BeanScene Magazine

Reimagining Indonesia

From the July 2017 issue.
Reimagining Indonesia

Indonesia has been producing coffee since the 1600s, but few have recognised the fourth largest coffee producer as a specialty powerhouse – until now.

Benji Salim of The Q Coffee Trading is passionate about advocating Indonesia, not just because he was born and bred on the island of Sulawesi, or the fact that he connects with its culture and people, but because of its quality coffee that, until recently, has remained off the radar.

“There’s a stigma surrounding certain origin countries and the quality of coffee they produce,” Benji says. “For a long time, the reputation of Indonesian specialty coffee has been below par, but it’s time to look at this producing country with fresh eyes, see the state of its green beans, and keep an open mind to what it’s capable of.”

Benji is determined to be an advocate. He graduated university with a Bachelor of science in information technology, and a Masters of Business Administration in value chain management, but seven years ago realised his passion lay in food, people, and quality. He merged his passion with the hospitality industry and completed a barista course, which he found quite mundane to begin with.

“It wasn’t until my trainer told me that we were going to try different coffees from different countries that I got excited,” he says. “I knew Indonesia grew coffee, but I had no idea how it tasted until that day.”

Eager to learn more, Benji would spend his days cupping coffee at Campos Coffee in Newtown, drinking a range of filter coffees to advance his palate, and become a licensed Q Grader.

“Back in 2011, I remember cupping coffee with Campos Coffee’s Will Young, who at the time claimed that the best producing region in the world was Kenya. When I questioned him about Indonesia’s potential to compete with other producers from around the world, he said, ‘yes, it definitely can’,” Benji recalls.

Ever since, Benji has been committed to learning about Indonesian beans and the culture driving its specialty coffee potential. “In the past, the Indonesian community has been focused on producing a commodity product, with little care or awareness to where it goes or what it becomes,” Benji says. “I remember asking one farmer if they’d ever tasted their own coffee. He looked at me blankly and said he sold his coffee for US$1.20 to a company using it for gunpowder. He had no idea what it tasted like.”

The country of more than 250 million people is broken into producing regions including Sumatra, Java and Bali, Sumbawa, Flores, Papua, and Sulawesi, a region that Benji says produces some of the best coffees in the world. Traditionally, the country is divided into small, independent farming lots, meaning farmers had little knowledge of coffee agricultural and processing methods.

“A lack of education definitely impacts on overall cup quality. If one family has more than five kids, which is common, there’s not enough capital to maintain their coffee trees,” Benji says. “To many, coffee is just a product that grows once a year. They never know if they’ll have a good crop or a bad crop.”

But change is in the air. In areas such as North and West Sumatra, Papua and Bali, a government project from the Bank of Indonesia is rewarding farmers for quality production to further drive economy and trade.

Furthermore, one company helping producers understand the meaning of quality is Japan’s Key Coffee. Founded in 1920 in the cosmopolitan city of Yokohama, Key Coffee, under Japanese management, is making a significant contribution to the Toarco producing region with a consistent belief in “quality first”, and “total quality management”.

Key Coffee first launched its leading brand PT Toarco Jaya in 1976, which later became known as “Toarco Toraja” coffee, produced in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, a mountainous region between 1300 to 1900 metres above sea level.

“Toarco Toraja is what I consider a sleeping giant. No one really knows who they are. It only released its green bean supply in the past 10 years, however only a limited volume is available. PT Toarco Jaya produces 8000 bags of coffee, of which the majority goes back to Japan. Australia receives just 265 bags of preselected Toarco Specialty Grade Lots,” Benji says. “The whole country respects Toarco Toraja for its commitment to supporting the famers, promoting fairness, and delivering sustainable coffee.”

PT Toarco Jaya educates and trains farmers in picking and sorting ripe cherries, the best practice for traditional fully washed processing, drying beans (in Toarco, wet parchment is traded at 18 per cent or under), and how to cup to assure quality and consistency. Benji says Key Coffee’s strict Japanese-style practices means only quality coffee will become Toarco Toraja coffee.

“Before coffees leave the Toarco Toraja region, defects are assessed, and coffees are cupped twice to ensure the flavour profile is accurate to what customers expect. If there’s even the slightest difference in flavour, the coffee is reduced into premium high-grade commodity rather than specialty,” he says.

“A large portion of Indonesia farmers still produce commodity coffee. But if the entire region can increase its overall quality production, commodity prices will increase and large brands such as Starbucks or Peets will be forced to buy its commodity coffee at higher prices.”

Most notably, Benji says PT Toarco Jaya is helping motivate local farmers to take pride in their work.

“There’s been a real shift in mentality. The farmers crave knowledge. They buy books in English and learn learn how to taste their own coffees, which is so vital,” Benji says. “Toarco Toraja also rewards the farmers who achieve quality results by paying them four times the market price.”

This year, Benji entered a 100-per-cent Indonesia blend into the Australian International Coffee Awards. Titled The Q on Harris Milk Blend, this gold-medal-winning blend combined two naturals and a fully washed processed coffee, using beans from Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi beans. Benji also entered a single origin espresso Toarco Toraja AA, which won bronze.

“I don’t even sell blends at my café, but I decided to make a blend to showcase the best of what Indonesian beans have to offer and have it recognised,” Benji says. “I knew the coffee was good, but I never expected to receive a gold medal.”

Benji is one of the few people in Australia to have access to PT Toarco Jaya Coffee. He is committed to representing Indonesian coffee through his own company The Q Coffee Trading, which sources exclusive Indonesia green beans.

“I work with the leading specialty brands in Indonesia, and it is my job to be that link between them and Australian consumers,” Benji says. “Farmers will always get rewarded with higher prices according to the quality of their produce. When such supply increases, the purchasing prices will go down for sure.”

There is also support from the Indonesian Trade Promotion Centre (ITPC) in Sydney, an Indonesian government agency who facilitate products of Indonesian coffee in Australia. In March, ITPC invited Indonesian exporters and Australian importers of Indonesian beans, including The Q Coffee, to showcase their products at the Indonesian Pavilion stand at MICE.

While Benji says the Toarco Toraja region’s production of specialty coffee is promising, he nominates Bali as the next best region to understand quality. This is unlike North Sumatra, where the density of coffee trees is very high, production facilities are scarce, and high rainfall make for an unstable climate.

What’s needed, Benji says, is further education and leaders to inspire, influence, and motivate producers around the country to lift their standards.

“Production is all about teamwork. If producers can work together to learn, improve, and be transparent, they will not only make more money, but earn the respect they deserve as quality producers,” he says. “I want Indonesia to be known as a specialty coffee country. With the continued growth of the Indonesia economy, demand for coffee is changing. If we can change consumer mindsets to believe in this product, I’m confident that in the next 10 years Indonesia can compete as one of the top specialty coffee countries in the world.”

This article features in the June 2017 edition of BeanScene Magazine.

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