Indonesia Coffee Factory Still Roasting After 80 Years

By webadmin on 06:56 pm Jan 16, 2011
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Sylviana Hamdani

At Paberik Kopi Aroma, near Bandung’s city center, time stands still — literally.

The grandfather clock in the room where the workers weigh and package freshly ground coffee stopped at 20 minutes past four a long ago.

“I’ve just never gotten around to fixing it,” said Widya Pratama, the current owner of the long-standing coffee company, which name translates as Aroma Coffee Factory.

Widya inherited the business, at the junction of Jalan Pecinan Lama (Old Chinatown) and Jalan Banceuy — along with the clock — from his father, Tan Houw Sian, who founded it in 1930. Like the clock, not much has changed since then.

Tan learned all about coffee while working at a Dutch coffee plantation and factory in Bandung. Starting out as a day laborer in 1920, the young man carefully observed the art of coffee cultivation, harvesting and processing as he toiled in the fields and factory. His hard work and dedication did not go unnoticed. Tan was soon appointed as an overseer in the factory. However, he dreamed of starting his own business and, in 1930, he resigned to build his own coffee factory.

With his life savings, the fledgling entrepreneur purchased 2,000 square meters of land in Bandung’s old Chinatown and used it to build a new home, shop and coffee factory. To equip his new factory, he imported coffee roasters and machines with centrifugal filters from Germany. To obtain the best beans, Tan surveyed coffee plantations throughout Java and Sumatra, by both land and sea. And he took his bicycles with him every time he went on these expeditions.

“There they are,” Widya said, pointing to the vintage Raleigh and Humberg bicycles that decorate the factory walls.

“I kept them there to remind myself of my father’s struggles in building the business.”

Tan decided he would hand the business over to Widya in 1971, when he was only 19 years old and still a freshman studying economics at Bandung’s Padjadjaran University. When he finished his studies, Widya decided to focus on his father’s business.

“I was his only heir, so I had to become a tukang kopi [coffee merchant],” he said with a laugh.

Widya’s day starts with roasting coffee beans, together with his workers, as early as four in the morning. They use an old coffee roaster that was built by a Dutch company in 1930, which still works remarkably well even today.

According to Widya, his father’s simple principles are what have kept the machine functioning smoothly.

“Go by the book,” he said. “When the guidelines say that you have to put in a hundred, you shouldn’t lower the standards just to save money. Be honest in what you do.”

Widya demonstrated the roaster by pouring yellowed coffee beans into a giant steel bowl that rotated above a blazing furnace, releasing the heady aroma of freshly brewed coffee into the air.

He uses waste wood from rubber plantations around Bandung to roast his coffee beans.

“The coffee smells great,” he said. “It’s environmentally safe. The farmers thrive. Everyone’s happy.”

“I used to live behind his house,” said Meina, Widya’s former neighbor. “I used to wake up to the great smell of coffee that wafted over from his place.”

Even though the 50-year-old housewife has moved to another location across town, she still buys her coffee from Widya.

“It’s flavorsome,” she said. “When you brew it with boiling water and stir, the coffee will foam up and smell wonderful. Then, you can add a little sugar. The taste is just right for me.”

When the sun rises, Widya lays out the coffee beans, recently harvested from plantations across Java and Sumatra, under direct sunlight in his backyard for seven hours, which he says is necessary for the beans to mature properly.

The dried coffee beans are then put into jute bags and kept in a storage room for several years. He ages his robusta beans for five years and arabica beans for eight years. This practice, according to Widya, lowers the caffeine level and acidity of the coffee to a third of its original level.

“Economically speaking, it’s a great loss,” he said.

The coffee will lose 1 percent of its water content for every year it is stored, causing the beans to lose a substantial amount of their weight, but there are benefits.

“Those who drink it this way will stay healthy,” he said. “They won’t get bloated or suffer from stomach ulcers in the long run.”

Riska Diana, a banking executive in Jakarta, first read about Kopi Aroma in a travel magazine in 2007.

“I used to be skeptical [of its benefits],” she said. “But, I decided to give it a try and bought a small packet when I traveled to Bandung.”

Riska, who has a sensitive stomach, brewed a small cup of the coffee and waited for the unpleasant reaction she usually gets from drinking coffee. But there wasn’t any.

“I didn’t think much of it at that time,” she said. “I just thought my stomach had finally gotten better.”

But when the small pack ran out and she brewed a sachet of instant coffee at her office, she once again got an upset stomach.

“So now I’m hooked,” she said with a laugh. “I ask my friends who go to Bandung to buy it for me.”

At the shop in front of his factory, Widya sells 250 gram packets of freshly ground robusta for Rp 13,500 and arabica for Rp 10,500.

“But, my father specifically asked me to let anyone, even those who don’t have enough money, buy the coffee,” he said. “So, let’s say you only have Rp 5,000, you can still buy and enjoy Kopi Aroma.”

Today, Kopi Aroma is also available in Jakarta at Alun Alun, at Grand Indonesia Shopping Town; Kem Chicks, Pacific Place Mall; Cosmo Japanese Supermarket, Grand Wijaya Center, Jalan Kebayoran Baru; and the Bandung Farmer, Jalan Warung Jati Barat.

Does Widya have any further plans to expand his market?

“Not really,” he said, with a laugh. “I’m already happy with what I have. We shouldn’t be greedy in life.”

Tarlen Handayani, owner of Tobucil & Klabs bookstore in Bandung, also buys her coffee from Kopi Aroma. She expressed her admiration for Widya and his dedication and business principles.

“I’ve learned from him that growing your business is not really that important,” she said. “What’s more important is keeping the passion alive.”

As a regular customer, Tarlen has watched Widya doing the same thing everyday, year after year, and yet he never loses his spirit.

“It seems like a boring thing to do,” she said. “You know, tending to his shop and factory day to day for many years. Yet I never see him frown or not be enthusiastic about it. He greets his old customers like old friends and would gladly take anyone on a tour of his factory.”

But Widya is more than just a coffee merchant. In addition to tending to his factory and small shop, he also teaches economics at his alma mater.

“For me, it’s a way to give thanks to Prof. Rochmat Soemitro, a professor of tax law at Padjadjaran University, who helped me a lot in my studies,” he said.

When Widya was a child, the professor, a family friend, always helped him with his studies after school.

“My father was too busy with his coffee business at that time, so I’d go to his house to study,” he said. “I became who I am today because of the professor.”

Besides teaching economics at Padjadjaran , Widya also manages Yayasan Bhakti Mitra Utama, an foundation that cares for children in Bandung that have multiple disabilities.

“I’ve been given a lot in life,” said the devout Catholic. “And now, I’d like to give as much as I’ve been given, and maybe a little more.”

Passion, honesty and a heart full of gratitude seems to be the time-honored virtues that keeps Kopi Aroma going in this fast-paced, modern world, proof that being stuck in time can sometimes be a good thing.