I vacationed in Indonesia not so long ago and more recently ran across some exceptional Indonesian teas. I’ll try to say just a little about Indonesia and describe the teas I’ve tried; definitely a tall order for a short article.
This interest started for me during a visit to Java and Bali last December. I went through a similar discovery process after visiting Vietnam awhile back (we live in Bangkok, so both are sort of local travel).
I absolutely love delving into new regions, and beyond tea Indonesia is amazing, crowded with ancient temples and active volcanoes, and ringed by beaches. There are 45 active volcanoes on Java island alone (more on those here). My wife considered cancelling the trip last December after hearing about earthquake activity there (see this related reference) but all that isn’t as scary and dangerous as it might sound. It’s just normal for them. The people were among the warmest, friendliest people I’ve met in any country, even compared to Thais, who really do smile more than most people.
How Indonesian Tea is Unique: About Regional Variation
It’s difficult to specify common traits in teas from a region like Darjeeling, although some patterns of styles and tea characteristics do stand out, but for whatever reason, that works better for Thailand. Indonesia is a bit different. Climate and volcanic soil types provide a common growing context to some extent, but types of plants grown and styles of teas are still evolving there, especially for better specialty teas.
Articles in popular press tend to claim that few Indonesians are aware of this category of tea, of better versions of tea produced there. The idea is that the best teas tend to be exported (the opposite of what one hears about countries like China), although to some extent that is probably changing now. Galung Atri, one owner and tea maker at the Toba Wangi plantation, a newer family-run tea business, says that most of his teas are still consumed within Indonesia. Some are from local Assamica type plants, others from modern hybrid cultivars imported from Taiwan (in particular using the Si Ji Chun / Four Seasons plant type), with style and processing influences from both China and Japan.
Galun’s own input about the teas and processing is interesting (with more background in the linked profile interview):
“We have two plantations as I mentioned before, both growing a single clone tea plant type, Sijicun for Sinensis, and Gambung 7 for Assamica (best for white tea). The oldest tree just around 5.5 years old, and the youngest one just one years old…
“I have more background with the Wuyi style techniques…[and] prefer the Wuyi styles the most. I tend to modify processing a bit for my technique. …producing this Chinese style tea is more like an art. It depends on climate, weather, plucking time, condition etc., and China and Indonesia are really different in terms of growing conditions… “
My Experiences with Indonesian Commercial Teas
Commercial teas aren’t bad there. A range of teas are sold in grocery stores that might not be acceptable for slightly spoiled tea enthusiasts but the teas are far better than standard versions of Western tea-bag tea, and might cost even less, sometimes quite close to free. Jasmine black tea is a common local style, and, of course, green and black tea is also available. Oolongs are not so commonly produced (although some are out there), but buds-only silver needle-style white teas are more common.
There are plantations in both the East and West of Java. It’s perhaps not exactly their main island, since Indonesia doesn’t seem set up that way, but it is a relatively populated island with Jakarta located there. Different plantations would make different types of teas, and people on Java could easily enough visit those to try teas, or travel to other islands where tea is produced. We visited the Wonosari plantation near Yogyakarta on our visit, a former Dutch plantation. The teas were good and interesting, but sort of ordinary level, not mass-produced tea in the normal sense but not quite on the typical level of specialty teas. A silver needle-style white tea was an exception, a very nice tea.
My Experiences with Specialty Tea
I first tried a Harendong plantation black tea over a year ago, and that helped spur an ongoing interest in better black teas, a recurring theme in my exploration and writing (although oolongs are really my favourite). The teas I’ve been trying this year from Toba Wangi are equally amazing, great teas in an interesting variety. The styles of those teas become difficult to describe–more about discussing inputs and tea aspects than pinning down a general type–but they were mostly influenced by Chinese tea styles.
One nice black tea reminds me a little of better versions of Assamica teas from Thailand, not exactly like any Indian, Chinese, or Sri Lankan teas I’ve tried, but maybe closer to Vietnamese black teas I’ve tried. A Sinensis-type based black tea was very similar to Chinese black tea styles: malty, sweet, and soft, with a taste range including dark cherry, wood tones, and yam.
The one Toba Wangi oolong (Wu Mei) reminded me a lot of a Dan Cong, a Chinese oolong (which I compared directly in this review post). Unlike the examples of real Dan Cong that I’ve tried there was no characteristic astringency, so I mean it was similar in the sense of the sweet and intense floral flavor profile and general effect. Astringency is not always a bad thing, of course, and in the right amount and presented the right way, a mild version is a nice compliment to the floral or fruity character of some Dan Cong teas. The Wu Mei is a smooth, mild tea, and if someone’s preference is for stronger brewed tea it’s nice that it works really well prepared in different ways. Their White Beauty white tea is even more unique, and unlike anything I’ve tried: sweet and subtle with a nice fruit element.
It’s my understanding that processing has as much influence as the other factors in the final result, so it’s not surprising that more style consistency doesn’t emerge and that the teas are all so novel. To clarify, I mean that lighter Thai oolongs made from Jin Xuan or Ruan Zhi or Si Ji Chun are consistent in style as much because of drawing on consistent processing methods inherited from Taiwan as from growing in similar conditions.
Indonesian producers are still exploring stylistic inputs in addition to growing new types of tea plants, as Galung mentioned. For example, one of the owners of the Harendong plantation mentioned developing a tea roasted in a certain way to mimic some of the flavor elements typically found in coffee (maybe somewhere in between a Dong Ding style and dark-roasted TKY? Of course, they didn’t make that type of comparison).
This continuous development is even more interesting in light of the long Dutch tea history. This openness to experimentation and related positive results makes it an interesting time to try Indonesian teas.