The Teas of Indonesia – A Small But Growing Tea Industry

Indonesia is a country of diversity, made up of more than 14,000 islands spread
over 3,100 miles, together with numerous ethnicities, and diverse languages,
customs, and cultures.  Even the island itself has a diverse collection of flora
and fauna.  Today Indonesia also supports a growing and thriving tea industry.
Indonesia was once known
as the Dutch East Indies,
with the islands of Java, Sumatra, and
Sulawesi forming what is part of the Malay
Archipelago.  In 1513 Portugese traders on a
quest to find prized exotic pepper from the
Malabar Coast in 
India, sailed instead around
Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, uncovering a
new, secret route to Indonesia’s Molucca
Islands (also known as the Spice Islands).
The uncovering of this once secret sea route
chang ed the

history of merchant trade in the
East Indies from one of being dominated by
the Arabs, to European dominance in just a
few years.  By 1602 the Dutch, operating as
the Dutch East Indies Company (also called

VOC or Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie in Dutch) had formed a collection depot at Batavia
on Java where shipments of Oriental goods were collected and packed for shipment back home.
The Dutch East Indies Company was essentially a group of
ruthless merchants who would eventually become the leader of
East Indies trade in Indonesia, remaining in control for the next
300 years.

Even though the Portugese were the first European traders to
bring tea to Europe, it was the Dutch who would ultimately
dominate tea imported there.  From their prime collection point in the Indonesian islands the
Dutch began trading with

ChinaJapan, and Macao.Purchasing tea from both China and Japan they then sent it to their collection point in Java, and
from there it was forwarded to Amsterdam and distributed.  By 1610 regular tea shipments were
being sent by the Dutch from Amsterdam to France, Holland, and the Baltic Coast.  The Dutch
would retain fierce control of tea imports to Europe until 1669 when the British overcame them
and took control.

Records show that in 1684 the first tea was
planted on Java by the Dutch using seeds
obtained from

Japan for the China tea bush
cultivar (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis).
These first government established tea gar-
dens lived, but barely, and didn’t flourish,
bringing Java’s tea cultivation to a near
stand still until about 1835.
Spurred by the success of the British
and their thriving

Assam gardens, the
Dutch began to explore tea cultivation
with renewed interest.  Realizing the
potential profit to be made from suc-
cessful tea production, the Dutch plant-
ers convinced the Dutch government to give up sole control of the tea industry.
Following the trial and error of the British in

India, the Dutch planters realized that the
China tea bush was the wrong cultivar to plant for the type of soil and steamy tropical
climate of Java.
They obtained seeds from India’s Assam bushes (Camellia sinensis var. assamica), and
before long the tea bushes were healthy and flourishing in the hot and humid climate. By
1878 they were successfully cultivating tea in Java.  The Dutch planters then continued to
expand with tea production beginning on Sumatra in the early 1900s.

By using modern tea withering and production techniques,
the Dutch produced quality, flavorful teas and received a
thumb’s up from Europeans who grouped Java tea in the
same class as quality

Ceylon and British Indian teas.  Today
Java is still Indonesia’s top tea producing island followed by
Sumatra and Sulawesi.
By 1942, before the Japanese invasion, Indonesia was the

world’s fourth largest tea
producer.  But the favorable position of the Indonesian archipelago during WWII had a
negative effect on their tea industry and for many decades after, both their tea industry
and production suffered.  Eventually the tea factories began to decline and the tea
gardens became wild and overgrown due to neglect.
In the late 1980s the Tea Board of Indonesia introduced new programs to help revive and
refurbish the tea gardens and rebuild the lagging infrastructure.  This has brought
renewed interest to Indonesia’s tea industry and today they export and produce 168,000
metric tons of tea yearly, grown in 13 provinces on Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi.  Tea
makes up around 17% of Indonesia’s total agricultural production.

Java boasts one of the richest and most complex regions in the world, dominated by
interior mountains forming a near continuous chain down the middle of the island, west to

                                                        east, with high peaks and live smoking volcanoes, which are flanked by and fertile terraced
fields.  The mountains contain 38 peaks that were once or are currently active volcanoes
including Bromo Kelut, Merap, and Papandayan.
Some of the principal areas of tea production are in the western highlands outside the
cities of Bogar and Bandung.  There the tea gardens benefit from the higher elevations,
closer to the rain forest and rich volcanic soil.

Southwest of Bandung lies the Pangalengen district, home to the Chakra Group, one of
Indonesia’s largest tea producers who operates four tea estates: Dewata, Gunung
Kencana, Megawati, and Negara Kanaan.  Located near the Gungung Tilu Rain Forest
Preserve and the Perhutani Forest, the Dewata Estate is typical of the tea plantation
communities developed by the Europeans during the 19th century.

Indonesia has a dry climate encouraging year round growth but the best tea is harvest-
ed in July to September at elevations of 2,500 to 5,000 plus feet.  Indonesia’s finest teas are orthodox manufacture
but they also produce a large quantity of

 CTC tea (cut-tear-curl) for tea bag packers.  They also produce small
amounts of very average green tea.  The best Indonesia teas are comparable in flavor to 
Sri Lanka’s high-grown teas.
Indonesia teas aren’t easy to find but if you’re determined look for black orthodox leaf from these Java estates:
Cibuna, Cisaruni, Kertasarie, Santosa, Taloon, Tjidadap, and Tjuburi.  And from Sumatra:  Bah Butong, Gunong
Dempo, and Gunong Rosa.