West Java – Bringing in the Beans!
In the blue, hazy hills of West Java, the coffee harvest coincides with harvesting of rice and cloves. Several weeks earlier the daily rainstorms, a constant during the wet season, abruptly eased- giving way to hot, dry sultry days that crackle with heat from mid morning onwards. The showers still arrive, but late in afternoon, as the heat becomes almost unbearable. As stillness descends on the villages that dot the hills, thunder storms begin their inevitable roll down from the slopes above. The sawah (the rice fields) that were green and lush a month before are golden and rustling with a brisk crackle as the rain storms arrive. Before the rain arrives the air in the mountain towns is dry and fragrant, punctuated with the pungent scent of drying cloves, fermenting coffee and the dusty, baking volcanic soils. The mixture of these contrasting aromas is reinvigorating for visitors from the cities on the plains below.
The harvest season is one of the most important times for the villagers- gathering, drying and processing their crops for the months ahead is a much anticipated annual event. The effort required to successfully harvest rice, coffee and cloves simultaneously involves the collective efforts of the entire village- young and old. The harvesting often begins before dawn, going on well into the dusk as coffee is picked and carried into the village centres for processing.
Most of the coffee is grown along the steep slopes of the river valleys that carry clean water tumbling down from the mountains shrouded in constant cloud. Narrow, single tracks lead up to the coffee trees, predominantly growing as sub canopy below taller remnants of the rain forest that used to cover most of mountainous Java. The climb up to the coffee can be difficult. Steps are cut into the crumbly volcanic soils, but as quickly as these are made, the rains wash them away. For a fit European, the climb several kilometres up can be very hard, exhausting work. The villagers climb these paths daily- not only to tend the coffee trees, but also to cut 70kg bundles of mountain grass to bring down for livestock feed. Barefoot, for added grip and stability, is the best way to go both up- and down these tracks.
The coffee is a mixture of Robusta with a very little Arabica grown on the higher slopes. The Robusta is preferred, as it is easier to grown and maintain, and the yields in this part of Indonesia are generally higher. Picking is also apparently easier, with the Robusta cherries growing ripe in handy bunches along the branches of the coffee trees.
Climbing up at dawn the villages, with me in tow, work in earnest on picking coffee from a group of trees growing precariously over a river gorge, bubbling with rain from the night before. In the early morning the temperature is still cool, and the shade from the trees overhead and from the ridge above means the mornings work is pleasant. The baskets being filled are made from rattan, and slung on with local, colourfully decorated batik sarongs. The harvesters are all female- mostly in their late 30’s or older. The men are on the lower slopes, harvesting rice without the shade we are getting up on the slopes. The picking is down in a jovial atmosphere. Songs are sung in the local Sundanese dialect, as well as a few spicy “dangdut” tunes in the Indonesian language. Gossip, invariably about husbands or single men, is also common place. The women’s fingers move nimbly and quickly over the branches of the trees, picking mostly the ripe cherries- burgundy in color and bulging with sugar. The sweet smell of some of the cherries that are crushed into the baskets is intoxicating- almost like the aroma of ripe blackcurrants mixed with blackberries. Hands stained with coffee juice occasionally pop a ripe cherry or two into the pickers’ mouth. Delicious and refreshing.
By late morning the baskets are mostly full, and we head back down the track towards the road that leads back into the village. We have been picking on a slope that has a road about halfway up it. The road generally follows the forest line, below the road, hundreds of metres down, are the rice paddies- golden and brown, teaming with villagers bringing in the harvest. We meet the road and make our way back into the small hilltop town. By now the heat of the sun is almost at its peak.
The first thing one sees when entering the town is the matting laid out, for hundreds of meters, by the side of the road. This is still the way the coffee is dried in this part of West Java- under the hot sun for several days before the fermenting flesh is stripped off the cherry by hand cranked machinery. Coffee has been harvested, and milled this way for literally hundreds of years.
Before World War 2, many parts of West Java were home to Dutch owned Colonial plantations- growing coffee, rubber, pepper, cloves and tea. After the war was over, many of the Colonists di not return to Indonesia- their plantations were either turned over to the new nations government (where they became part of the Pekebunan/or nationally run plantation system) , or villages by default took over the trees. Indeed some of the best coffee growing in West Java originates from trees the Dutch planted over 100 years ago.
The drying of the coffee is critical to producing a green bean that will roast well and translate into a good cup of coffee. To this end the coffee is raked using wooden grading rakes all through the day. The sweet, fermenting aroma drifting off the steaming bed of drying cherries is intoxicating and surprisingly pleasant. The women raking the coffee walk barefooted over the fruit, allowing them to literally feel how advanced the drying process is.
Towards mid afternoon, the villages are quiet. The heat drives those doing all but the essential work into the shade of the town hall or the roadside warung (teak stalls with huge tarpaulin verandas). The stillness is punctuates by the approaching rumble of thunderstorms, literally tumbling down from the mountain tops. The coffee workers hurriedly collect up the matting and bring the coffee into the safety of cover. Any direct moisture onto the drying fruit at this stage will introduce either mould or rot into the process, ruining the cup later on. The rain arrives with startling quickness- the hazy blueness of the sky and hilltops is darkened by cloud and a curtain of heavy rain within minutes. In May the rain falls for only an hour, after which the countryside begins to dry out again very quickly. Steam rises wistfully off the slick surface of the roads, and a late afternoon shimmering haze covers the entire valley, right down to the river at its stony bottom.
The coffee is hauled out again from under tiled roofs for drying. Many of the children who have come back from school early give a hand, while the men of the village go back to the rice harvesting on the terraces below the villages.
By the end of June most coffee trees in this part of West Java will have flowered, flooding the villages and valleys with sweet Jasmine floral aromas. The cycle will begin again, as it has done for hundreds of years. In this part of the world change is pleasantly slow in arriving; the smiles and the happy attitude of the villagers is testament that it is just a myth that living in the small towns of Indonesia is indeed tougher than trying to survive in the heat and crowded suburbs of Jakarta or Bandung.
© Alun Evans, May 2008