BREWING A CLEAN IMAGE © Duncan Graham 2006
Expats may thirst for their home brews but most find Indonesian pilsners an excellent substitute. Beer originated in chilly Europe, so how is it made in the tropics? Duncan Graham reports from the nation’s most modern brewery in Mojokerto, East Java:
Every morning at 9 o’clock Rob Kwaijtaal and four colleagues sit down in a laboratory to confront several glasses of beer.
It’s clearly an onerous task and it takes time. The atmosphere’s convivial but serious. They’re there to sip, not swig – and their judgements on flavor, colour, texture, smell and taste have to be recorded and compared.
“It’s a subjective process,” admitted Kwaijtaal, the Bintang Brewery manager. “But our tasters are well trained and their results cross checked against others. Their decision-making is constantly evaluated here and in the Netherlands.
“Samples are taken randomly at several points in the production chain.
“They’re also tasting the water because that forms 90 per cent of the product. And we’re also measuring everything scientifically, including the time it takes for the foam to collapse.” (Ideally this should be 250 seconds.)
Bintang is a subsidiary of the giant Dutch brewer Heineken that claims to be the world’s major beer exporter, selling to 180 countries.
The Mojokerto brewery is one of two owned by Bintang (the Indonesia word for star). The old East Java brewery, first opened in Surabaya in 1931 with sections still standing, was replaced by the new factory nine years ago.
At the time it employed state-of- the-art technology and is still a model of automation and efficiency.
Mojokerto, about 90 minutes drive south west of the East Java capital, was chosen for the quality and quantity of its ground water drawn from six deep wells.
Unlike many Indonesian industrial sites the brewery doesn’t have scores of workers hanging around every machine. There are only 115 employees working three shifts so there are seldom more than 40 people on site at any one time. Ninety per cent are Muslim. (See sidebar).
Instead the brewing process is monitored by sensors linked to computers. Staff sit in air-conditioned comfort checking whether tanks are full and the fermenting process proceeding properly without leaving their screens.
It takes up to three weeks to make a pilsner. After packaging the bottles and kegs are kept in quarantine for four days to ensure the beer is free of microorganisms.
The plant can produce 80 million litres a year and is working at almost full capacity. (A bottle holds 0.62 of a litre.) Bintang claims 70 per cent of the Indonesian market.
“Sales are going up and tend to be linked to improvements in the economy,” said Indah Soelistyawati, the company’s marketing director.
“More than 20 per cent of our beer goes to Bali. The second market is East Java, then Jakarta. We also export a few cases to Malaysia and Singapore – even Japan, a nation fanatical about quality.
“Beer sales are a good barometer of the country’s fiscal health. If times are good people want to drink beer and be happy.
“We’re proud to be promoting Indonesia and creating work. Our product is strongly linked to tourism.”
The market is wide open. Less than three per cent of Indonesians drink alcohol and the consumption figures hardly cause a blip on the world scale. Annually Germans drink about 125 litres of beer per person and the Dutch 80 litres.
In Indonesia about one bottle per person is drunk every year.
Beer prices vary across the archipelago, but it’s often possible to buy a bottle in supermarkets for around Rp 10,000 – just over one US dollar. Seventy per cent of the price goes to the government in taxes.
The raw products used to make beer are an international mix. The malt comes from South Australia and Europe the yeast from Holland. No chemicals or sugar are added and the alcohol is generated naturally through the fermentation process.
The old European methods of beer making with big wooden troughs of mash exposed to the elements and subject to weather changes don’t operate at the Mojokerto brewery.
The fermentation goes on in sealed stainless tanks, heated or cooled as required. Climate is not a factor.
The Mojokerto brewery only makes Bintang and the soft drink Green Sands. The West Java brewery at Tangerang also produces Heineken and Guinness.
Kwaijtaal firmly denied the popular rumor that a bottle of Heineken bought in Indonesia is really a Bintang with a different label and higher price.
“The brewing process is entirely different,” he said. “Special fermenting vessels were installed about two years ago. Before that Heineken was imported from Singapore.
“There’s no way the two can be mixed. Nor can you tell by taste whether a Bintang has been made in Mojokerto or Tangerang. The only difference is the code on the label.”
The Mojokerto brewery is well landscaped in a magnificent setting, with Mount Arjuno prominent in the background. For important guests there’s a cosy bar with all the fittings to make an expat feel comfortable including – of course – draught beer.
“If visitors see nature and a clean, green environment they associate these qualities with our beer,” said Kwaijtaal.
“We want drinkers to have the best so we check the whole supply chain. We’re helping restaurants learn how to serve beer properly and at the right temperature. That means no ice, a clean cold glass ant a temperature just below 10 degrees.
“We’re fanatical about quality. A fantastic product can be ruined if it’s served in dirty surroundings.”
HALAL OR HARAM?
Although beer is not labelled halal (allowed) in Indonesia, nor is it haram (forbidden) to Muslims according to the straw poll of Muslims interviewed for this story. They say the religious prohibition is on abusing the drink and getting drunk.
Liberal Muslims joke that because beer is only five per cent alcohol they can drink because they’re only 95 per cent Islamic.
While the image of beer in the West is benign and linked to friendly socialising, in Indonesia alcohol is sometimes associated with criminality and immorality. It’s also saturated in myths. Some believe one mouthful makes you drunk, and confuse beer with wine and spirits.
When the more simplistic sinetrons (TV soap operas) show bad characters they usually pose unshaven actors with long hair swigging beer while plotting evil.
Brothels in Surabaya openly advertise and sell their clients beer, perhaps to dampen their ardour. Alcohol is popularly supposed to be a sexual stimulant, but the reality is otherwise, as the madams doubtless know.
As Shakespeare observed: “It provokes the desire but it takes away the performance. Therefore much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him and it mars him.” This is the condition popularly known as ‘brewer’s droop’.
(First published in The Jakarta Post Friday 3 March)