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More than just Kopi-cats: Indonesia’s taste for coffee

Coffee testing in Bali, photo, Likki Lee Pitzen
Coffee testing in Bali, photo, Likki Lee Pitzen

The bad news first: this article does not have anything to do with actual cats. The good news: Coffee-lovers, aficionados (aficionados, you know who you are) and everyone curious about Indonesia beyond the fact that it’s that country with Batik fashion, Julia Roberts looking for love, and the world’s biggest Muslim population, are finally considered here. This is for you.

Not to be misunderstood though: this is for everybody else, too, and you will be rewarded with four fabulous facts about coffee at the end.

This article is motivated by the observation of how, wandering around Java, Sumatra and Bali, one can get their hands on some of the world’s finest Arabica coffee beans distinctive in taste and quality, while seemingly all coffee consuming households, restaurants, shops and street food vendors are stocked with 3-in-1 instant coffee. Their labels promise “golden blend,” “rich flavor,” or “creamy taste” (making it almost unclear whether adding water will result in coffee or scotch whiskey),  but the  growing popularity of these sugary sachets mostly using low-grade Robusta coffee more likely stems from their convenience and affordability.

So how is it possible that the world’s third biggest producer of this aromatic commodity, also called “Java” by many Americans, has its own people get their caffeine from a beverage which contains more sugar, hydrogenated vegetable oil and skim milk powder than actual coffee?

If you think that this question is a bit loaded, simplistic and/or superficial and ask yourself what the difference between Robusta and Arabica, which coffee drinkers care so much about, actually is: thank you for being a critical reader.

Arabica (coffea arabica) and Robusta (coffea canephora) are the two main commercially consumed species of the coffea plant. The characterizing differences lie in taste, level of caffeine and growing conditions. Arabica beans grow in high altitudes with mild climate and are therefore mostly grown in the subtropical regions of Central and Latin America and Northeastern Africa. Milder in taste and lower in caffeine, Arabica beans are more expensive than Robusta and make up around 60%-70% of world production.

The more robust and resistant Robusta plants are grown in lower altitudes of warmer, more humid climate, making Southeast Asia (mostly Vietnam and Indonesia), India and West and Central Africa prime growth regions. Containing twice as much caffeine and a more bitter taste than Arabica beans, Robusta beans are cheaper in production and typically used in espresso and instant coffee.

Coffee bean production: R for robusta, A for arabica, and M for both species.
Coffee bean production: R for robusta, A for arabica, and M for both species.

With this background knowledge in mind it comes as no surprise that Robusta beans make up 80% of Indonesia’s coffee harvest, which is mostly exported. The large share of coffee going into exports (ca.70%) is strongly influenced by the low domestic demand, as Indonesians consume an average of 0.83 kg per person per year, whereas Swedes consume 7.1 kg of coffee compared to a literally staggering 12.1 kg in Finland. So, drinking coffee is less common in general, but Arabica coffee, as it is preferred by Europeans, is also less affordable in relative terms due to world market prices, which are hardly influenced by Indonesian consumers.

 Yet, coffee companies are eyeing the fast-growing markets for coffee products in Indonesia and its Asian neighbors. While more and more young urban professionals in Jakarta seek status in a cappuccino to-go with their name (mis)spelled on it, increasing instant coffee thirst across the country is a major driver for growth in the Asia-Pacific’s coffee industry.

Actually, taking the absence of a coffee-tradition in a habitually tea-drinking country like Indonesia into consideration, the rising popularity of instant coffee (rather than  100% Arabica dark roast with a nutty aftertaste) is reasonably expectable since according to Euromonitor “in newer coffee-drinking regions, instant coffee is appealing because of its ability to satisfy the needs of new coffee drinkers and their evolving tastes”.

Notably, 2014 has so far been a year of surging coffee-consumption in Indonesia due to two major events:  the presidential election, which saw free instant coffee available at polling stations and campaigning events, and the football world cup in Brazil, which had its enthusiastic Indonesian viewers getting all geared up with prawn crackers and iced coffee at 2am.

Now weighing all of the above, a fairly simple answer to the initial question of how soluble coffee mix products could be so dominant in a major coffee production country (obviously asked by someone who prefers that dark roast Arabica with the nutty aftertaste) could be: because people like it.

You have reached the end of this article. As promised, here are four coffee facts to casually drop in your next coffee break:

  1. Instant coffee mass production was invented by George Washington (1871-1946), an Anglo-Belgian immigrant to the U.S., who was not related to his presidential namesake.
  1. After oil, coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world.
  1. In total, there are an estimated 11 million hectares of farmland in the world dedicated to growing coffee, an area equivalent to the size of Bulgaria.
    Civets at a Kopi Luwak farm in Bali. Photo: Likki Lee Pitzen
    Civets at a Kopi Luwak farm in Bali. Photo: Likki Lee Pitzen
  2. Indonesia is the original home of the “Kopi Luwak”, often claimed as the “world’s most expensive coffee“. The exclusiveness of this coffee is borne by the beans’ processing by Luwaks, named civets in English and looking like the result of a cat’s love affair with a weasel, who have been found to eat coffee cherries and partially ferment the coffee beans in their gastrointestinal tract, so that the excreted beans have a distinctly different coffee taste. The judgment about this “cat poo coffee” is naturally left to everyone’s own experience, but it is worth considering the fact that the original advantage of the civet as a natural selector of the best beans is not relevant anymore since Kopi Luwak is nowadays mainly mass-produced on farms, where civets are caged and solely fed with coffee cherries. Further, tourists often gush over the mild and smooth taste of Kopi Luwak, which is ironically the greatest point of critique by experts in specialty coffee: The Specialty Coffee Association of America, SCAA concluded that “Luwak processing diminishes good acidity and flavor and adds smoothness to the body, which is what many people seem to note as a positive to the coffee.” Consequently, the price, which easily reaches 200 Euro per kg, derives from the ‘delicate’ story behind it rather than superior quality.

Likki Lee Pitzen

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