee Indonesia estates. Individuals and homegrown commercial coffee companies began to grow the crop across the island of Java and beyond.

Indonesian Coffee Production Today

Today, Indonesian coffee brands are some of the best in the world. Indonesian coffees, such as Kopi Luwak, can command as much as $100 per cup and $500 per pound!

Kopi Luwak Cafe
Kopi Luwak Boycotter Cafe

Because of these lucrative prices, some farmers in the Indonesian islands cage Asian civet cats to produce this coffee. They force-feed them coffee cherries to cash in on this specialty coffee’s popularity, which is unethical to say the least.

Indonesia is one of the biggest coffee producers in the world, ranking 4th among the world’s top green coffee beans producers. It has a whopping 1.3 million hectares under cultivation, with smallholders owning and earning a livelihood from 99 percent of these farms. A total of 1.77 million Indonesians owe their livelihood to coffee.

Unlike other coffee-producing countries, Indonesia leads in domestic coffee consumption. This appeal is due to the coffee’s distinct earthy and sweet chocolate flavors and the extensive cultural tradition surrounding it.

Coffee shops or warungshave become a part of everyday life, maintaining long-standing coffee traditions and fostering social interactions. And ngopi yuk! which means “let’s have coffee!” is something you can expect to hear on the streets as standard.

Indonesian Coffee Growing Regions

New Guinea, Indonesian Coffee Regions

What we know as Indonesia comprises five main islands: Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Borneo (Kalimantan) and New Guinea. That said, there are over 18,000 smaller islands in the archipelago!

The humid climate and rugged terrain of these islands makes them ideal for growing coffee plants. Needless to say, Indonesian coffee is one of the country’s main exports, after oil and gas, minerals, crude palm oil and rubber products.

So where do we find coffee growing on the Indonesian islands? Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of some of the top coffee-producing regions within this Asian coffee powerhouse:

Sumatra Coffee

The largest Indonesian island, Sumatra, is a coffee paradise. Chances are, you’ve enjoyed coffee from wet processed Sumatra beans, seeing as they’re some of the most popular in the world.

The coffee trade prizes Sumatra coffees for their complex flavor profiles and low acidity. The island’s rich volcanic soils contribute to the coffee’s chocolatey, creamy and earthy tasting notes.

In addition, farmers use the unique wet hulling process during production known as gilingbasah. This wet hulling coffee processing technique ensures that Sumatran coffees maintain a full body with low acidity.

Java Coffee

Indonesian Java coffee cultivation occurs on five government-owned estates: Jampit, Blawan, Kayumas, Pancoer and Tugowari, all at 1300 meters above sea level. The high altitude is ideal for the growing of Mocha Java Arabica beans.

Java coffee is wet processed (washed). This processing technique results in Mocha Java blend flavor profiles very different from those found in wet-hulled Sumatra coffees.

Java coffees display a sweet and clean taste profile with a full body and low acidity. Hints of cloves, figs and molasses are often present.

Sulawesi Coffee

The Toraja highlands in South Sulawesi is where you’ll find most Sulawesi coffee. The rugged terrain makes growing coffee as high as 6000 meters above sea level possible. Growing at these higher altitudes helps give Toraja coffee a clean and smooth finish.

Overall, Sulawesi coffee tends to be on the lighter side of the spectrum but still has a distinctive creamy, nutty profile, low acidity and hints of fruit, chocolate and spice (think cinnamon, clove and cardamom).

Bali Coffee

What comes to mind when you hear of Bali? Naturally, sand, sea and a tropical paradise! Yet, many people don’t know that Bali is also famous for its coffee.

Farmers grow Bali coffee in the Kintaman islands between the Agung and Batukaru volcanoes. Like Flores coffee, the volcanic ash keeps soils rich and fertile; ideal for growing premium coffee.

Most farmers wash their beans during processing, producing a smooth, non-bitter coffee. Balinese coffee often displays complex flowery notes with hints of lemon, walnuts and chocolate. Yum!

Flores Coffee

Flores may be one of the smallest Indonesian islands, but it still packs a punch, producing some of the best Indonesian coffee. The town of Bajawa, lying at an altitude of between 1200 and 1800 meters above sea level, is where farmers grow most of their coffee.

Because this area has active and inactive volcanoes, the rich soils provide the perfect environment for growing organic coffee. It’s also one of the few places where you can still see the endangered Komodo dragon in its natural habitat.

The Future of Indonesian Coffee

Most Indonesian coffees are of the specialty variety, and this classification augurs well for the industry’s future. Still, major challenges exist that may affect the crop yields farmers may expect to realize.

Climate Change

The Indonesian islands contribute 5 percent of all the world’s coffee exports, increasing production from 5.7 million bags in 2009 – 2011 to an impressive 6.4 million bags in 2020 – 2021. However, the sector continues to face significant adverse effects of climate change.

Ethiopian Green

For example, 2022 saw a prolonged La Niña event, during which rainfall extended well into the December harvest season. For this reason, industry experts predict lower yields of Indonesian green coffee beans in 2023 – 2024.

Although this downturn may seem insignificant, we must remember that Indonesia is the fourth largest coffee producer in the world. This downturn will undoubtedly impact the production of similar coffees, notably Brazilian, Ethiopian and Kenyan coffees.

Still, the demand for Indonesian coffee, including Java coffees and Sumatra coffees, should remain high on the world market. I predict that organic coffee and specialty coffees from Indonesia, such as Gayo Mountain, Sumatra Mandheling and Kopi Luwak will continue to command decent prices.

The Evolution of Specialty Roasters

This is a good thing! If you enjoy dark roast coffee like I do, I know you’ll love Indonesian coffee! It pays to know that the country has some of the best roasters in the world. These specialty roasters make valuable contributions to the coffee sector. They enhance the reputation of Indonesian coffee beans worldwide as having superior quality and taste.

Roasting Coffee

Some of the top local roasters providing fresh roasted coffees include:

  • Anomali Coffee – Indonesia’s most well-known coffee chain, offering the country’s best and most sought-after coffees.

  • Giyanti Coffee – Famous roaster based in Jakarta offering single origins and coffee blends.

  • Smoking Barrels Coffee Roasters – modest roastery offering specialty Indonesian coffee as well as beans from around the world.

The Benefits of Direct Trade

A lack of direct trade opportunities means low earnings for most Indonesian coffee farmers. A 2019 Financial Times article I read explained how bad the situation is: for every $3 cup of coffee, only $0.15 goes to the farmer! This discriminatory system prevents many farmers from rising above the poverty level and limits their access to the market.

Income security is another benefit of direct trade, as it eliminates abrupt changes in demand and price from one season to the next.

Whether they’re selling Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra or other Indonesian coffees, these farmers have more license to negotiate prices. Direct trade will provide opportunities for farmers to rely on the long-term relationships they establish with buyers.

Final Thoughts

I hope this article has given you an appreciation of the historical journey that helped create the alluring and delicious Indonesian coffee.

From the lush plantations of Sumatra to the fertile regions of Java, Indonesian coffee has captured the hearts of coffee lovers worldwide with its unmatched variety, complexity and timelessness.

Have you ever tasted Indonesian coffee? What are your thoughts on these high-quality Asian coffee beans?I would love to hear from you! Please feel free to share your thoughts about Indonesian coffee in the comments section.

Indonesian Coffee FAQ

Indonesian coffee is of excellent quality! These delicious coffee beans have a deep, earthy flavor. They also have undertones of spice, wood and tobacco, and a long-lasting finish with distinctive dark chocolate notes. 

The most famous and widely consumed coffee in Indonesia is Kopi Tubruk. To make Kopi Tubruk, pour a cup of hot water over three tablespoons of fine ground coffee without any filter. Stir well to combine and then steep for a few minutes, allowing the grounds to settle. The Balinese call Kopi Tubruk, Kopi Selem (black coffee), so remember to order it this way if you find yourself on the island!

Indonesian coffee is also called Kopi Luwak. This specialty coffee originates in Bali and is famous for its unique and complex flavor notes. It comes from beans that the Asian palm civet cat eats and defecates. Wild Kopi Luwak coffee can consist of Arabica, Robusta or Liberica beans; it all depends on which coffee cherry tastes best to the cats. 

Indonesia’s humid tropical climate, rugged terrain and rich volcanic soils make it the perfect place to grow Robusta and Arabica coffee beans.

Kopi Luwak is expensive because of its unique and complex flavor notes. Its production is also labor-intensive. This coffee comes from coffee beans the Asian palm civet cat has partially digested and excreted. The enzymes in the cat’s stomach subtly alter the composition of the coffee beans, resulting in a sultry, one-of-a-kind flavor profile.

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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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