From the Field

Monday, November 18, 2019

Coffee Production in Indonesia

We are always excited to see our new crop Indonesian coffees land. This year is no exception, and the coming weeks will bring some standout, sparkling profiles to our shores. Can’t wait? Don’t worry! In the meantime, we’ve spoken to Sucafina’s own Bavo Vandenbroecke, who’s in charge of some of our Indonesian coffee programs about some of the unique and interesting hallmarks of coffee production in Indonesia.

Bavo joined us in 2018 and soon became the first on the team to work on a comprehensive Indonesia partnership strategy. Working alongside Daniel Shewmaker, Manager Indonesia and East Timor for Sucafina, Bavo traveled to Indonesia for the first time this past January to meet producers, cooperatives and other people involved in the supply chain face-to-face.  

What are the specific farming practices unique to Indonesia? 

Well they do everything a little bit differently, I would say. 

Obviously, they’re known for the wet hulled, or giling basah process, which started, generally speaking, at the end of the 1970s in Lintong, North Sumatra. It became popular amongst coffee producers because smallholders were and are facing specific challenges in the region. Coffee had a long distance to travel. Most of all, there were very difficult drying conditions with unexpected fogs coming in fast, very little sun and sporadic rainfall. Additionally, farmers were keen on getting quick cash. So farmers started processing differently. They pick coffee, pulp it and put it in a tank or in barrels. They use agitation to wash off the mucilage the next day before drying the coffee for one day or even just a couple of hours until they get a moisture content between 25 and 50 percent. It ranges depending on the quality. Then they sell that as wet parchment to a local processor, a collector, or even straight to an exporter who then mills the beans to remove the parchment and dry them until they reach about 12 percent moisture content.  

Fully washed is similarly different from elsewhere. They don’t wash it the way they do it in East Africa, where it gets sorted through canals and such. Indonesia is very focused on hand sorting. 

What’s exciting about Indonesia right now is that more and more people are getting into fully washed coffees, honeys and naturals. They’re doing a really good job, even though the conditions are not easy. They have a lot of domes. These are a sort of greenhouse, largely made from bamboo or a local wood, which are covered with plastic. In the dome are drying tables, also called African beds. We’re seeing more and more quality coffees coming from these processes.  

What’s coffee farming life like for the average farmer?  

You’ve got a lot of weather pockets or microclimates in Indonesia, so depending on where you are, you either have one harvest or a continuous harvest or two harvests. It’s really all possible. Depending on the climate, the style of farming also varies.  

I’m going to reference Sumatra here, because Sumatra grows about 60% of all Indonesian coffee. It’s not everything, but its more than half.  

Almost all farms are very small, averaging between half a hectare to 2.5 hectares. Coffee is usually a cash crop for farmers. Farmers do a lot of intercropping, meaning they grow vegetables or maize or fruit alongside their coffee. 

People are trying to organize themselves more and more into cooperatives. That’s a cool thing to see. There are very few big farms so there’s not a lot of leverage to getting better coffee prices. Cooperatives can share resources, organize training and negotiate better prices.  

Tea is also a huge crop in the area. The bigger tea plantations are often near coffee farms. When the harvest is finished, coffee farmers will go there and pick leaves under contracted labor.  

How does the coffee supply chain work in Indonesia?  

In the old model, you usually have smallholder farms that would sell their wet or dry parchment. They would go to the market literally every day with the harvest from a few days before. They dry it really quickly and take it to their local market every day.  At their local market there’d be a broker, and that broker is either independent or connected to a dry mill, which has a collection station. So the farmer will either go to the collector or the local collection station. And then the dry mill, usually not in the area, will sort and process the coffee and then sell that coffee to the exporter, who will ready it for shipment.  

That’s becoming different now. We’re seeing fewer brokers. You see more and more the cooperatives taking over the whole production chain. The farmer will go and sell his coffee at the cooperative’s processing station as either cherry or parchment. The cooperative will have full control over the rest of the chain, as well. They will be in the processing and the sorting - and one day, hopefully, also the exporting but, in most cases, not yet. 

The farmer would be a member of that cooperative. The cooperative would commit to buying a certain volume from the farmer at an agreed price, meaning that the farmer knows beforehand what price he’s going to get for his coffee. That’s already a huge difference.  

Another difference is that the processing will now be done at a lot of different processing sites in the area near the farmer. The farmer not only does not have to travel that far, he can also be part of value addition through processing.  

What's coffee consumption like in Indonesia? 

It’s a booming market, I would say. In the last five years, domestic consumption really boomed. Suddenly a lot of people started to drink good coffee. But actually, I think the trigger was better roasters. Roasters - usually young people in cities like Bandung and Jakarta - started to see what their parents and grandparents were doing in terms of growing coffee and saw what a lot of people out there were doing in terms of quality and roasting. So the younger generation started to step up their game in terms of green coffee buying and roasting. And consumers followed.  

In general Indonesia’s economy is growing really fast. And coffee is following. 

What else should we know about coffee in Indonesia? 

I really think that because of where coffee in Indonesia has been for, like, the last 50 years, everybody associates Indonesian coffee with these woody and dull-tasting notes.  But I think people are getting kind of biased by expecting those notes. Yes, for a large part that’s inherent to the Indonesian profile, but it’s hugely changing, as well. So what we see and what we’re looking for are coffees that do not have that classic profile, do not have those brown spice or woody notes, but are actually very clean and bright and citrus-y and fruity. We see a lot of dark fruits and citrus or tropical note. Apart from the unique profiles Indonesian farmers have to offer, I believe these coffees can be a standout for roasters by impressing consumers and peers with the quality and background story of the coffee, knowing you are part of an incredibly interesting dynamic on the other side of the globe. The coffees we purchase and import are working really well on espresso and take you by surprise brewed on filter. We will see more and more Indonesian coffees appearing on menus and in competitions, I believe. 

Plus they are fully traceable and have a great story.  

I would say to people wanting to buy Indonesia coffee that it’s time to open up their minds and try to step away from their expectations. Try to cup again, start to taste, give the coffee a chance without having too much expectations.   

Answers have been edited for clarity. 

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