I've been reviewing some great teas from Indonesia recently, a black tea and an oolong from Toba Wangi plantation, and these are really only the beginning (maybe with even more updates on their Facebook page). Since the uniqueness of regional teas and the status of their industry and tea demand are of interest to me I've been discussing this with the owner, Galung Atri, and I've extended this into a grower profile interview, following.
If you aren't familiar with Indonesian teas, these teas I'm trying really aren't typical, although I can't say there aren't other equally interesting and great teas out there, since I'm just getting started on this origin myself. I visited Indonesia in December (two words--active volcanoes!) and didn't find anything like these on two different islands (the Eastern part of Java and Bali), in spite of visiting a tea plantation on that trip, so I doubt Indonesian teas on this level would be easy to turn up anywhere.
1. Could you share a little background about yourself, what led you to be interested in tea, is the plantation from an older family business growing tea?
My tea business was started by my father. We`ve been in this business since 1972 (Local Indonesian Green Tea). There are three major roles in the tea business:
1. Tea Plantation / Tea Farmers as a tea producers.
2. Trader as a collector from tea farmers and act as a first layer quality control.
3. Retailer as a packer.
Our company started as a trader and we are still doing this business. My father and I planned to build a tea plantation since 2009 to produce a special tea (planning about use of clones / tea plants, place, etc.), and started planting in 2010, 40 hectares for Sinensis Si Ji Cun (around 26 hectares planted), and 70 hectares for Assamica Gambung (around 40 hectares planted).
Editorial aside: Si Ji Chun is a common plant type in Taiwan, also referred to as Four Seasons. Here is a recent blog post about the type, and an earlier post with more cultivar types background, a subject that keeps coming up in this blog. Note that table shown in the second post lists cultivar / plant types by region and final tea product type in Taiwan.
This division is fully handled by me, with my father of course still acting as a mentor. So for the time being, I've continued studying in China for three years, and in Japan for one year, learning about tea as much as possible.
After four years, my plantation started producing tea leaves, importing a machine from China for processing. I asked my master from China to teach me how to produce Chinese teas, then I began producing tea on my own.
I loved to drink tea since I was a child, but my interest on this business began after my graduation. And for now at 27 years old I’m the youngest tea master in Indonesia (tea master as a tea maker, which they call a tea master).
2. To what extent has the specialty or higher quality tea industry in Indonesia changed in the last decade, according to your understanding (on the side of what is produced)?
The specialty tea industry in Indonesia is still like a baby, with just a few companies making these types of teas, and it`s mainly for the export market, not for local consumption. It just started around ten years ago or so, so I can say it's just beginning as an emerging market.
3. In what way has awareness and demand for higher quality Indonesian teas changed in the last decade?
It has changed over the past six to eight years, but not much, as most people aren't really aware of better teas, or how to get those teas. I am a part of the Indonesia Tea Lovers Community, a group that educates peoples about tea. It helps to market our tea as well, since we need to sell tea to continue what we do.
4. Related to discussing tea plants, different types in use, ages of some plants, can you say a little about what types of tea plants you grow (var. Assamica versus Sinensis, Taiwanese hybrids, local plant types). What are the oldest plants that you grow on your plantation, and the youngest? What changes do you plan in the future related to use of new tea plant types?
We have two plantations as I mentioned before, both growing a single clone tea plant type, sijicun for sinensis, and gambung 7 for Assamica (best for white tea). The oldest tree just around 5.5 years old, and the youngest one just one years old. We are expanding the tea planting every year, until its full planted. And we have created our own nursery, so its 100% pure single origin clone.
5. Can you describe more specifics about tea processing techniques you carry over from China? Where did you train to process tea, and what types of existing processing techniques do you use or have revised?
their Wu Mei oolong
6. Is there a tradition of local Indonesian tea processing and related techniques, and tea products, that you draw on that make some teas more regionally unique, beyond just influences from being grown in Indonesia?
My Green Tea processing combines Chinese and Indonesia styles. I do an outdoor withering which I take it from Chinese green tea style processing technique, so it has a unique characteristic that cannot be found in any other green tea.
7. Related to one particular processing technique, why are your teas more tightly twisted than one typically experiences from other tea types? Does this help give them their unique character?
Tightly twisted tea is just a shape, part of my tea processing style. I mean it's more like my tea identity, so peoples know my tea from its shape. The black tea is a bit of a different case because the shape plays a role in the oxidation process for that type.
it really is sort of black and white in real life
8. Can you say a little about the unique white tea type you produce (White Beauty), what style it falls closest to, or what input lead to that development?
My White Beauty is like an Oriental Beauty or bai mu dan style, with a similar processing technique. But the clone is different, as I mentioned, based on the Gambung 7 clone, which is really good for White Tea. The first leaves are still silver in color. I showed it to couple of tea specialists in China and they were amazed.
9. Is there any particular limitation to growing tea in a tropical environment? Is heat an issue, or the lack of a cool season, or the lack of a change in sunlight trigger that informs the plants of changes in seasonal times?
that White Beauty again, closer up
Another aside: based on having tried a black tea, oolong, and now that White Beauty (with that post only in notes stage) none of his teas are particularly astringent, all smooth bodied, balanced teas. Per Galung this is a result of processing choices that offset natural tendency for less balanced astringency.
10. Is there a particular issue related to Indonesian people's tea awareness you would like to mention? In Thailand an example people just aren't aware of loose tea brewing in general, so that even relatively common types of Thai oolong are not widely consumed, and awareness of more rare and higher quality teas is very limited.
In this case, Thailand has the same problem as Indonesia, people just drink tea when they are thirsty instead of appreciating the uniqueness of it. In Indonesia, along with related economic growth, now people start looking for better teas, and start to spend more money for specialty food products. Thus I could say the market is emerging. I don't have any quantity left for export, as all we produce is consumed by the domestic market, but then my product quantity is still limited too.
11. People in other places are using flavored teas and herb and fruit blends to bridge the gap between current tea preferences (RTD tea, flavored tea, bubble tea) and more traditional tea drinking. Do you plan to take such steps, or to instead just create better awareness of more traditional teas?
I am not a fan of blending teas. I love straight tea; I love to explore the tea character and tastes. I do what I love, and as for now I wouldn’t start on blending teas. I just learn some about that subject in order to sharpen my palate. I do some blending just for Jasmine tea, since Jasmine tea is a traditional Indonesian tea, so this works well related to demand here.
Amazing input, really not so much to add to that. I love it that so much work has went into drawing on different resources and inputs and in the end it results in such a unique product range.
Not long ago I talked with a tea cafe owner here (Bangkok) about emerging trends in tea preferences, maybe more a discussion of getting people into tea than about developed appreciation, and the perspective emerged that some people can see old-style tea preparation and learning as too formal, or too involved, or even boring. It's great that the Toba Wangi teas are originating directly from those older traditions, without a narrow focus on creating what people already know about and demand, and more emphasis on producing the best teas that they can. It shows in the teas.
As unique and exceptional as the black tea and oolong I already reviewed were that White Beauty really is a bit unusual; more to follow on that tea.