Earlier this month I had the incredible opportunity to visit the island of West Java, Indonesia with Nespresso and learn hands-on about the coffee-growing process there as a part of their AAA Sustainable Quality™ Program. It started off with a drive into the rural countryside, where we paused to switch rides to a jeep and tasted our first bit of locally grown coffee. Much like wine and grape varietals, different varieties of the coffee bean plant create very different tasting brews. There are two main types of coffee beans, robusta and arabica, and then many different varieties under each of those types of the coffee plant (kind of like red grapes vs white grapes). Arabica is more subtle and complex, and more difficult to grow which makes it more expensive. Robusta is more prominent and intense in flavor, and easier to grow so it’s more affordable. Indonesia grows a majority of arabica, and we started off tasting coffee from Garut, which is an arabica bean with a really pleasant nutty, smooth, and chocolate-y flavor.
With a little extra spring in our step, we hopped in the jeep and started going up the muddy, winding road, past the mono-culture tea plantations, and up into the lush, emerald jungle of Java right on their peripheral. We arrived at the farm and walked up the soft damp path to the shaded farm, dense with the canopy of trees. Why so many trees, you might be wondering? Well, the coffee plant thrives under the shade of trees, and doesn’t like too much direct sunlight. Because of this love affair, Nespresso has helped the local farmer’s they work with plant over 100,000 trees in Indonesia alone over the past 4 years, hugely slowing the affects of climate change in the area, increasing the air quality, and reducing mud slides during the rainy season.
The farmers we visited used organic growing practices, they had animals that lived on the property and would compost their manure with other plant waste to create a rich compost that they spread around the bottoms of the coffee plants. The traditional farming culture there prefers to use the older, more natural way of growing, which results in a tastier, more well-balanced bean and healthier ecosystem overall. The farmers own their own land, and Nespresso helps them get started with education on growing and connecting them with the local processing house (which we visited and I’ll talk more about in a sec!) They have no obligation, legally or otherwise, to sell their beans to Nespresso, and are welcome to sell to whoever will pay them the most for their beans. It was a really refreshing + supportive relationship that genuinely was there to support the growers and their community.
We learned how to pick coffee cherries (the fruit the bean is inside), which involves very gently picking the cherry from the bush, being careful not to take the stem with it. Inside each cherry are only two coffee beans, so you need to pick quite a lot of cherries to make one cup of coffee! With our baskets dotted with the red cherries we managed to pick in 10 minutes’ time, we sat down for lunch. After that the farmer’s wife + family made us an *incredible* authentic Indonesian spread, complete with all the peanut sauce-laden dishes of the area, and it was my favorite meal of the trip. The farmers there are encouraged to grow vegetables alongside the coffee plants, so that they can have a steady and fresh food supply for themselves and their families, and you could taste the brightness of the local ingredients in every bite.
The next day we ventured to the processing house, where the beans are separated from the cherries by crushing the fruit slightly to get the beans out. The beans are coated in a thin membrane, which is allowed to ferment on the berry slightly until it softened enough to be washed from the bean. After the beans are rinsed, they’re laid out on bamboo racks in bamboo greenhouses to dry out in the sun. Using sunlight as a natural heat source *hugely* reduces the energy used during the drying process, and eliminates the emissions that come with it.
Once the beans are dried to about 13% moisture, they’re then sorted by hand to separate beans that are overripe, under ripe, or have damage like holes from insects or being accidentally broken. The interesting part was that the coffee industry is so booming that every type of bean, even the ones with defects, are able to be sold. The highest quality beans are purchased by Nespresso , but the broken ones or under/overripe ones are purchased by lower quality companies. We did a taste test of coffee made from the exact same variety of bean, but separated out into damaged beans, over ripe beans, under ripe beans, and perfect beans, and WOW what a huge taste difference it made! That’s a big part of why cheap coffee legitimately tastes terrible, it’s because they’re using beans that are damaged or over/under ripe to make it.
The drying house is also where they start the coffee plants from seed, and I got to plant a few seeds myself! The baby coffee plants were so cute and leafy, it was really wonderful to be able to sow some while we were there. It happened to be raining torrentially at the time, but who cares about getting a little wet when gardening is involved! 🙂
The last day of the trip we stayed in the larger city of Bandung and visited several local coffee shops to try out some of the other coffee varieties and see how the locals were enjoying it. Because Indonesia is a Muslim country and most people don’t drink alcohol, coffee has taken on the cultural equivalent of ‘going out for a drink’ in the western world. So when we went at 9 am, they were totally empty because no one in Indonesia drinks coffee in the morning since it’s more of an afternoon and evening social activity. Such a big difference from the coffee shops back home in Portland, many of which are closed by 5 pm.
It was a beautiful trip and so fascinating to learn about the journey from coffee bean to cup. Knowing the amount of care, effort, and hard work that goes into creating each and every cup of coffee makes me enjoy and appreciate it all the more, especially when I think back to all the farmers + growers we met. Can’t wait until the day I can return to this beautiful country…
This post was made in partnership with Nespresso , but all opinions are my own, per usual!