JAKARTA: Around seven hours away from Indonesia's capital city of Jakarta lies the Harendong tea estate. Nestled in the mountainous area of Banten province, the estate is the closest plantation to the capital offering specialty teas.
Connoisseurs define specialty tea as high-quality teas that come from a single region, where factors such as climate and soil play a big part in how the tea tastes.
The leaves are usually handpicked and the procedure is meticulous, making it available only in limited quantities.
Earlier this year, tea connoisseurs banded together to form the Association of Indonesia Specialty Tea, or AISTea.
While specialty tea enthusiasts can interact with one another over their shared love for the beverage through the organisation, its main aim is to promote and expand the specialty tea market.
"In specialty tea we have so many types of tea like white tea, green tea, oolong and black tea and each plantation has different (varieties)," said tea specialist, Ratna Soemantri. "We want to introduce this kind of tea to the Indonesian people first and also to the world."
“The picking, which part of the tea is processed, the oxidation, the drying, the withering, all of it needs to be done with careful selection and skill mastery,” she added.
The connoisseur became a member of AISTea through her love for tea, having grown up in a family of tea lovers.
PLANTATIONS AND PRODUCTION
According to the American Specialty Tea Alliance, Indonesia is the seventh largest producer of tea in the world.
Despite this, AISTea said the concept of specialty tea is relatively new in Indonesia, emerging only in the last five years, with plantations growing the crop located in provinces such as Banten, Bengkulu, Sumatra, Central Java, West Java, and Bali.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Agriculture has previously estimated that tea production in 2018 will reach about 140,000 tonnes, the highest figure in the last four years. But specialty teas make up only about 10 per cent of this, leaving plenty of room for growth.
The Indonesian Tea Board said premium tea sales have helped to boost withering exports, which declined 20 per cent over five years until 2016.
European markets, especially Britain and the Netherlands, are said to have been increasing their purchases of premium tea, while the United States is also said to be one of Indonesia’s premium tea markets.
Data from the Central Statistics Bureau showed that the value of tea exports from January to November this year rose 183 per cent compared to the same period last year with as much as 52,000 tonnes of tea exported at a price of US$1.7 per kilogramme.
But while overseas demand for premium tea may be hot, local consumers are reluctant to drink it. According to industry players, not everyone is willing to pay a premium price.
Indonesian black tea usually sells for around US$2 per kg, but specialty tea could sell for around US$25 per kg. Some specialty teas could even cost more than US$100.
The Bukit Sari Company, which has been in the tea business for more than 40 years, said 36g of its white tea would cost consumers US$7.50.
What most consumers don't know is that the harvest for white tea is small; an area the size of nearly two football pitches typically yields only 500g of silver needle buds.
Product manager Ronald Gunawan told Channel NewsAsia that the domestic market has not learned to appreciate specialty teas yet.
“Indonesia still needs to be educated where specialty tea is concerned. Overseas, the response towards premium tea is quite favourable - people outside Indonesia are more willing to accept specialty tea ... In Indonesia, what people look for are larger volumes, the taste of the tea only needs to be okay," he said.
“As long as the colours come out of the leaves, that's enough for people."
But Ronald remained optimistic: "Once we get past the usual questions asking 'How is this tea different from the normal ones?', what we have found is that if we have succeeded in convincing consumers about the taste and they have tasted the specialty tea themselves, they will find it difficult to lower their standards again."
In contrast, local tea blends, in which teas from different regions are combined in proportions that produce the best flavour, receive a warmer welcome. This holds true especially for Haveltea, a gourmet Indonesia tea company.
Widyoseno Estitoyo, co-founder of the company, said Indonesian customers particularly enjoy blends consisting of flowers and fruits.
“From a price point of view, sure, we can benefit more from specialty teas but if we see our portfolio of products, it is our tea blends that make up about 80 per cent of our turnover rather than our specialty teas,” said Widyoseno.
“Our bestseller is the ‘Sleepwell’, which is tea from West Java which we mix with chamomile and lavender,” he said.
The lacklustre response domestically has not deterred AISTea.
The organisation said it is optimistic about the future of specialty tea, and expects domestic interest to increase over time through their workshops and programmes.
"It's so difficult to find good quality Indonesian tea even in Indonesia, but for coffee we can find it very easily, everywhere - cafes and coffee shops, everywhere they sell very good Indonesian coffee."
“But for (specialty) tea, they only sell at several events. If you go to the supermarket or the regular market it is still difficult to find. That’s why in AISTea one of our programmes is to make more and more people set up tea businesses using Indonesian tea, and this will help Indonesian tea become easier to get and more popular."
So far, participants have attended AISTea’s workshops from various places like Surabaya, Semarang and even the country’s easternmost province of Papua.
In addition to its own efforts, the organisation is also hoping to gain the support of the government in promoting specialty teas at trade and other events, and it is confident that it is making progress in shaking up the tea landscape, one teacup at a time.
This November, Indonesia held its first ever tea-brewing competition in Jakarta.
Organised by AISTea, tea masters from various plantations in the country along with tea specialists and culinary experts judged contestants in two main categories: Classic Hot Tea Brewing and Creative Tea Brewing, or Tea Mixologist.
Each contestant received a set of specialty teas, which they used to brew their best versions of classic hot tea, and to concoct creative beverages. The first-place winners of each category received prize money of more than US$300.
For contestants like Adrianus Kurniawan, the competition allowed him to polish his tea-brewing skills and he hopes to offer tea options at the coffee roastery he works at.
"Actually, the tea industry now is what the coffee industry was, some years back like in the 2000s, when the coffee industry was not that advanced even though we have a lot of plantations that are quite large in Indonesia,” said Adrianus.
"Our teas were actually exported out and then imported to re-enter Indonesia using foreign brands. I think it's a little sad because we have very good quality teas."
The 25-year-old has been working at a local coffee roastery for one year, where he found that tea and coffee often went side-by-side but simply had different characteristics. This was precisely what drew him to learn more about tea.
“Perhaps we can also create awareness with such competitions, spread the word on social media, open teahouses and show that there are also different types of specialty tea,” he said.
For 26-year-old food technologist Retna Prawita, tea was something she drank regularly growing up. In fact, she rarely drinks water and prefers to drink tea instead.
Her decision to take part in the tea brewing competition was unsurprising, especially since she hopes to open her own teahouse someday.
“My father likes coffee and I like tea and we would like to open some sort of beverage stall, but I want to offer a variety of teas in teapots so I can educate people about Indonesia’s different specialty teas as well, for example white tea," said Retna.
While she entered the competition to advance her tea-related knowledge, she also noted the meticulous brewing process for specialty teas.
“The brewing method also determines the taste of the tea so how hot the water is, how much water we use to brew it, all these factors matter,” she said.
“People in Indonesia are used to drinking very floral-tasting tea while specialty tea (has) a lighter flavour and this may not be to everyone's taste."