Most (75-90%) of Indonesian coffee are Robusta beans and used to make commercial coffees. Indonesians mostly grow these commercial beans on large plantations with industrial agriculture. You must seek out the single origin, small farm, organic coffees to find something special.
Indonesia is an archipelago made up of a thousand islands. Some of these have flatter fields and terraced hills that work for plantation agriculture. Others are high islands, centered upon a volcano, whose soils make some of the best coffee.
The best Robusta beans are dark roasted into espresso beans, and sometimes blended with Arabica. Small farms can grow Arabica beans that highlight the terroir of this country.
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What is the flavor profile of Indonesian coffee?
Dark, bold, and earthy. People who love strong flavors and choose heavy-bodied coffees love Indonesian brews. Most Indonesian coffee is exceptionally low acid because of the way farmers process it. Drinkers note flavors of spice, wood, tobacco, ripe fruit, and leather.
Do not think that all Indonesian coffee is poor quality just because most of it is sold into commercial use. Some Robusta beans, when carefully dark roasted, make some of the best dark coffees around. And Arabicas, although hard to find, are worth the work of finding them.
Robusta coffee plants are easier to grow than Arabica plants. They can grow at lower elevations and on flatter soil. They are more resistant to diseases and pests. This allowed farmers to industrialize their growing with machinery, fertilizers, and a one-size-fits-all process.
Arabica coffees need high elevations with volcanic soils, and there are many Indonesian islands that offer this up. Those small farms make lesser amounts of special coffee, not the tons of Robusta that the larger farms turn out.
Most coffee from Indonesia is wet hull processed (also called semi-dry processed), which lessens its flavor. This process moves too quickly. The highly variable quality of the beans leads to an uneven roast. The wet-hulled process takes about a month when the wet or dry processes take 2 to 3 times as long. However, it allows coffee to be processed throughout the monsoon season. It also allows the farmers to be paid earlier. Wet hull coffee has an earthy taste with a thick body.
Indonesia is forever tied to dark roasts with its Robusta espresso beans. Some roasters make lovely coffees out of lighter roasted Indonesian Arabica beans. Even when not espresso, these beans are favorites to use for the darker Full City and Vienna roasts.
Specific regions and their associated flavor profiles
Coffee came to Indonesia in the 1700’s but was wiped out by coffee rust disease. The return of coffee plants is relatively new and is economically driven as a better plant financially than the tea plantations that coffee farms are disrupting. Many of the farmers commit to organic, fair-trade coffee because it pays them better and their small farms can survive.
Sumatra is famous for its high-end coffees, including Mandheling, Lintong, and Ankola. Dark roasting brings out smoky and toasty flavors. The presence of tropical fruit flavors (and their acidity) balances the darker flavors of the Sumatran Arabicas.
Mandheling tastes of herbs, cedar, cocoa and tobacco with a whiff of dark compost (in a pleasant way, I promise.) It is dry processed, which allows flavors to develop slowly.
Look for coffee that is wet processed (something different) and dried over a long time. This allows the flavors of cinnamon, cardamon, honey, and molasses to appear. There are some good darker roasts coming out of Sulawesi described as “dark and brooding.”
Java is a different place entirely. They mostly grow Arabica beans with the flavor of extremely ripe fruits, including sometimes a note of durian.
The Dutch brought coffee to Java first in the early 1700’s. Therefore, one nickname for coffee is java. The famous Mocha Java developed in colonial times by blending Arabica coffee from Java and Yemen.
Java’s best coffees are clean, heavy-bodied, and sweet.
Coffee is new to the island of Papua. Indonesia owns the state of Papua on the west side of the island. Papua New Guinea is an independent country on the east of the island. Most of the coffee is not organic. It is wet hull processed Robusta beans. Still, there are a few small, organic farms who treat their beans well and are worth seeking out. Look for more from this island in the future.
In Bali there is a small amount of land between two volcanoes where coffee can be grown. Arabicas grown here are clean, citrussy, and sweet. This is another island to keep an eye on, as coffee trees mature and continue to be planted.
Try these Indonesian coffees
Kopi luwak or civet coffee comes from Indonesia. The palm civet (which looks like a cross between a cat and a weasel) eats ripe coffee beans which digest and ferment in its stomach. It then excretes them partially digested. Humans pick the beans out of the poo, wash them, and sell them for a lot of money.
If you are wealthy enough to drink kopi luwak, be careful who you buy from. Traditionally, the beans are wild harvested from feral civets. However, with the money to be made on civet coffee, some have started caging the civets and making them eat coffee beans.
Starbucks has a lock on Blue Java, marketed as Starbucks Reserve Indonesia Blue Java. Farmers grow so little of this coffee that Starbucks gets all of it most years. Blue Java tastes earthy, sweet, and syrupy. It’s a particularly good introduction to the coffees of Indonesia.
Mandheling Coffee is an outstanding choice. As with most Indonesian coffees, a dark roast really highlights its unique qualities. A good roast will bring out flavors and scents of herbs and spices. Add some milk. It won’t dilute the flavor. This is a thick, rich coffee that will stick with you for quite a while.
Overall, Indonesian coffee is rich and dark. Its earthiness is the hallmark of the region. This coffee is thick with a lot of body and little acidity. Unusual flavors appear from the different coffee-growing regions. Look for more islands to become reliable sources for coffee in the future, introducing new flavors into the specialty coffee market.