The history and taste of Indonesian coffee, island by island

Grown in volcanic ash, amongst chilis and spices, Indonesian coffees are prized for their unique, unmistakable flavors, velvety mouthfeel, and earthy tones. The secret? Location, location, location. Nestled between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the Republic of Indonesia is composed of more than 16,000 mountainous, volcanic islands, including arabica coffee favorites, Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi. Located in the bean belt just south of the equator, these islands, with their ocean mist, volcanic soil, soaring heights, and natural old growth forests, are ideal for growing coffee.

Coffee was first brought to the Indonesian island of Java in the late 1600s by Dutch settlers who smuggled seeds over from Yemen. These pure bourbon seeds flourished on the island and by the early 1700s, Java was commercially exporting arabica beans1. By the mid-1800s, the Dutch colonists had established large arabica plantations2 on eastern Java’s Ijen Plateau and had begun cultivating crops on other Indonesian islands, including Sulawesi, Bali, Timor, and Sumatra. Concurrently with the Dutch coffee expansion, the Portuguese began growing a different cultivar of arabica on the islands of East Timor and Flores. While Indonesian’s early coffee production was dominated by large plantations, coffee as a cash crop truly flourished in the 1920s, once most of the nation’s coffee was in the hands of small landholders. Small growers received another boost in 1945 when foreign-held plantations were nationalized as part of Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch.

Today, Indonesia is one of the world’s top ten coffee producers with a staggering 90+ percent of the nation’s coffee grown naturally by small landholders holding no more than 2.5 acres (1 hector) of land. The majority of these farms still use traditional farming techniques and a traditional coffee wet-hulling method known as giling basah, which accentuates the deep, earth notes and rich texture of a fine Indonesian. While these wonderful notes and complex texture are seen in all Indonesian arabicas, there are nuanced flavor differences by island.

Flores Island

BALI, westernmost of the Lesser Sunda Islands, is located east of Java, nestled between the Indian Ocean and Java and Flores seas. Known for its stunning views and rich biodiversity (Bali is part of the Coral Triangle), Bali also grows some of the world’s most coveted coffee, kopi luwak, or civet coffee. Grown near the Mount Batur volcano in northeastern Kintamani, Balinese coffee is complex with a weighty, silky body, low acidity, and strong woody tones that rise beneath delicately spiced citrus tones.

FLORES Island, named for its stunning underwater gardens, is a small jewel of an island, with breathtaking mountain ranges soaring 7,500+ feet above sea level, fertile volcanic ash soil, and a perfect climate for growing exceptional coffee. A mere 360 miles in length, Flores is one of Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands and coffee is one of the island’s primary agricultural exports. The coffee plant that was brought to Flores by Portuguese traders has since been cross-bred with seeds from the island of Java to create a bean with uniquely sweet chocolate, floral, and earth notes. Shade-grown on small farms sitting 5,500+ feet above sea level, Flores coffee is sustainable and naturally-grown.

JAVA, the home of Indonesian coffee, is now dominated by small farms, with the large colonial-era plantations producing a mere fraction of the island’s arabica exports. Naturally-grown in eastern Java, along the soaring (4,500+ feet above sea level) volcanic Ijen Plateau, Javanese coffee plants absorb the nutrients and wonderful flavors of their soil to create a wonderfully rich, full-bodied coffee with dark chocolate undertones and spicy chili overtones. Javas have a molasses-like texture and are slightly more acidic than other Indonesians.

PAPUA is the Indonesian (western) half of New Guinea. Historically known as Irian Java, Papua has two primary growing regions, Baliem Valley in the central highlands, and Kamu Valley in the Nabire Region. Organically-grown under a natural shade canopy 4,500+ feet above sea level, Papua coffee is silky with a syrupy mouthfeel, rich chocolate base, and sweet spiced-maple upper notes.

SULAWESI Island, also known as Celebes, is one of four Greater Sunda Islands and the world’s eleventh-largest island. Sulawesi is uniquely shaped, with four peninsulas, stretching to the south, southeast, east, and north — all connected by Central Sulawesi. While each of these peninsulas has soaring mountain ranges, most of Sulawesi’s arabica coffee grows in the Tana Toraja highlands located west / southwest of Central Sulawesi. Over 95% of Sulawesi’s arabica coffee is naturally-grown in Toraja on small, family-owned plots. Sulawesi coffee is smooth and earthy with deep, gentle spice and sweet nut tones that close with a bright finish.

SUMATRA, the largest of the Sunda Islands and the sixth-largest island in the world, is also Indonesia’s top producer of arabica coffee. Globally coveted and praised, Sumatran coffees are uniquely intense with a thick, creamy texture, low acidity, and deep, almost bitter, chocolate, chili, sweet fruit, cedar, tobacco, and earth notes. Phenomenally diverse with pristine old growth forests, soaring volcanos (arabica grows 4,000+ feet above sea level), rich soil, stable microclimates, and the biodiversity needed to create a naturally eco-friendly, complex cup, Sumatra is ideal for growing coffee. There are two primary coffee growing regions on Sumatra, the northern Gayo region, centered around Aceh, and the mid-north district of Lintong, located southwest of Lake Toba. Both regions boast soaring volcanic mountain ranges and both growing regions are dominated by small landholders (92+%) practicing natural, traditional farming techniques.

To check out our selection of Sumatra coffees, please click here.

1Fun fact! The Dutch sent their beans to Europe via the Yemeni port of Mohka. In Mokha, the Javanese beans were mixed with Yemeni beans to create the worlds first known coffee blend, Mocha Java.

2In the 1880s, after a devastating attack of coffee rust struck the island of Java, wiping out much of the arabica crop, the Dutch introduced low-growing robusta plants to the island.

3 thoughts on “The history and taste of Indonesian coffee, island by island

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  1. I have never had coffee from Bali or Flores. Hope one day… Indonesian coffees are great but sometimes difficult especially for lovers of Kenyan or Ethiopian beans.


      1. Last year I had opportunity to try coffees from 167 roasteries from more than 15 countries. Any Flores beans . This will be my goal for this year 🙂


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