TORAJA, Indonesia (AFP) – For decades, there wasn’t a coffee shop anywhere in Indonesia’s Toraja region even as its high-quality beans grabbed top dollar on the international market.
Locals in the lush, mountainous area on Sulawesi island used the bitter beverage in traditional ceremonies, gave away their extra beans to neighbours for free or traded them for a sack of rice and livestock.
But Toraja is experiencing a mini-explosion in cafés, with dozens of shops sprouting up in the region courtesy of entrepreneurs like Suleman Miting.
Coffee was introduced to the region by Islamic traders around the 18th Century, but for most Torajans paying to drink it in a store was an alien idea.
“If I ran out of coffee, I’d just go to my neighbour’s place,” Miting said from his 16-seat shop in North Toraja.
“Us Torajans are not used to drinking coffee at a café,” he added. But when world coffee prices dropped several years ago, putting pressure on local farmers, Miting said it opened a window for a new business in the area that squeezed out middlemen who largely controlled prices.
The situation in Toraja mirrors a coffee culture explosion across Indonesia, particularly among young people living in cities.
The region mostly produces arabica beans, which have a milder taste and lower caffeine concentration than the alternative robusta beans. It’s unique coffee has won devotees abroad – particularly in Japan. The Toarco Toraja brand is well known in Tokyo and exports are mostly run by a Japanese firm that takes its beans from a 500-hectare plantation almost 2,000 metres above sea level.
During harvest season between May and September, dozens of workers scuttle from plant to plant picking the ruby red beans before they are processed at a large factory in Toraja and shipped out.
But Indonesia’s army of small-scale coffee farmers, who have little marketing experience and can have low yields, are still struggling in a competitive global market.
In recent years it has been knocked back to become the world’s fourth-largest coffee exporter, behind Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia, respectively.
Indonesia was previously in third spot globally until it was overtaken by Vietnam in the late 90s.