A Cup of Java

November 18, 2014 frvtravel

Rarely have I been so excited about a smell, an extraordinary-yet-familiar smell that I’ve relished many, many times before, but never in my life has this aroma hit my scent receptors with such a potent intensity. I’m at Sanggar Genjah Arum in the quiet, green village of Kemiren, East Java, watching coffee beans being hand-roasted in the old, traditional way. By Rachel Love

As you step through the gates of Genjah Arum, workshop and coffee house of Pak Setiawan “Iwan” Subekti, you enter a realm of history dating back more than a hundred years. Kemiren Village, on the slopes of Mt Ijen, ten kilometres from Banyuwangi, is home to an ethnic community known as the Osingnese – the original occupants of this eastern-most area of Java – who are regarded to have maintained their original lifestyle, traditions and culture of dance, farming, handcrafting and weaving. Pak Iwan, a coffee plantation manager and expert coffee taster, is unrelenting in his efforts to promote coffee and the Osing culture to the world.

He constantly welcomes visitors and coffee aficionados to his coffee house to witness traditional coffee processing methods, or watch demonstrations of plantain-fibre fabric weaving and traditional music performances, while tasting rich and exceptional samples of coffee. The property also showcases some antique Osing timber houses, which Iwan has been collecting since 1997 with the aim of keeping them in the area and saving them from being sold to foreigners or Balinese craftsmen to be recycled into luxury furniture. The open-sided buildings are filled with a wonderful assortment of Osing ornaments and vintage coffee roasting and brewing paraphernalia. Iwan maintains that he doesn’t do this for business purposes, “I just want to teach people more about coffee and invite them to enjoy it for free.”

Click to view slideshow.

Coffee was introduced to Java in the 17th century by the Dutch East India Company, which was seeking to break the worldwide Arab monopoly on the coffee trade. The massive 822-hectare plantation, which Iwan manages on the slopes of Ijen near Kalibento was established by Dutch colonialists in the late 1800s.

Today, I’m on a mission to learn more about coffee processing, so Iwan’s staff are demonstrating the age-old method, which begins with the freshly-picked cherries being spread out on a concrete pad to dry in the sun. This drying process, which involves raking and turning throughout the day, can continue for several weeks until the moisture content of the bean is approximately 11%. Next, the dried cherries are hulled by hand to remove the dried outer fruit layer and the parchment that covers the bean. The remaining product is the green-hued coffee beans; these can last for years if stored in the correct conditions.

kopi luwak is a unique product with a history that goes back to the mid-nineteenth century.

Moving into Iwan’s roasting room, I watch the hand-roasting process, which utilises a traditional clay pan over an open wood fire. It’s essential that the beans are kept moving throughout the entire process to keep them from burning. After about ten minutes, as the sugars that are naturally contained within the beans are caramelised, the beans release the first aromatic substances – the volatile aromas of coffee are made up of over 700 of these! Then, as the minutes go by and the temperature continues to rise, I observe a colour change that goes from golden to amber to dark brown. Under the effect of the heat, the water has evaporated and the sugars and tannins have disappeared; the grain has swollen in size by 60%, releasing a gas, which produces a crackling sound, and this is the point where I become ecstatic about that incredible aroma.

And so, I spend the rest of the afternoon drinking the stuff. What also excites me is the opportunity to sample some of Iwan’s prized 100% wild ‘kopi luwak’, a unique product with a history that goes back to the mid-nineteenth century when the native farmers and plantation workers were prohibited by the Dutch from harvesting coffee for their own use. Interestingly, they discovered a remarkably unconventional way in which to taste the produce.

Fortunately for the coffee-pickers, the crop was also in high demand among the local ‘luwak’ (Asian palm civet cat) population. These nocturnal animals were long regarded as pests because they would climb the coffee trees and eat only the reddest ripest berries, bean and all. Outside of the coffee plantation, on the forest floor, there were always specific places where the civet would defecate as a means to mark its territory, and these ‘latrines’ would be a predictable place for local gatherers to find and collect the droppings, which contained the still-intact beans. So the farmers and coffee-pickers collected and cleaned these undigested beans, and then roast, ground and brewed the coffee. The fame of aromatic civet coffee spread from the locals to the Dutch plantation owners and soon became a Dutch favourite, yet because of its rarity and unusual process, the kopi luwak was expensive even in colonial times. A century-and-a-half later, someone somewhere along the way decided to market this coffee as an exotic product.

Kopi luwak is, of course, a form of processing rather than a variety of coffee, and its distinctive full-bodied yet mellow, smooth flavour is due to the fermentation process that takes place in the animal’s stomach. Premium wild kopi luwak comes from the freshest droppings, surprisingly not in the least bit pungent but disconcertingly reminiscent of peanut crunch bars.

Now that kopi luwak is being marketed and sold as a luxury good and for its novelty factor, supply can’t meet demand and the traditional method of collecting droppings from wild civets has given way to intensive farming methods. The imbalance between the estimates of how much authentic kopi luwak is being produced and the amount that is being sold each year under this name has led many buyers and those in the industry to question the integrity of this coffee.

Genuine kopi luwak from wild civets is difficult to buy in Indonesia, disreputable vendors purchase beans from unregulated sources and there is no enforcement regarding the use of the name, so we have no way of knowing whether the kopi luwak we purchase in the supermarkets or drink in the coffee shops is the real deal, but what we do know is that it will almost certainly have come from farmed animals. I therefore feel very privileged this sunny afternoon to be sharing a deliciously wild and rare brew with Pak Iwan and our good friend Pak Aekanu.

If you’re in the Banyuwangi area and would like to visit Pak Iwan’s coffee house at Kemiren, please contact Mr Aekanu Hariyono, cultural representative for the Banyuwangi Tourist Department: aekanuhari@gmail.com

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