Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Bali Coffee Plantations - Day 2. Coffee And Local Folk.

It's 9pm and I'm back in my mosquito den. It's been such a fulfilling day that I'm going to struggle to keep this post short. In terms of understanding Bali's coffees, today met my hopes and exceeded them by miles.  I'll focus on the two main events. First stop, a cafe just up the mountain from Munduk called Ngiring Ngeredang.  The views down to the coast are amazing, but the real draw is that they grow and roast their own beans and the staff will give you a free presentation of their coffee processing.

My first ever sight of an
Arabica coffee plant
 We were greeted by Indra, his nickname apparently meaning Godlike, but an unassuming fellow nonetheless.  Just like yesterday, I jumped in with both feet and told him we didn't just want coffee like their other customers... we want to grow a coffee tree, and so do some of our friends back home in the UK. Can he help? He told me gravely that they have no fresh green beans that would be young enough (for germination). He also advised that they weren't roasting for another 4 days, so I wouldn't be able to watch how they do it.
 I was devastated, and it clearly showed. There must have been a visible lip tremble.

 We ordered a coffee anyway, and Indra departed.  Jan tried to lift my spirits.  After all, this should still be some of the best coffee of my life.  And then, not 3 metres from our table we saw a wooden sign saying 'Arabica', attached to a small bush laden with berries of various shades of green and red. My mood improved.

Indra returned, sporting a smile and a small bag of green beans. After seeing how interested I was in their coffee he had gone behind the scenes and pulled out all the stops.  This small bag contained the very last of their fresh green beans! To say that my mood improved further doesn't do it justice. I was beaming.

 What's more, the coffee we drank was really good. Like all the brewed coffee I'd tasted in bali it had a thick mud in the bottom of the cup, like French Press but moreso.  It had been roasted just a week earlier. Indra explained that the term 'Bali Coffee' was used quite freely and could refer to anything from rotten, stale supermarket grinds sporting the Bali  Coffee brand name, to beautifully fresh, hand roasted artisan coffees produced on micro-plantations in backwater Bali.  Not very helpful for we buyers looking for the good stuff, huh?

Then Indra pulled another rabbit from the hat. He could still show us their processing areas and explain the operation, but just miss out the actual roasting. Now he was really living up to his Godlike nickname.
 Looking forward to this moment, I'd imagined a weatherbeaten Indonesian pensioner tossing freshly picked coffee beans over a fire in a frying pan. Silly, really. There's no way a cafe could support itself that way, even in rural Asia. But their small scale process is nonetheless simplistic and fascinating, and goes from tree to cup.

Coffee cherries in varying
status of ripeness.
 First, picking.  The ripe beans are hand picked. Even each tiny bunch on the branches contains multiple cherries of differing ripeness, from hard and green to crinkled and maroon. Somewhere inbetween they reach a perfect redness and softness. We squashed some in our hands and sucked the beans (two in each cherry). Deliciously sweet, like biting into ripe summer fruits back home. Not a hint of coffee flavour though.  Anyway, the timing of picking each individual cherry when it is ripe and healthy is clearly critical, which is partly why it simply must be a manual process. (Tea plantation workers in Malaysia told me in 2007 that they no longer drink their locally grown tea, since the introduction of machine pickers meant that under- and over-ripe leaves were now included in all batches, and it tasted awful.)

 Pickers have a small harness and satchel on their waist, which they fill and then decant into two 25 KG bins and carry around on a kind of yoke. Heavy work.
 Batches of cherries are laid out and raked into a flat layer. They are sundried for five days, before staff manually pick out the beans from the blackened husks. It's a completely dry process.

Roasting Bali Coffee
Roasting then takes place in a 5kg cylinder over an open fire. The roaster constantly rotates the drum, which looks to be cobbled together from an empty can of motor oil with metal rods welded on the top and bottom, for rotating and carrying the drum. Roasting times: Robusta, one hour; Arabica, ninety minutes! Then cooling on a flat surface.  The roasted arabica beans glistened a glossy black and you could feel the oils on their exterior.

Grinding coffee beans using
a BIG pestle and mortar.

Grinding is labour intensive, involving a large pestle & mortar. Slamming the five-feet long stick into the beans reduces them to a lumpy, which is sieved to produce an incredibly fine powder, like brown icing sugar. No grinding to order here.

From picking to powder takes 2 weeks, and the powder goes straight in the cup. No filtering. No extraction times. But it does taste great, if a little messy in the cup.

Granny cooking up
some fresh coffee beans.
We departed, satisfied that our journey hadn't been in vain. But moments later another dream came true. We popped into Kubu Kopi, a plantation run and worked by a lovely family. We were greeted by Ga-de, a thirty-something guy with a spattering of English skills, a rare thing in this part of Bali. He introduced us to his family, including beautiful wife, stunningly cute three-year old son, and his mother-in-law, a chuckling crinkly pensioner who was, to my uncontrollable delight, sat on the ground roasting beans in a clay pot, over a small fire made with wood from coffee trees!

Ga-de and his family.
 Ga-de was a really nice guy, and had a passion for Balinese traditions, a refreshing attitude considering how much of Bali is now devoted to winning the tourist dollar at the expense of cultural heritage. The simple life of a farmer was explained to us during a two hour trek around the nearby fields, containing rice paddies, cacao, coffee, sweet potatoes, lemongrass, vanila and cloves, some of which we sampled fresh from the branch.  Ga-de told us that most of the coffee beans in the various plantations were sold to a central buyer, to be mixed together for mass consumption. His family has six hectares of coffee plantation, with each hectare yielding one tonne of beans annually, from 150 arabica trees. So doing the maths, each tree yields just under 7kg per year.

A "Bali Coffee" plant.
Neither Arabica nor Robusta I'm told
(but I suspect it is Arabica Typica)

We gladly accepted his offer of spending a few hours walking around the local farms and rice paddy fields.  Donning ridiculous hats loaned by Ga-de (I'm sure he only did it for his own amusement), we passed cacao trees, vanilla, cloves, and a stack of other delicious looking produce, some of which we sampled eagerly.  Then onto the coffee plants.  We saw arabica, robusta (which Ga-de said he didn't like the taste of), and something Ga-de called a Bali Coffee plant.  It was tall like robusta, but he told us it tasted the same as arabica.  It was easy to distinguish due to the tight clusters of cherries on it's branches.  I do wonder what exactly it was.

A coffee bean, sprouting roots.
He began scrabbling around on the ground, pulling aside the undergrowth, and surfaced with some dirty-looking coffee beans.  Kopi Luwak.... Civet Coffee!!  These beans had passed through the digestive system of a wild civet.  Ga-de explained that there were nine or ten civets living there in the wild, and that he occasionally collected the beans - not for selling, but rather for offering to visitors.  Hmm.  I'm still not so sure how truthful he was being about this.  But we joined him in his foraging, and soon noticed that there were lots of beans on the ground, many of which had begun to germinate, sprout roots, and grow into miniature coffee plants.  It was fascinating to see the skinny stem poking from the ground, with a fully formed coffee bean sitting at the top! I thought the bean would be in the ground.

Next we headed back to Ga-de's home, Kubu Kopi, for a much needed break from the sun and a drink of his freshly made coffee.  Whilst waiting, he showed us his pets.  A minor bird with a very impessive repertoire of Bahasa Indonesian words.  A white rabbit, which looked fairly knackered in the heat of the day.  Then a few surprises... A fully grown macaque monkey chained to a tree in the garden.  This was a little upsetting, as we did some work at an ape rescue centre in Borneo once, and both think it's terrible to keep wild animals in captivity - not to mention how dangerous these monkeys can be!  But then to cap it all off, Ga-de showed us his two pet civets in their small cages.  Oh boy.  The poor little fellas were cooped up with nothing whatsoever to keep them stimulated.  What a terrible life it must have been for them.  Jan and I spoke about it afterwards, and we're fairly certain that he keeps them to harvest beans for sale to tourists, despite his claiming not to sell Kopi Luwak. 
Civets in captivity
Not really much like a cat, but still cute.

We explained to him that in our culture it's very bad to keep animals in cages like this, and that Kopi Luwak is not a good thing in the eyes of tourists.  But there are two harsh realities here.  One is that in truth, most tourists are completely unaware of how civet coffee is produced and the animal cruelty involved - and frankly many don't care.  They just want to enjoy their holidays and try the 'funny' coffee made from poo. Secondly, Balinese culture does not recognise animal cruelty as an issue.  To them, it seems, animals are not worthy of human concern.  We saw it all over... cockerel fighting is one of the island's most popular pastimes, and the locals strap dagger-like barbs to the birds' beak to ensure maximum injury and greater viewing pleasure.  It's one of the hardest parts of travelling to other countries, to be able to do nothing about such cultural differences.  You have to leave your preconceptions at home.  After all, these people are living on the breadline and little has changed in their culture for perhaps hundreds of years.  My only hope is that tourists and coffee lovers alike read blogs such as this one and learn a little about the truth behind products like civet coffee.

But we were still guests of Ga-de, and despite unusual local customs and practises, we didn't want to cause offense.  And he had been a fantastic host.  We stayed and watched the sunset with he and his family.  I offered to help him with setting up a website for his business, for which he was extremely grateful but I doubt he'll ever be able to take advantage of, since there is no internet access in his village.  But if you ever find yourself in Bali and want to get away from the throngs of tourists in the South of the island, do pay the Munduk region, and Kubu Kopi a visit.  You might find it incredibly rewarding. I did!


  1. Great article. I really want to go there now and see this for myself. Thanks

  2. I hope you get the opportunity, Matt. If you ever find yourself Bali-bound then feel free to get in touch. Aside from the coffee stuff I'd be happy to recommend places to go. It has something for everyone and all budgets too (luckily for me!)

  3. I’m not that much of a intеrnet reader to bе honеst
    but your sites really nicе, keep it up! I'll go ahead and booκmark уouг site
    to come back lаter on. Cheers

    Feel free to vіsit my webpаge - сoffee
    beans ()