All About the Island of Java in Indonesia

Indonesia-Prambanan-Temple

 

Have you ever wondered why some people use the word “java” as slang for cup of coffee? Well, wonder no longer. Here is some information about the Indonesian island of Java, where coffee trees have been growing for centuries.

You may have heard the term “Java coffee.” This actually refers to specific coffee beans produced on Java. But somewhere in time, java became slang for coffee (just like “cup of joe”). The Indonesian phrase  Kopi Jawa refers to a specific type of strong, black, and sweet coffee.

Some coffee fans claim that you should only say “java” only if  referring to beans from the island. Chances are, that won’t happen any time soon. After all, java’s kind of a fun word, right?

Geography

Java is in southeast Asia, the most populated island in the world, and home to over half of Indonesia’s population. It’s also where most of the country’s history unfolded.  Part of the Greater Sunda Islands archipelago, it has the Java Sea to the north and Indian Ocean to the south.

It’s also not far from Sumatra, another coffee-producing island within Indonesia’s Ring of Fire. Both islands are rich in volcanic ash, great for growing coffee. We’ll discuss more about that that in a bit.

Java formed for the most part because of volcanoes. Its 38 mountains have all been volcanic at one point. Mount Merapi is the most active volcano in both Java and in Indonesia. Between these mountainous areas and other highlands lie isolated regions where wet rice is cultivated.

For much of Java’s history, people have altered the landscape to accommodate more people. Agricultural kingdoms have existed here since ancient times.

 

Indonesia-Telaga-Warna

 

A Bit of History

Where Java actually got its name is a bit murky. One theory is that it’s an adaptation of the Sanskrit word yava, which means “barley,” an abundant grain on the island. Another possibility comes from the grain called foxtail millet, or jáwa-wut.  It’s not hard to see why both might transition to “Java.”

Fossils found along the Bengawan Solo River, the longest on the island, put Java at around 1.7 million years old. The island’s rivers were the primary means of communication before Europeans  colonized  Java. Although early colonization began with the Portuguese around 1522, the later-arriving Dutch had more influence.

Like other East Indies colonies, Java was under French rule during the Napoleonic wars. By 1811, Java was part of the British Empire but returned to the Dutch by 1814.  After World War II, Dutch sovereignty transferred to Indonesia. On November 2, 1949, East Indies nationalists finally declared their independence.

During early colonization, rice was the main crop. It was eventually exported to other areas, such as the Banda Islands. Today, fishing also contributes to the island’s economy – along with coffee, of course. Java is the geographic center of Indonesia, and also the country’s economic center.

 

Dieng Plateau mountain village

Dieng Plateau mountain village in Java, Indonesia

 

The Island of Java and Coffee

Most of Java has a tropical rainforest climate. Indonesia’s location near the equator and within the mountains creates ideal coffee-growing conditions.

Java was the first place to grow Indonesian coffee. Around the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company started cultivating coffee trees and exporting coffee. This continued through the present day, making Indonesia among the world’s top ten coffee-growing countries.

Coffea arabica, Arabica coffee, or mountain coffee is a major part of Java’s coffee production. The plants are grown on the Ijen Plateau at the eastern end of the island between the volcanoes of Batukaru and Agung. The ash from these volcanoes contains andisols, fertile materials found in the soil. Because the Pacific Ring of Fire is a great place to find andisols, it’s a perfect area for coffee farms.

Farmers must keep a close eye on the plants, as they’re prone to disease. For example, a rust plague (which is a type of fungus) affecting the arabica plants in the late 1800s forced the Dutch to make some changes.

They swapped Arabica with the tougher, less tasty Liberica coffee. Robusta came next, which makes up about 30% of the world’s current coffee production. But Arabica remains Java’s most famous coffee, and the most sought-after by coffee lovers.

Some of the Dutch estates that began coffee production are still running. The five largest are Blawan, Jampit, Pancoer, Kayumas, and Tugosari. Together, they cover more than 4,000 hectares of land.

These estates send ripe coffee cherries to mills. Using a wet process and excellent quality control, the resulting coffee has a heavy body, sweet flavor, and a sometimes faint herbal aftertaste.

Just like with wine, some coffee tastes better when aged, such as Old Government, Old Java, or Old Brown. The estates that use this process age coffee for up to five years in carefully-tended burlap sacks. The flavor gets stronger, loses acidity, and develops a wide range of flavors (such as cedar, cinnamon, or clove).

Not only is Arabica known for a strong, full-bodied taste, but it’s also prized for being part of the famous Mocha Java blend. Considered one of the world’s first blends, it combines Arabica with coffee from Yemen. The result is a medium to full body with notes of rich, earthy milk chocolate and a lingering berry finish.

So the next time you think about grabbing a cup of java, go for one of the fine coffees actually grown on the tropical Indonesian island. Your taste buds will thank you!