Indonesia, then the Dutch East Indies, started flourishing as a tea-growing land when the Dutch planted India’s Assam teas in Java in the 1800s.
The Dutch dominated the tea trade in Europe in the early 1600’s. After Indonesia became part of Portuguese’s secret sea route, where merchants could sail around Africa instead of through India to get to Molucca Islands, the Dutch began to base themselves in Indonesia as a stopping point between Amsterdam and their trading partners – China, Japan, and Macao. Soon, with burgeoning tea plantations cultivated in India, the British took over. In mid and late 1600’s, the Dutch brought Chinese tea plants – officially called the sinensis variant of the Camellia sinensis plant – to grow in Indonesian soil to replicate their rival. The Chinese tea bushes didn’t grow well and tea cultivation went to a stand-still.
When the Dutch returned with India’s tea plants, formally known as the assamica variant, the bushes thrived in Java’s rich, tropical soil and hot, humid weather. The plantations continued thriving and spread to the mountainous regions of Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi. The Dutch government introduced Cultuurstelsel in the 1800’s, where Indonesian locals had to grow tea on their land and sell it to the Dutch after harvesting. Tea-growing continued burgeoning until the government decided to run its own plantation. The years of growing teas for the Dutch resulted in local Javanese tea-drinking culture. Second-class leaves were brewed as part of their morning rite.
After a policy change in the late 1800’s, Dutch private companies started running the plantations under a land-rental basis, and tea entered its golden years in the archipelagic nation. Ironically, the plantations went into disrepair when the Japanese occupied the islands during World War II.
Independence soon followed for Indonesia. By the 1980’s, the country took full ownership of its tea industry by forming a national Tea Board that soon revived tea production. Indonesia is now one of the top 10 tea producing nations holding over 3% percentage of world tea production (World Tea News, 2016). Now, the diverse country with over 17,000 islands is best known for producing rich, full-bodied black teas, along with oolong and green teas, reflecting the country’s rich and complex terrain.