Problems brewing in coffee grounds
When the Tugu Hotel in Malang changed hands the manager suddenly died and the new owner had to take over.
“I didn’t know anything,” said Dr Wedya Julianti. “I’d been trained as a doctor. I had to learn management very fast. It was a stressful time.”
Whizz ahead two decades. The boutique hotel is now one of the most prestigious in the East Java city. The Tugu Group led by her husband, lawyer Anhar Setjadibrata, has expanded into hotels in other cities and a restaurant / art gallery in Menteng, Jakarta’s Embassy Row.
Recently added to the company portfolio is a coffee plantation. History then recycled; the manager died and Julianti (right) was again tossed into a business she knew little about.
“I questioned the people who’ve been working here for years but whose opinions were never sought,” she said. “They were politely waiting to be told what to do though they’re experienced. They became my teachers.”
The 850-hectare estate was started in 1870 as the Babah Coffee Plantation. Now known as Kawisari it’s in wild country west of Malang, above Wlingi and close to Mount Kawi.
This is the mysterious mountain famed as an alternative route to happiness, a weird mix of gravesites and temples, theme parks and crass commercialism. It’s the Lotto Land where good fortune comes – so they say - to the pious and patient.
The location seems to have been propitious for Julianti who claims she has the only estate in the area not making a loss. That didn’t come from passive prayer for the boss lady is no absentee landlord but a hands-on innovator and inquirer.
Neighbor plantations have been abandoned or bankrupted by high costs and low returns, the bushes unfertilized, the ground untilled.
Her bleak observation was endorsed by Dr Zaenudin (left) , former director of the Indonesian Coffee and Cocoa Research Center based in Jember, but now an independent consultant.
“Sadly most government-funded research goes into crops like rice and corn,” he said. “Yet coffee is still an important part of the economy.”
Indeed. Indonesia produces just over half a billion tonnes of beans a year. A third is consumed in the archipelago.
Coffee in all its forms is a staple of lifestyle mags featuring photos of designer cups topped by decorated froth, the fashion for sophisticates with time and money in abundance.
The idea is to link coffee with elites and so ramp prices, but in reality most is drunk at roadside stalls by everyday workers sipping kopi tubruk in chipped glasses; the first part of the ritual isn’t debating aroma but scraping grounds off the lip. The cost is usually around Rp 5,000 (US $0.40).
Even the nation’s thirst can’t keep the industry blooming for this labor-intensive business resists mechanization – though Julianti has introduced powered string-trimmers to replace sickles for weed control.
Inventors seeking a challenge more complex than driverless cars should consider a bean harvester able to stride up and down slopes which would defy goats while carrying 35 kilos of crop.
That’s largely done by skilled pickers who can feel which berries are ripe; the women’s strength and cheerful resilience has impressed Julianti, who like most urbanites had little idea of the back pains involved in getting their daily heart-jolters.
She’s a one cup woman with no time for the heavily advertised pre-mix sachets (only eight per cent coffee in some brands) plus sugar, milk powder, ‘thickeners’ and even salt.
Julianti no longer practices medicine. Once she worked in public neurology wards where every patient’s needs are different and watchfulness vital.
It’s an approach useful in handling coffee bushes which are also susceptible to stress and disease, particularly leaf rot. The fungus attacks Arabica favored for high-end coffees so the more resistant – but less desired – Robusta has been widely planted. Now Arabica, (originally from Ethiopia) is being reintroduced.
Kawisari is no place for picnickers. Though the views are a visual knockout, physical concussion is a risk along the tortuous tracks shredded by artillery barrages of rain. The old buildings are plain Dutch functional. This is a work zone selling between 800 and 1,500 tonnes of beans a year, depending on the weather.
Japfa, the giant Singapore-based food conglomerate is building a monster dairy farm above the plantation, beheading hills and re-shaping the topography with scores of diggers and bulldozers. Clearly the investors see future profits in white drinks, not black.
The company plans to start milking 4,000 cows in March 2018 – generating 200 tonnes of waste daily, much of it liquid. Julianti said the developers have assured her water quality downstream will not be affected but she still worries.
Apart from the environment and economics her main concern is management.
“Change has to come slowly,” she said. “I now know that handling human relations is the most complicated part of business. We have to work together. If you look after your workers they’ll look after you.
“In the past the manager here was king. The staff (there’s 220 on the books – more during harvest which opens mid-year) were just told what to do; all the under managers were men.
“I’m gradually changing that hierarchy. Now we are quietly promoting competent women and paying wages twice monthly to help with home budgeting.
“Fortunately I like learning. I want to know so I ask. And I get told because women find it easier to talk to a woman. I’m very blessed.”
Threat from Vietnam
Croppers are price takers, not makers, and the deals are done in mainland US where coffee is not grown commercially.
Beans are traded internationally like oil. Those making serious money in the business are not farmers battling the elements but brokers forecasting trends and trading futures contracts.
The world bean price jumps around like a frog which is why some growers like Kawisari are roasting and retailing their own, charging Rp 70,000 for 250 grams of powder. That’s Rp 280,000 a kilo, or almost ten times the return from selling beans in bulk.
|Most maintenance is done by hand. Growing coffee is|
a labor-intensive industry
Indonesia is the world’s fourth largest producer behind Brazil, Vietnam and Columbia; although a ‘cup of Java’ remains in British slang, Indonesian coffee needs to be better branded according to Dr Wedya Julianti.
She wants Java coffee to be recognized at breakfast tables everywhere as pure, clean, special and different.
“To boost our exports we must clearly identify our produce,” she said. “The government in Vietnam is supporting its industry one hundred per cent. (Vietnam’s output is twice that of Indonesia.)
“We are at risk of forgetting our history and losing almost 150 years of knowledge and skills. When that’s gone it has gone forever.”
(First published in the Jakarta Post 24 August 2017