Jakarta. Most coffee lovers, both those who frequent chain coffee shops and coffee snobs who seek the hippest hole-in-the-wall coffee bars all over the world, know that often the beans in their piccolos come from Indonesia – one of the world’s biggest coffee-producing countries.
What only a few of them know is that the history of coffee in Indonesia is tightly entwined with its colonial history, starting in the 17th century when the country was still known as the Dutch East Indies.
The Dutch introduced coffee to the archipelago, initially planting coffee trees around Batavia – Jakarta's colonial name – and then opening up bigger plantations in Bogor and Sukabumi in West Java during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Indonesia has the ideal geography to grow coffee since it is located so near the equator and has many mountainous regions which create the best microclimates for coffee trees to grow.
The head barista at Perguruan Kopi, a coffee shop nestled inside the Kibar building in Central Jakarta, Ivan Pratama, said the taste and texture – and of course quality – of coffee beans depend a lot on the climate in which they are grown, the farming and harvesting method, the processing and the roasting.
"Coffee seems deceptively simple to prepare but there is a long and complicated story before it ends up in your cup," Ivan said.
"Coffee from the same farm can taste dramatically different from one year to the next. This is what makes coffee special," he said.
In Indonesia, coffee is now grown primarily in Java, Sumatra, Bali and Sulawesi.
Sumatran coffee is perhaps the most famous of all Indonesian coffee varieties, thanks to its smooth and sweet body and intense yet well-balanced flavor.
When you get your flat white from a major chain coffee shop, chances are that the coffee will be Sumatran.
Flores in the Mix
But other regions in Indonesia have been growing coffee as well, and one that has been enjoying a bit of success lately is Flores in East Nusa Tenggara.
Flores is an island 200 miles to the east of Bali. It has rugged terrains with numerous active volcanoes. Ashes from volcanic eruptions on the island have created especially fertile andosols – the highly porous, dark-colored soils ideal for organic coffee production.
Flores' Arabica coffee is grown at a height of 1,200 meters to 1,800 meters on the island. Most of it is grown under shade trees and wet-processed right there on the farms.
The location where it is grown and the processing method gives Flores Arabica a distinctive chocolatey, floral, woody taste.
Just like the coffee farmers of Sumatra, coffee pickers in Flores also use a processing method called "giling basah" (wet-hulling).
Before the hulling begins, farmers usually wait until some of the moisture has gone from the beans. Then they can begin the next drying stage.
Wet-hulling produces the greenish or bluish color of Flores coffee beans, which we also find in Sumatra beans.
In Jakarta, Sumatran coffee is still the choice of most baristas. But Flores coffee is quietly attracting a lot of ardent fans, who say wet-hulling allows the beans to develop unique flavor and aroma.
Ivan said Flores coffee tends to be less acidic, with a thick, heavy body. Its flavor has hints of wood and chocolate mixed with floral notes. You can't mistake Flores coffee for something else, Ivan said, it's distinctive and stands out from the rest.
It is also the darling of espresso enthusiasts, who claim the beans are best made into a delicious, single-origin espresso. The smokiness makes it the perfect base for a delicate, aromatic espresso cup.
"Some coffee beans are great for single-origin espressos while others need to be blended with other beans to taste good. Flores coffee, it tastes great just on its own," Ivan said.
Flores Coffee Variants
Sumatran coffee already has its famous Gayo and Mandailing variants, and currently Flores coffee also has two variants that people can't seem to get enough of: Manggarai Robusta and Bajawa Arabica.
In 2015, Manggarai Robusta was crowned Indonesia's best coffee at the annual Specialty Coffee Contest (KKSI).
Its unique but subtle flavor (with a note of fresh lemon no less) makes the Manggarai Robusta the perfect coffee to enjoy both on its own or mixed with other coffee beans.
Aside from coffee, Flores' Manggarai district is also famous for producing vanilla, chocolate and cloves.
Meanwhile, the greenish, sometimes bluish Bajawa Arabica beans – grown and processed in the island's mountainous Ngada district – possess subtle, earthy notes of wood, chocolate and tobacco.