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Five things Bright Java wants you to know about Indonesian coffee

Indonesia is much more than a cup of earthy wet-hulled Sumatra. Discover the diverse flavour profiles being produced by young and forward-thinking co-operatives.

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When most roasters and green buyers think of Indonesian coffee they think about wet-hulled Sumatra. Musty, earthy, spicy, tobacco-y… Some love it, others can’t stand it. But “Indonesia is not Sumatra”, says Troy Kiper of Bright Java Coffee, a small company partnering with co-operatives to make roasters and consumers fall in love with the country and its diversity. “There are many origins in Indonesia when it comes to the flavour profile. They are all different and we need to give them a chance!”.

Bright Java is based in Central Java, the most populated of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands. As more than 90% of the country’s coffee is grown by smallholders, the company’s work consists of finding the co-operatives whose leadership is young, innovative and forward-thinking. “Coffee is sexy for young Indonesians. It’s cool to sit in a café with a V-60 and drink the latest carbonic maceration”, Troy says. “Usually, these kids come from farming backgrounds but start in coffee as consumers. Then they think: ‘Well, my dad grows coffee. Why can’t we do that?’”.

We spoke with Troy about the status of the coffee sector in Indonesia and how Bright Java is making things different. Here are the key things their team would like you to know about Indonesian coffee:

1. First things first: what is the wet-hulled method?

Wet-hulled is the traditional processing method developed in Indonesian for commodity-grade coffee and results in this quality’s unique flavour profile: full-bodied, low in acidity, herbal and spicy with notes of chocolate and butterscotch. Despite its reputation, it is possible to find good wet-hulled coffee scoring above 80 points on the SCA scale. 

Unlike fully washed coffee, which is hulled when the parchment reaches 11-12% moisture content, wet-hulled beans have the parchment removed at 30%-50% moisture content. The hulling might not happen for days, leaving the beans to ferment inside the parchment. They will then finish drying on patios.

This processing method is used because it’s fast. According to Troy, it gives farmers a product to sell one month after picking. This speed is desirable not only because of money but due to the archipelago’s unstable weather conditions, prone to heavy storms and high levels of humidity.

Finally, wet-hulled coffee requires a special hulling machine, the most common being the Dutch-designed Kemajuan. It needs a lot of friction to remove the parchment from the seed, which is swollen. The excess pressure can crush the beans, resulting in a higher than average percentage of defects if not done carefully.  

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2. What do other Indonesian coffees taste like?

Sumatra has a heavy body with notes of chocolate and spices. The chocolatey aftertaste is a signature of this region. It can also taste smokey, like sweet tobacco.
South Sulawesi is floral, sweet and fruity. The subregion of Toraja produces great acidity and more complex flavours. For Bright Java, Toraja is one of the best growing regions.
Central Java is clean, spicy, lemony with a refreshing touch and a chocolatey aftertaste. Bright Java focuses on three “subregions”: Mount Merbabu (producing sweet, citric and floral naturals), Upper-Banjarnegara (also known as Baratas, which can taste from sweet bread and brown sugar to tropical fruits and candy), and Sumbing-Sindoro (where they produce the fruity yeast fermented Parikesit Anaerobic Honey).
West Java resembles Sumatra with less acidity and cedar notes but it can also be fruity and sweet.
Bali is similar to Central Java with a citric profile and spicy undertones.
Flores is known for its complexity and balance. It has a rich aroma, buttery body and a delicate flavour with hints of florals.

3. What are coffee farmers in Indonesia like?

“No one in Indonesia needs to grow coffee", Troy starts. He explains that given the small size of a farmer’s plot they usually grow a variety of crops. The weather is so good in the archipelago that if coffee doesn’t pay well they can just abandon the trees and cultivate something else. According to Troy, most farmers are not professionalised like in other countries: “Many just happen to have coffee in the middle of tobacco and cauliflower”.

This is one of the reasons why there is a premium on Indonesian coffee, even for commodity-grade beans. “Some co-operatives have to buy everything a farmer delivers, even the worse qualities, so they don’t stop producing altogether”. Troy explains that yields are low and quality can be low because most farmers only care about today. “Coffee has potential but it needs time”. The people behind specialty coffee today have to be passionate about their work.

One such example is Eko Trisnanto, Bright Java’s farmer relations manager. Around 18 months after joining the company, Eko asked to help his wife’s family in Toraja, Sulawesi. Aware of Eko’s dedication, Troy sent him to Toraja to take charge of the family’s post-harvest. “When the samples came, we started investing more in them because the coffee was so good! He works his fingers to the bone... His fully washed was one of the best out of Sulawesi this year”, Troy tells us.

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4. How is the supply chain? Why is the coffee expensive?

Indonesia is the 4th largest coffee producer in the world. Around 75% is robusta. Most of the arabica, the remaining 25%, is grown in the island of Sumatra, where the market is driven by big exporters and multinational importers. “These big players orders hundreds of containers a year. They run out of Medan, the big harbour in Sumatra”, Troy explains.

“The big exporters travel around the region of Lake Toba to collect wet parchment or gabah. Other islands, like Flores and Bali, never had a market. What used to happen – and still does – is that these buyers travel further when they need to fulfil big orders. They buy everything and sell as Sumatra”. 

Troy also says that the demand for wet-hulled coffee driven by big buyers is so great that it puts a premium on all Indonesian beans regardless of quality. This is why the archipelago’s coffee tends to be more expensive when compared to other producing countries. The problem with the current model is that even if small producers get paid more than the C price one year, the lack of a consistent market threatens their production.

5. How is Bright Java different?

“When I first came to Indonesia, I felt uncomfortable in my work here”, Troy remembers. “I was a newcomer trying to change what people have been doing for generations. 'What could I bring to them?' I asked myself”. Today, looking back at years of work, he understands that being a newcomer is an advantage. “I bring passion. I want to see smallholder Indonesian coffee out there with the likes of Ethiopia Guji Shakiso!”.

If farmers can’t afford to think long-term because they need cash, Troy brings it upon himself and his team to look beyond the daily struggles. “We have to show them the future. Make that farmer stand out like an origin in itself. Ensure that their unique cup profile isn’t lost in the mass of a container of so-called Sumatra”.

Bright Java has been investing in young co-operatives and finding markets for their coffees year-on-year to show farmers that coffee can be a profitable crop.

Troy's story

In Mount Merbabu, Central Java, it seems to be working. “In those villages, people processed coffee in front of their houses. Small volumes. In 2017, we bought all that was good, roasted and sold locally. Then we put all the profit back into that community. Only 15 families wanted to work with us but by 2020, with better processing and premium prices, 80% of the village joined us”.

The exporter’s payment model varies from co-op to co-op and depends on how they buy coffee (in cherry or parchment). Some groups get the local asking price followed by a bonus based on the cup quality and sales price. Others get investment to improve quality and are rewarded when that happens. “For one farmer I pay more than anyone should. He works really well and it helps locally because he goes around to other producers and rubs it in their noses”, Troy laughs.

Bright Java can give roasters that partner with them the full price breakdown and total traceability on all coffees. As they put it on their website, “there are too many people in the coffee business in Indonesia trying to make a quick profit with no care for long-term relationships” and “almost everyone has a story of being burned in business here”. As a result, most buyers end up ordering only from the big exporters in Medan, perpetuating the current system. “Bright Java fills the gap” by processing clean and consistent coffees that will make roasters want to come back. 

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