Bringing the Fine Art of Good Tea to Jakarta
Tasa Nugraza Barley
Jakartans know their way around coffee. The abundance of international chains around the city like Starbucks, the Coffee Bean and Gloria Jean’s, as well as local coffee houses like Bakoel Koffie, Bengawan Solo and Anomali, is proof of this.
But try asking the city’s residents what their favorite tea is.
“Most people might answer teh botoh [bottled tea],” said Bambang Laresolo, a member of Pecinta Teh, or Tea Lovers, a local organization dedicated to appreciation of the beverage.
According to Bambang, specialty coffees have become identified with a more upscale lifestyle, while tea is still generally seen as an everyday drink. He added that the availability of various brands of bottled tea, including at traditional food vendors in the streets, is an indication of the different way tea has become part of the culture.
“It’s too bad that we Indonesians only drink low-quality tea,” said Ratna Somantri, who founded the organization that seeks to increase awareness of the beverage in Indonesia in May 2007. Because of her parents, Ratna, an auditor by profession, has always loved tea.
Her mother, a big tea drinker, showed her the Javanese way of drinking tea using traditional teapots and cups, as well as tea from orchids with no sugar. Her Indonesian-Chinese father has also nurtured her love for the beverage. “My father’s relatives were loyal tea drinkers.”
Ratna said that although she still drinks coffee and other beverages, she prefers tea because of the uniquely different sensation it offers. She is even skilled enough to be able to differentiate the good from the bad.
So what makes tea good? Ratna said high-quality tea was characterized by a pleasing aroma and strong taste. “Some tea products are even treated like wine. The longer they are kept, the better taste they have,” she said.
Pecinta Teh wants to encourage more Indonesians to enjoy the local high-quality tea products that are mostly exported to other countries.
“We have many high-quality tea products, such as teh ulung from Bengkulu, which is exported to Taiwan. But it’s too bad the local market can’t enjoy it,” Bambang said.
The group, which has about 250 members who actively interact online, has a mailing list where love of the beverage is shared. The community also holds monthly events at different venues.
“During the event, we usually do a tea tasting, trade tea products and other interesting things related to tea,” Ratna said.
She added that it would probably take a while before high-quality tea becomes accepted in the mainstream. She cited the case of a major tea producer who introduced a quality tea product selling for Rp 54,000 ($6) for a package of 10 sachets.
The tea was deemed expensive by the public. “That’s not expensive at all. True high-quality tea can be sold at Rp 1 million per kilogram,” Ratna said.
Bambang explained that the key differentiator of teas was how they were produced. Categorized based on the oxidation process that the leaves undergo then they are chemically combined with oxygen, these teas include white, green, black and oolong.
Bambang said the less oxidation, the better the tea. Many consider white tea the best since it is barely oxidized. “When mixed with water, white tea is very clear. It smells very good and has a very soft texture,” Bambang said.
“But no one can really claim that one tea is better than another because it’s all about preference, after all.”
For her part, Ratna always makes it a point to buy tea when she travels abroad. She finds this both fun and educational because she learns about a country’s culture through its tea.
Although tea originated from China, Ratna said “drinking tea is a serious business in Japan” because of its intricate tea ceremonies.
One is the chanoyu , performed in a special room where they have ikebana , or floral arrangements, and painting. They also wear a special kimono for the ceremony.
Ratna said the culture of drinking tea in Indonesia was introduced by the Chinese while they traded in the islands and the Dutch when they occupied the country.
“When we welcome guests or talk to others, we drink tea,” Ratna said. “It’s a casual moment.”