Indonesian Coffee Beans: From Java to Sumatra

Recently in the supermarket, I picked up a bag of rather non-descript Indonesian coffee beans. I checked the country of origin only to find a selection of three countries' coffee beans: Brazilian beans, of course; Vietnam coffee beans, and Indonesian beans. This shouldn't have been surprising, because after all...

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Indonesian is the fourth largest producer of coffee in the world. And Indonesian coffee beans are some of the best beans on earth. Its climate and soil are nearly ideal for the coffee beans grown in Sumatra, Java, Bali and Sulawesi (I'll add more on these separate districts soon).

European origins

Indonesian coffee beans were first grown in the 18th century when Indonesia was dominated by the Dutch, who introduced coffee plants to the northern part of the country. The first coffee beans grown there were Arabica coffee beans, but much of the crop was later destroyed by a coffee plant fungus  nicknamed Coffee Rust.

A different variety of coffee bean came to dominate coffee growing in Indonesia called Coffea canephora, though resistant to the disease, tends to be much more bitter, partly due its processing method. Arabica is still grown, of course, and much of the Indonesian coffee beans find their way onto international markets, too.

Most Indonesian coffee beans are semi-washed, which gives the bean more of the body and character that make the coffee so appealing. The green seed with the parchment shell is slightly dried then the outer layer is removed. The bean is pale, almost white, and swollen; the drying is then completed in the sun and the bean turns dark green.

Sumatran Coffee

One of the most popular Indonesian coffees is from the island of Sumatra; most Sumatra coffee is grown inland, you'll find this, the sweetest, cleanest of Indonesian coffee beans, are grown in the western part of the country and marked "Gayo Mountain".

Java Coffee

The coffee of Java is grown mostly on the Ijen Plateau on large estates. This coffee has a heavy body and is sweet and sometimes rustic with a lasting finish. Java coffee is often blended with coffee from Yemen, producing the traditional Mocca Java blend.

Some of the estates age some of their beans for a few years until the green beans turn light brown. This reduces acidity and strengthens the flavor; these coffees are called Old Java, Old Brown or Old Government.

Bali Coffee

The island of Bali is a beautiful and romantic vacation destination but also grows some wonderful coffee on the plateau of Kintamani, which lies between the Batukaru and Agung volcanoes. The beans are processed using the wet method and the resulting Bali coffee has a soft body and sweet flavor with citrus notes.

Sulawesi Coffee

On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, coffee is grown in an area called Tana Toraja high in the mountainous areas. This island is over 100 million years old, giving the soil a high iron content that contributes to the flavor of the coffee produced. You can recognize coffee from Sulawesi by its spicy notes, sweetness and smooth finish. Most of the wet-processed Sulawesi coffee is grown by individual farmers rather than large estates.

East Timor Coffee

After independence from Indonesia, local farmers working in cooperatives have produced much of the East Timor coffee. Though production is limited, the growth of coffee farming is one of the bright spots for this new nation. Interestingly, much of the crop is organic, too, and the cooperatives receive a lot of help from international organizations, and even Starbucks.

Kopi Luwak

The most expensive beans you can find are the Kopi Luwak coffee beans from Indonesia. The Luwak (otherwise known as the Asian Palm Civet) as it is called in Indonesia eats the raw red coffee cherries and subsequently excretes them to be gathered by the locals. The beans are still covered by inner layers of the cherry and are carefully washed and sanitized.

The TimeLife had a great series of pictures that described the journey of coffee from poop to cup (the original link: " now no longer works). It was worth checking out the pictures to see how coffee beans are turned into your favorite drink! Update: I can't find the resource at the moment, and have removed the embedded slideshow. Sorry!

The locals pick up the partially digested 'cherries' and sell them to coffee bean dealers who in turn sell them on the open market.

It is thought that the Luwak’s stomach enzymes are responsible for the unique flavor of this coffee, which sells for as much as $100 a cup in some countries.

There is only limited production of this bean, though some coffee farmers have attempted to 'farm' the civets for coffee production.

Sulawesi Toraja Coffee Processing

The following video shows how the famous Toraja coffee from Sulawesi is processed. It's quite educational as a slideshow.

With such variety in the regions, varietals, and estates, you'll be sure to find some great coffee beans from either Sumatra or Java. Why not try to choose one of the stronger and more flavorful coffees in your cup?

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