JAKARTA: At first glance, the small, two-storey shop looks like a cafe.
Nestled inside an Art Deco building in the historic part of Jakarta, the shop is equipped with coffee making tools from manual espresso machines, electric grinders and oversized coffee siphons towering on top of an open bar kitchen.
But there are no coffee beans in sight. Instead, the rows of jars lining the counter are filled with dried turmeric, tamarind, aromatic ginger and a collection of other herbs and spices.
The shop named Acaraki sells jamu, an Indonesian herbal drink normally brewed in roadside stalls or sold by women in traditional Javanese outfits who travel on foot from one neighbourhood to the next.
Indonesians have been drinking jamu for their health for hundreds of years as it is believed to have medicinal properties which can boost stamina, alleviate symptoms and prevent illnesses.
But despite its benefits, jamu is on the verge of being extinct.
“Most Indonesians know what jamu is. They admit that jamu is healthy. But when I asked them if they drink jamu, most of them said no,” Joni Yuwono, who founded Acaraki in 2018, told CNA.
The financial analyst said 70 per cent of the people he talked to are put off by jamu’s bitter taste while 20 per cent said they were scared of trying, and they would like to know what goes into the concoction and how the ingredients are processed before they do so.
The remaining 10 per cent said they were willing to give jamu a try but it was becoming hard to find a jamu shop in a city like Jakarta.
Nova Dewi Setiabudi, an avid jamu drinker, also noted the same thing when she moved to Jakarta from her hometown Surabaya, East Java, in 2009.
“It was hard to find a jamu seller in Jakarta, unlike in the provinces. People here have almost zero passion for jamu, especially among the younger generation. In their minds, jamu is bitter and tastes like medicine. It is a drink for old people and considered uncool,” the businesswoman told CNA.
Setiabudi, and later Yuwono, were bent on making jamu relevant again, particularly among Jakarta’s youths. To do this, they have to get creative.
CREATING JAMU FOR THE YOUNGER GENERATION
One of the first challenges they had to tackle was jamu’s bitter taste.
Yuwono said he took inspiration from the world of coffee. “Most people don’t want to drink jamu because it is bitter. On the other hand, coffee is bitter. Why are people willing to drink coffee and not jamu?” he said.
He realised that many people got hooked on coffee by first drinking frappe, affogato, cafe latte and cappuccino instead of pure black coffee.
“Coffee used to be consumed to keep you awake. But it has since become a lifestyle drink. Why not jamu? Why don’t we try to explore the art of jamu and make jamu into a lifestyle drink?” Yuwono said.
And so Yuwono began to experiment, combining well-known jamu mixtures like “kunyit asam” (turmeric and tamarind) and “beras kencur” (rice and aromatic ginger) with soda, milk and ice cream.
He also wanted Acaraki to have an open kitchen concept so customers can see how their drinks are mixed, brewed and prepared, just like a cafe.
Acaraki uses tools and techniques found in coffee instead of the traditional method of boiling herbs and spices to make jamu.
The techniques allowed the brewer to extract jamu concentration with greater accuracy and consistency and prevent over-extraction, which could make jamu even more bitter.
While Acaraki uses modern tools and techniques and combines jamu with modern ingredients, Setiabudi went on a different route when she founded Suwe Ora Jamu in 2013.
Setiabudi experimented with producing her signature jamu blends to make her jamu more pleasant to drink.
“Our products are actually made out of the same ingredients used by traditional jamu sellers. But they are made freshly, with a hygienic process … they need to taste nice and be well presented,” she said.
LONG ROAD TO SUCCESS
Although an avid jamu drinker, Setiabudi was not a jamu expert.
It took her years of research and experiments before she could come up with her own blend. She opened Suwe Ora Jamu’s first outlet in South Jakarta at the lower half of her graphic design office.
The shop is a far cry from the tiny street-side stalls where jamu is normally sold, decorated to look like a traditional Javanese home with exposed bricks, worn out paints and vintage furniture.
Setiabudi did it all on her own in the early days, serving as the shop’s owner, brewer, cashier and marketing officer.
“In the beginning, the only customers we had were friends of mine or clients of my graphic design office. There were a few stray customers who thought the shop was a cafe. I had to explain to them that we serve jamu,” she said.
Slowly, word got out, Setiabudi said, particularly when Suwe Ora Jamu began staging workshops in jamu making, just months after it first opened.
But back then the people who were interested in jamu were expatriates instead of her intended target market, Indonesian youths.
That changed gradually over time, she said, particularly after she began hosting workshops at schools and universities.
“By 2015, I started to see more and more Indonesians attending my workshop, from school kids to housewife as well as academics,” Setiabudi said.
Suwe Ora Jamu now has seven outlets across Jakarta while its bottled jamu drinks are distributed in Bali, Bandung in West Java and Surabaya in East Java.
“In 2020, because of COVID-19 many of our workshops had to be done online. But because of this, we had foreigners and Indonesians living abroad attending our classes as well,” she said.
The pandemic has caused a renewed interest in jamu as people look for ways to boost their stamina and supplement their nutritional intake.
Graphic design lecturer and avid jamu drinker Sari Wulandari told CNA that with the extra demand there were people looking to start their own jamu business. But some of these entrepreneurs struggled to source the necessary ingredients.
Wulandari - along with Setiabudi and another friend, Enrico Halim - started Jamuuu.com in March and an Instagram account JamuKaka in April to connect jamu makers and herb and spice producers.
An app which will serve as a marketplace for these businesses and farmers is in the works.
“It takes a long time to make an app. But we cannot wait that long because people need jamu to boost their stamina,” Wulandari said.
Jamuuu also came up with its own products.
A hamper containing seven bottles of different jamu blends was launched in May, ahead of the Muslim holiday Idul Fitri. The jamu drinks were meant to be consumed over the course of seven days, each with different medicinal benefits.
“The idea was for people to send Idul Fitri hampers to their loved ones. Sending the hampers was supposed to symbolise that the sender was wishing the receiver good health amid the pandemic,” she said.
In June, Jamuuu launched Sodamu Pop, mixing carbonated water with five different jamu blends of varying intensity.
Wulandari said their sereh telang (lemon grass and Asian pigeonwings) and roselle pandan sodas are popular with beginner jamu drinkers, while the rest - kunyit jahe (turmeric and ginger), cinnamon citrus and exotic spices variants - are popular with the more avid consumers.
“We want people to drink jamu and make jamu as an everyday beverage. There is now no reason not to drink jamu, especially during this pandemic,” she said.
PRESERVING ANCIENT WISDOM
Yuwono said 70 per cent of Acaraki’s customers are teenagers and people in their 20s and 30s. “It is surprising for us too. When we open this we expect old men and ladies coming in,” he said.
The Acaraki founder said youths are even challenging each other to drink shots of sambiloto (green chiretta), a plant known as the “king of bitter” in some countries because of its extreme bitter taste.
Although Acaraki serves traditional jamu mixtures, most customers are drawn to the shop’s “new wave” drinks where jamu is combined with soda, milk or ice cream.
“Many purists will say (the new wave drinks) are not jamu, in the same manner that coffee aficionados will say that frappe is not coffee or tea purists saying that bubble tea is not tea,” Yuwono said.
“These new wave jamu mixtures are entry level jamu drinks. When people start to familiarise themselves, slowly they will try to appreciate pure jamu. It takes time.”
Yuwono said shops like his are creating demands for herb and spice farmers, particularly species and varieties which are becoming rare and on the verge of extinction.
“No one really explores the flavour of jamu. Aromatic ginger which comes from different areas gives out different flavour profiles. Turmeric from Sulawesi and turmeric from Java have different flavour profiles too,” he said.
“The benefits of various jamu ingredients and mixtures have not been fully studied. Our mission is to preserve them so that one day they can be properly researched.”
Setiabudi knows this problem well. Throughout her research on jamu she discovered many forgotten jamu mixtures and ingredients found in ancient texts and relics.
“There are ingredients which are becoming harder and harder to find because nobody grows them any more or because their wild habitat has been converted,” she said.
“There are many things which we need to explore and revive. This is local wisdom, passed down from generation to the next which we need to preserve. If we don’t preserve it then that ancient wisdom will be lost.”
“I hope others will also be inspired to preserve this cultural heritage of ours.”