The real ‘Best Coffee in Bali’
So, here I am in the mountains of northern Bali and in need of a brew. Shiny chrome hipster cafés with be-aproned baristas armed with v60s and aeropresses are not exactly on every corner. However, this was coffee country and was no going to make do with an instant Bali Brew. I had to head for the source!
Now, this is not as easy as you may think. Signs for ‘Luwak Coffee‘ abound at the sides of the road but I’m looking for the real stuff, not this tourist-targeted, low-caffeine excuse for a brew. Ask any hotel concierge driver or tour guide for a coffee tour and they will take you to a Luwak coffee plantation where you will be told about the process of finding, cleaning and preparing coffee covered in civet cat poo and its numerous health benefits. “The best coffee in bali!” they will tell you, and it goes at around €6 a cup.
However, once you try it you feel it’s a case of the emperor’s new clothes, it has little taste or body and coffee baristas and connoisseurs seem at a loss to tell you what it is about it that justifies the high price tag (until I visited Bali Beans, that is), other than the fact that someone has to go in search of cat faeces (keeping civet cats in cages for the purpose of collecting the poo was recently outlawed so that only wild cat civet coffee farming is now permitted, making it somewhat more difficult to find out where they are doing their business!) in order to make it.
And all this focus on ‘Kopi Luwak‘ does a disservice to the fact that Bali has a ton of great locally produced, non-cat poo coffee that it could be shouting about. Yeah, Java has the big name, which has become synonymous with the word ‘coffee’ all around the globe and Sumatra is fast becoming the discerning hipster-favourite. However, Bali’s Kintamani can hold it’s own against its better-known neighbours and Munduk is one of the places where conditions are perfect and coffee plantations abound.
Munduk Moding Coffee Plantations
So after a quick internet search, I find Munduk Moding Coffee Plantation, a very plush looking hotel and spa adjoining an extensive coffee plantation. I figure it’s worth a visit and it’s a mere 6km from my hotel.
The Munduk Moding complex is very well signposted with huge posters advertising the beautiful space, with gold lettering just to further underline the abundant luxury, and I wonder how they will react to a mud-caked drop-in. But before I even arrive at the hotel, I come across the signs for the coffee plantation, and I needn’t have worried, it’s a lot more humble than I expected. Down a dirt track is a lone building which, on some investigation I find is home to a small shop selling homegrown Munduk beans, along with a huge grinder and some coffee making equipment, which I sorely hope is not merely for decoration!
The building is unstaffed and when I make my presence known to some workers outside I am told that the guides are all on their break and would I mind waiting. About 2 seconds later a man walks in and introduces himself as Gede, the coffee plantation manager. We exchange some pleasantries in Indonesian and then, once I reach my limitations (after around 30 seconds), he switches into flawless English. I tell him that I’m staying in Ubud and he tells me that they supply Ubud Coffee House behemoth Seniman’s with beans. Duly impressed but confused as to why I have never seen a ‘Munduk coffee’ sold there, or anywhere come to think of it, he tells me that almost all the coffee in Bali is sold under the ‘Kintamani’ name, whether from Kintamani, Wanigiri, Plaga or Munduk. I wonder whether it’s a lack of regulation over where the product originates from or whether it is just a convenience used for a number of areas with similar characteristics.
Gede explains that someone will be along shortly to show me around and in the meantime, why don’t I take a seat and try some coffee? To my delight, the shiny, science-lab equipment is indeed not just for show and my personal barista is soon preparing my coffee with weighing scales, the full chemistry set and a manual pour kettle, before presenting it to me in a shot glass.
While I’m enjoying the smooth-as-silk shot, Putu, who is to be my guide, shows up and starts to explain the harvesting and preparation procedure.
Putu is from a coffee-growing family – his father is a coffee farmer in the highlands – and Putu came back from working as a barista in Kuta to be close to his family and is now working on the plantation at Muduk Moding, using his flawless English, no doubt learnt from catering to the Aussie crowds in Kuta (Putu – “To be honest, they only wanted to drink beer”). It was interesting to find out that, despite the relatively short distance from crop to cup, that coffee farmers are some of the poorest people in Bali, whilst a cup of the final product goes for European prices in any of the coffee establishments in Bali. I still wasn’t clear where the bulk of the profits were going.
In any case, to start with I needed to learn about the process, and for this Putu took me on a little guided tour of the plantation. Along the way I tasted some of the other delicacies that were growing; such as tamarillo fruit (a bit like passion fruit) and strawberries (very famous in this region). Putu shows me the difference between the Robusta and Arabica bushes (Robusta grows anywhere and has bigger leaves, Arabica only above 1000 metres), and explains how they sometimes merge the two to take advantage of the resilience of the Robusta (a quality suggested by the name) and the superior flavour of the Arabica.
I notice the bushes just seem to be growing wild everywhere and comment that it must be difficult to harvest this way. Putu tells me that it is indeed very difficult, he’s helped in the harvesting before and it’s backbreaking work, then carrying the sacks full of beans back up the processing plant but assures me that it’s mainly women who do the work and they can carry huge quantities on their heads. Still unsure as to why only women seem to have this skill, I ask Putu if he knows why but he just shrugs “Maybe – strong neck? In Bali the women are very strong“. He tells me that it takes 7kg of coffee fruit to make 1kg of green beans. I start to understand more about the cost increment.
He then explains the difference between Natural, Honey and Washed processes; first, in order to demontrate, he hands me one of the red fruits growing on the bushes. For the natural process, the fruit is fermented whole, with skin and all, whilst the honey process is done by first removing the outer skin. Putu tells me to remove the skin and take a look inside. Inside the fruit there sit two coffee beans surrounded by a sweet membrane, this represents the ‘honey’ of the honey process. With this method the bean is fermented with the skin removed, allowing the membrane to infuse sweetness into the coffee bean, before being washed off for roasting. The final method is the washed process, where the skin and membrane are both removed and the bean is washed thoroughly before roasting.
Back at the storeroom, I try the Honey process and the Natural process and the honey wins out for me, loving as I do a sweeter, fruitier brew.
Putu is clearly a coffee fanatic and so I ask him what he thinks about Bali coffee, expecting him to show a connoisseur’s disdain for this ‘instant’ brew which uses a very fine grind, allowing you to brew the coffee inside the cup just by adding hot water. The majority of coffee in Indonesia is drunk like this and I ask him if he would use good quality beans for making coffee this way. He doesn’t seem overly concerned and explains that he loves coffee anyway it comes and tells me that in fact local people generally show a preference for the lower quality Robusta beans and Luwak coffee (cat poo) because historically all the other beans were exported, mainly to Holland. Luwak coffee has since gained the infamy it now enjoys due to some dubious health claims, but originally it was just coffee covered in shit and so was generally left for the domestic market. Still, old habits die hard, and Robusta is still the bean of choice for many Indonesians.
Although I admire Putu’s enthusiasm for coffee in all its forms, for me it has to be quality or it’s not worth bothering with. As such, I’m delighted to have found possibly the best cup of coffee going in Munduk and I purchase a packet of the Honey process beans which, at 95k per 250g, are almost 50% cheaper than buying them at Seniman’s – well worth the detour!