New Zealand Embassy Jakarta, Indonesia
Indonesian coffee world’s best says Kiwi
New Zealander Alun Evans is helping Indonesian coffee growers put their coffee on the world map - a coffee that he believes is the best in the world, and has the potential to be a huge earner for the country.
An expat Kiwi originally from Wellington, Evans has a passion for coffee and Indonesia, arriving in the country twelve years ago to learn the Indonesian language so he could find out more about the coffee industry. He fell in love with the place and stayed.
In 2001 Evans, and his Indonesian wife Arlini, established Merdeka Coffee – merdeka meaning freedom or liberty. Indonesia is the fourth largest producer of coffee in the world. It is estimated that 97% of all coffee in Indonesia is grown by smallholders – 1.2 hectares. The trees are scattered all over the hillsides as well as sprinkled amongst the villages (kampungs) themselves. It is these growers that Evans has formed a strong working relationship with, and as Merdeka has prospered, so has its growers.
Merdeka is now a thriving coffee business that exports coffee beans around the world, with a roastery in the Javanese hills near Jakarta, and Auckland, as well as four cafes in Jakarta and another two planned for Sydney and Penang.
As with wine, different growing soils produce different flavours in the coffee beans (or cherries), says Evans.
“Indonesia’s volcanic and high mountainous free draining soils produce very unique flavours. The topography is ideal for coffee growing and it produces a distinctive cup.”
The characteristics of the Arabica coffee bean take on the flavour of chocolate fudge, with a hint of roasted capsicum, a little bit of vanilla, as well as a suggestion of nutmeg, says Evans. Every crop is different, and is very dependent on the seasonal and growing conditions such as rainfall and sunshine hours. It is a fine art – and the secret is in the blending which is where a roaster is worth his weight in gold.
Evans is thankful he has a “nose” for coffee – it’s very important when roasting and blending. The rotary drum roaster from Guatemala is a prized possession and despite its rugged looks, Evans swears by its ability as a roaster. It is a noisy and complex business – all dependent on temperatures and time – and the expertise of the roaster. While roasting the beans, he constantly monitors the temperature, regularly taking a sample of the beans to check for colour and texture.
The Dutch introduced coffee to Indonesia in the 17th century and it is now grown throughout the archipelago. Evans has travelled throughout Indonesia in search of the best and most flavoursome cherries. He has growers in most parts of Indonesia, including the highland areas of Aceh and Papua, places he regularly visits. And he likes to keep some locations secret as the demand for top quality Arabica beans grows.
Evans buys directly from the small growers, ensuring that they receive a fair price for their beans. His aim is to encourage economic and social development of the communities he deals with. In keeping with this philosophy, Merdeka is also part of the coffee industry’s Fair Trade agreement.
It has proved to be a winning combination. As the growers have flourished, so have their communities. One village has done so well out of growing coffee; they have gone and bought themselves a dairy herd with the proceeds from the sale of coffee beans and are now in the business of selling milk as well.
Many of his growers can now afford better healthcare, and are able to send their children to school, with the income that they receive from selling coffee beans.
Evans works with them to help them improve their way of life whilst sustaining their cultural and social customs.
The Evans also employ and train young Indonesians from scavenger sites (rubbish dumps), at their cafes in Jakarta – a commitment the couple have to Indonesia’s young and disadvantaged.
Meeting and talking with his growers is what Evans loves best about the business. And in many cases it is best done on foot, taking the time to sit down with his growers to talk turkey – usually over a cup of tea. Rural life carries on while the men sit under the shade doing business. The growers take a lot of pride in their trees but other rural duties sometimes have to take precedence. This often steep, terraced country is no place for tractors or any other form of motorised transport. Water buffalo plough the rice fields, and stock feed and wood or vegetables picked for the market, are carried by the growers on their backs, often for miles in the heat of the day.
Indonesian growers have integrated the coffee trees into village life –coffee trees are sprinkled amongst the village houses, and next to vibrant green rice paddies. It is a sustainable and eco-friendly system. No pesticides, insecticides or chemical fertilisers are used. Growers have diversified into producing all manner of crops including bamboo, water melons, durian, chillies, cloves, as well as raising goats. Nothing is wasted –the goat manure is used as fertiliser on the village gardens and around the coffee trees, and the shell from the coffee beans is used as compost.
Natural repellents are made from tobacco leaves to prevent insects and disease affecting the coffee trees. The leaves are soaked in boiling water to draw out the nicotine, and then allowed to cool. After removing the leaves, the liquid is sprayed on to the coffee trees.
Coffee berries are picked over a 2-3 week period, and then dried on concrete drying pads or mats outside in the sun. Drying can sometimes take several weeks depending on the weather, and the beans are regularly raked or turned by hand. Coffee has been grown in communities like this for centuries, says Evans.
“I am often asked about the origin of Kopi Luwak coffee and it does exist,” he says.
This coffee is famous for how it is produced as it is a coffee cherry that has been eaten by the Indonesian palm civet, passed through its digestive system and been deposited out the other end. The green beans are cleaned by hand once collected.
Evans says it’s debatable whether it is more delicious or flavoursome than other Indonesian coffees, but it certainly is more expensive.
And how did a boy from the Wellington suburbs end up in the hills of Java? Evans says it was quite by chance and began in the late 1980s, when he and a mate were discussing life beyond university and what they would do after graduation. They escaped from a wet and windy Wellington day by wandering into a cafe that advertised it was serving the city’s first plunger coffee. Already a coffee lover, Evans tried it and says that at that time, it was the best coffee he had ever tasted. He decided then, that coffee was the industry he wanted to get into.
It was another random event that sealed the deal and steered him into the industry.
A delivery driver at the hospitality company Evans was working for at the time had driven his delivery van into an Italian hotelier’s brand new Jaguar. Evans drew the short straw and was told by his boss to go and placate the hotelier. It proved to be an auspicious meeting. After the tongue lashing, Evans reached an agreement with the hotelier (who also roasted his own coffee) – that if he was serious, he would teach him everything he knew about roasting coffee.
“Getting into the industry was notoriously difficult and even more so get anyone to teach you”, says Evans
The Italian may also have had an ulterior motive in taking him under his wing – he had three unmarried daughters as well, says Evans. After spending a year moonlighting as a roaster, Evans chucked in his day job and, still single, headed for Indonesia. While in Yogyakarta learning Indonesia language, he met Arlini. They married and now have a young son.