After quite a long journey in Africa, the change of atmosphere is radical when we landed in Indonesia. The tropical climate (warm & humid) is intense as soon as we left the Jakarta airport. The city is full of people, skyscrapers, motorbike and obviously street food smells are everywhere. We are starting our trip with lots of joy and expectations, in this country full of projects and development perspectives. In Indonesia, contrasts are important: rural life embodies old traditions whereas big malls welcome young trendy teenagers. But two main values are constant: religious believes are important as well as being open-minded and wonderful guests.
After several days in the capital (especially to obtain our chinese visa for the next stop of the Tea Travelers team), we took a break to look at the Indonesian map. It is a real patchwork of ethnos, religions, habits and Indonesia includes almost 17,000 islands. Of course not of all of them have inhabitants… But hard not to get lost!
Luckily, when it comes to tea, the production areas are quite concentrated. Java, the most densely populated island, got 60% of the Indonesian tea production. The rest is located north of Sumatra. We decided to focus our trip to the Java island and moreover to its west part. We will have meetings in 2 different places. First, in the Harendong tea estate closed to the city of Bogor and then in the famous Research Insitute for Tea and Cinchona south of the city of Bandung.
Fully ready with our Tea Travelers sweat-shirts, our notebook and our pencil, we are waiting for Dr Alexander Halim, CEO of Harendong. We are currently in Bogor, 1h south of Jakarta. Early in the morning, Mr Halim comes to pick us up with Gideon, the marketing manager. This is when we realize that we still have 5h of car to reach our final destination: the Harendong Tea Estate.
Harendong is a very young tea plantation, just founded in 2006. It is quite an exception in the area where most of the tea plantations are closed to be replaced by most profitable plantation such as palm tree or rubber. Indonesia ranks 7th for tea production in the world but its production decreases year after year and it is now behind Vietnam. From 90% of exportation in 2008, Indonesia exports now only 60% of the tea that it produces. This change is mainly driven but the increase of domestic demand as well as the dropdown of historical big international customers such as the USA. But Harendong is definitively opposite to this trend. The company exports 80% of its production throughout the world and one of its main clients is… Starbucks (with its tea brand TeaVana). Also, Germany is interested by Oolong tea and Japan is the first customer for green tea. Harendong produces 4 orthodoxes high quality tea: black tea, light oolong, medium oolong and green tea.
Did you know?
In this region live the Badui minority. They kept most of their tradition and believe. Each family grows tea but they cannot sell it. The only way is to swap it. Mr Halim shows us the house of their local “king”, who is still recognized as local authority by the member of this ethnic group.
Around 1pm, we arrive at the plantation which is covered by mist. Before 2006, there were absolutely nothing… Just forests and bushes. The investors have financed the construction of roads, electricity facilities as well as a factory, young bushes and modern machines. It was quite a heavy investment but successful according to Mr Halim who explains that the demand is too big for their production. Fortunately, the company owns 140 hectares of land but only 40 are currently used for tea production. Harendong short terms project is to extend the tea production surface as well as ginger and species to diversify the incomes. With 36 tons of tea produced each year, Harendong is far for being the biggest in Indonesia but it is a perfect example that investment in tea can be the right thing to do, even nowadays.
As we are having a delicious lunch, typical from Indonesia, Mr Halim explains that the plantation has several organic certification such as IMO (European certification now controlled by Ecocert), USDA (American), JAS (Japanese), COR (Canadian) and SNI (Indonesian).
It is now time to go to visit the plant with Gideon and the factory manager. He has worked 20 years in Sumatra before joining Harendong. The factory uses an orthodoxe process similar to the one used in Taiwan. We get dressed as required with white overall, mob cap and plastic sandals. The factory is quite big but it has not reached its maximal production yet. As soon as we get in, we can smell nice and strong vegetables flagrance from the leaves. Some fresh leaves, plucked in the morning, are spread out on the floor on big mats.
The factory manager tells us that they are currently producing Oolong. We follow him in the factory to better understand how it works.
Sun withering: the 1st step after plucking to remove the moisture of the fresh leaves. No machine to control the moisture but only expertise from the workers.
Indoor withering: The fresh leaves are then placed in a room with controlled temperature and moisture to finalize the withering.
Waving: The leaves are brought inside in bamboo rolling drum where they gently shaken. It helps to “bruise” the fresh leaves and start the oxidation process.
Oxidation: the leaves are then placed back in a room with controlled temperature and moisture and this is when the oxidation can really start. It can last 4 to 6hrs for Oolong but as long as 2 days for black tea.
Desiccation: the leaves are fired in rolling oven at around 90°C to stop the oxidation process.
Rolling: the rolling machine creates compact tea balls. Step n°4 and 5 are done several times until the tea balls have the requested aspect and that the humidity level is acceptable.
Roasted: a big drying machine will help to make the tea fully dried with high temperature.
Packaging : the leaves are then packed and send to customers.
Harendong produces black tea, green tea or oolong based on demand only. We spend some time as well with Gideon in the nursery where the garden manager is keeping the young bushes for the extension of the plantation. Harendong is using Camelia Sinensis exclusively as it is well-known for better quality and aroma. However most of the Indonesian tea is made out of Camelia Assamica which allows better yields. Before having the chance to test the teas, we walk among the plantation surrounded by amazing sceneries of green hills covered by well organized tea bushes. Thanks to the tropical climate, Harendong can pluck all year long, every 40-45 days per bush depending of the season.
The day after, we wake up early to join the pluckers in the tea fields. We start hearing women laughing and chatting. Quickly, we can see bamboo conical hat everywhere… Here they are! ‘Selamat pagi’ ! We are more than welcomed by their smiles.
They are wearing big plastic shoes and plastic protection for their clothes. Not long for us to understand why as we start walking among the bushes… In couples of seconds, our shoes are completely wet. Furthermore, the ground is really full of water after the rains and it is very slippery. The plucking is not a piece of cake here. We are far from the dry and flat plantation of Africa ! 1, 2, 3 leaves for this plucking by hand. Similar to the workers in the factory, these women knew nothing about tea before working for the plantation. Harendong has created 150 jobs, a good thing for the area.
It is now time to leave…with two tea packs as a gift from our amazing guests here in Harendong.
We did not know the Indonesian tea (not really known in France), we are really surprised by the little treasury that we can find such as Harendong. Our next step is south of Bandung to meet with Dr Rohayati Suprihatini. We are looking forward to visit the Research Institute for Tea and Cinchona. Thus, we take a train from Jakarta to Bandung followed by 3hrs of car to access the remote area where the institute is located, south of Bandung.
The institute is located in the middle of a tea plantation created in the beginning of the XXème century by Mr. Kerkhoven, a dutch pioneer tea planter. The land is vast: 400 hectares of tea and 200 hectares of protected forest. Dr Rohayati Suprihatini welcomes us with a large smile. She has been working for the institute for several years and leads a team of 22 researchers from different expertise area (biology, agriculture, nutrition, mechanical engineering, pharmacy…). She is a doctor in technology science. We start the visit by the institute building, which are empty as we are on Saturday. The institute has several objectives: clone and improve tea bushes, create new production machine and offer advisory missions. The institute also sells the products of its research, mainly to Indonesian customers. Dr Rohayati is passionate and discussing with her is great! She proudly introduces us to the Gamboeng 7 (aka. GMB) based on Camelia Assamica. The Indonesian tea is famous for having one of the highest concentration of cathecins in the world, an antioxidant.
The institute owns more than 600 collections of tea bushes… Amazing! They work closely with other research institutes around the globe. For instance, Sri Lanka sent them some of their local bushes. But the institute is not only about research. The factory applies the results. The green tea production uses a brand new heating system created by the institute and using natural gaz. It is much better than using fire wood and it helps to reduce the MRL to comply with Union European regulations.
Did you know?
Dr Rohayati conducted research works which clearly states that the Gamboeng white tea has lots of benefits for human health such blood pressure, cholesterol, cancer, strengthen bones and teeth as well as curing H1N1 flu. Why? Thanks to the high concentration of cathecins, a powerful antioxidant.
For this rare and expensive tea, only the buds are plucked. The factory is really small: everything is manual and the process is really simple. The buds are placed under the sun to dry. When the temperature reaches 50°C, they are removed from the sun to cool down and replaced and so on so forth for 3 days until the humidity level is closed to 5%. The buds have now a very bright silver color. By hand, women now need to remove all the buds which are opened. We only keep the closed bud to maximize the aroma. The end product is then sterilized to remove bacteria. 12 tons of fresh buds each year are collected by the institute but it will give only 2.5 tons of white tea. The quantities are low but definitely high quality so … The price is high at almost 100$/kg for wholesale. The white tea is sold locally or to Middle East countries.
We are now back in the guesthouse to taste this famous white tea. As Dr Rohayati tells us, it needs to be brewed 7 mins at 90-80°C. The 1st time will be for aromas and relaxation. The 2nd will capture the health benefits of the tea buds. She recommends 6 cups a day. Not sure if it is already the benefits of the tea, but the aroma of this floral and delicate white tea is highly appreciated. Unfortunately, it is impossible to find it in Europe, quantity are too low to get a good freight cost. But Dr Royahati offers us a box that we can bring back to France in our backpack … Enough to observe the health benefits of the tea on a longer period!
We really enjoyed this experience among the clones as it was very different from what we have already seen in Indonesia but also Africa, India or Nepal. The challenges of Dr Rohayati’s are big but unfortunately government support is very low as they are more targeting standard agriculture domains such as corn or rice.
Our adventure is still going on in Indonesia but more focus on tourism now… Let’s get some good times in Bali and Lombok to enjoy beaches, ride some motorbikes in the rice terraces and do trekking on the Rinjani moutains. The next stop for the Tea Travelers team will be China at the end of June… We will try to find the root of the tea culture. See you!