Entry: The Coffee Headache 2009.10.27

Coffee joints mushroom all across the country, but how come they generate more headache than inspirations?

Java Dancer's barista, Andri Gunawan, at work. Cappuccino (left) and Piccolo Latte (right) are among his best works.

My favorite Starbucks story was first told by a friend of mine who was a barista in the Plaza Indonesia branch, back then when the American coffee chain first invaded this country. In the most stylish, sometimes pretentious, mall in Indonesia, a 30-something lady carrying the newest Louis Vuitton bag came to the counter, gazing at the menu and price list posted above. She was wondering how a simple drink called coffee could be more expensive than a bottle of Evian. So, she decided to give Starbucks the very first try by choosing the cheapest item.

"Can I have one Additional Shot of Espresso, please?"

My friend patiently explained that to get that "item", the lady should order her main drink first. Nodding in full agreement, she moved to the second cheapest drink, which was a shot of espresso. She paid, and agreed to wait in the pick-up corner – surely after being told that nobody will bring her order to "that sofa by the window".

She was then stunned to find out how small her coffee drink was. Upon finding out that the milk was free – not anymore, now – she asked for a much bigger mug, poured all of her tiny espresso there, then filled the mug with milk. Happily, she sat by the window, letting passers by to gaze at her Louis Vuitton and "espresso".

Indonesia's very own coffee culture is this sophisticated fix that we take every time we need to go on a graveyard shift – security officers on late night patrol, college students doing their final assignments, fathers gambling on chess boards with neighbors – and it's called kopi tubruk. The simple ground coffee with hot water was best taken with banana fritters, dip fried cassava roots, while wearing only your GT-Man underwear and sarong. Obviously stated through advertising campaigns of Kapal Api, Torabika, and other local coffee brands that caffeine and machismo came hand in hand.

The '90s gave way for café culture from "other parts of the world", a.k.a. Singapore, to mushroom in big cities across Indonesia. So, we started to learn that there was this thing called cappuccino, and – yes! – you actually could have "iced cappuccino" no matter how illogical it might sound. Foam of milk with ice cube – yes, that might work. Genius.

The café culture simply told us to stop wearing only cheap undies while drinking your coffee, and start putting fancier labels. It also revealed to us that – hoooray! – it's legal to drink coffee during daylight! Goodbye cheap banana fritters, and hello tiramisu (cake)!

Riding on this wave, Starbucks arrived in Jakarta, and lifted the café culture one level up – or, so we thought. Indonesians were told that coffee shops do not sell nasi goreng, fried chicken, or oxtail soup. (Very) slowly we learned that doppio espresso means double shot, but not double the price, and "iced cappuccino" is a retarded term. We learned more about latte, macchiato, and frappuccino killed the then booming bubble tea business. The Americans have taught us about coffee as much as about pizza through that bakery called Pizza Hut.

We were startled then when our European friends saw us in disgust as we bloated ourselves with those frappuccino. To our further shock, Starbucks had closed so many stores worldwide, and mushrooming only in Asian cities. How come there is www.ihatestarbucks.com?

Fewer and more independent joints serve coffee the European way. The Segafredo chains, growing in a moderate pace, sticks to do it the Italian way. Local La Tazza – branches found in some unlikely spots like Mal Ambassador and Electronic City Building in Jakarta – reaches to a niche market who gets what is Cappuccino Scurro.

Aficionados and puritans know that cappuccino is only good before lunch, and Lavazza is way better than tasteless Illy. True enthusiasts also remind us how Indonesia is a land of handsome and gorgeous coffee, so why bother doing it the American or even European way? Why can't we be like Vietnam with their own coffee, and where the local Highlands Coffee chain is loved more than anything else? They don't need frappuccino there, since the Vietnamese dripping coffee has become an export commodity. (While we're at it, no, Dante's Coffee and Vietiopia, Vietnamese dripping coffee does not always come with ice cubes!)

Bakoel Koffie has been serving Indonesian coffee since long, but their effort to do "cappuccino" and "macchiato" has been proven bland. Their basic black is the most recommended one on the blackboard menu. Tornado Coffee and Anomali are favorites among the young creative forces in Jakarta looking for their caffeine fix.

Meanwhile, Java Dancer in Malang, East Java, has received not less than five hardcore coffee addicts who flew from other cities only to taste their cuppa. The house blend is slowly infiltrating F&B outlets of many levels in Jakarta, while their kopi luwak received high praise in Europe.

Initiated by three true caffeine junkies – a master roaster with a degree from USA, a Lavazza-certified chief barista, and a notorious cupper – the Java Dancer coffee depot, just right opposite Tugu Hotel Malang, now is overflowing with guests, and fully booked all week long. Their single origins come only from Indonesia with the exception of Timor Leste. Their highest level of product, the kopi luwak, is a sold out in the supermarket counters, including Bali.

After a long way round, we are back to our roots: the Indonesian way. You can do it anytime, you can wear anything, and you don't need to flaunt it. It's good to know the basic of our own coffee culture – which is actually not much different with anywhere in the world. Yet, it is costly to pretend.

Let's get things straight. Do you simply need coffee as part of your fashion? Go to Starbucks. Do you simply need to stay all night long? Fix your own kopi tubruk. Do you want to worship caffeine? Do it the Italian way. If you want to mix everything, every culture, please don't get mixed up.

My second favorite Starbucks story was something I witnessed myself. Midnight, a group of teenagers invaded a 24-hour Starbucks, holding their credit cards, craving for a "buy one get one" treat – the only way they could afford to catch up with the latest Starbucks fever. The barista informed them that the promo was only valid for frappuccino. Since it was a cold December night, these teenagers nodded, but, "Can we have some hot frappuccino?" Headache!

As published in FRV October/November 2009 issue.


November 2, 2009   06:20 PM PST
I love your quote : "It's costly to pretend"
Teenagers now, lots of them are shallow. I wonder why they waste money to be stylish, showing off their starbucks just because it looks cool. And, in Bali, how I hate a flock of teenagers sitting without purpose in front of circle K.
Ridiculous. I'd rather use my money to make my own business and get a lot more so I can travel around the world :p. hahaha!!
Sitta Karina
December 15, 2009   06:34 PM PST
Nicely written, Ve. And yes, frappuccino is not a coffee.
December 23, 2009   07:26 PM PST
I love cheap banana fritters, anyway... It's so.. Indonesia!! :-)
September 13, 2010   08:42 AM PDT
Hahaha.. I love the story about ibu2 LV.. Frankly I wish you'd post more often, I love your writing.. :)
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