Bean Diplomacy: Could The Aussie Flat White Forge New Ties Between Australia & Indonesia?

Erin Cook is an Australian journalist based in Jakarta covering Southeast Asia.

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For a city dominating the northwest coast of Java, Jakarta is not to fussed about the drink synonymous with the island’s name. Coffee culture in Jakarta hasn’t changed much from when the beans were first introduced hundreds of years ago by traders from India. But change is brewing and oddly enough, this could prove a boon for Australia.

The once frosty relations between Indonesia and Australia, marred by phone-tapping scandals, tense executions of Australian nationals and immigration policies on both sides, is thawing quickly. Renewed efforts to embrace and amplify shared cultural interests, such as the Women’s Arts Network Indonesia to Australia, the ever expanding ACICIS program offering in-country cultural and educational programs for young Australians, and scholarships for talented Indonesian students to study at Australian universities, is shifting the tide.

Restaurants offering the best of the diverse Indonesian cuisine are popping up all over Australia, while cinema-goers flock to Indonesian film festivals and the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2016 boasted a roster packed with Indonesia’s best literary talent.

Soft power – the use of cultural connections over the stuffy world of suit-wearing talk fests of traditional diplomacy – has become increasingly important to Australia’s outward-looking policy since the term was coined in the 1980s. Once the domain of stuffed kangaroos, Crocodile Dundee and awkward use of Strine (‘G’day USA,’ anyone?), our soft power strengths have developed alongside the rest of our culture.

The popularity of Australian-style cafes has been steadily building in Jakarta over the last five or so years, with the smashed avo and flat white purveyors of Sydney and Melbourne directly influencing the city’s coffee enthusiasts-turned-entrepreneurs who fall in love while studying at Australian universities.

The Jakarta Flat White Case Study

“My favourite coffee shop I’ve ever been anywhere in the world, ever, is Patricia Coffee Brewers,” Jonathan Kevin Perwata tells me on a rainy afternoon at his freshly launched cafe Coarse & Fine in Tangerang, just south of Jakarta.

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The Melbourne institution is the source of the young entrepreneur’s inspiration after he spent two months exploring the city’s world famous coffee culture while on family holiday, eventually signing up for a coffee short course at TAFE.  

“When I ordered there, so many people are there waiting, but they don’t just make your coffee and shout out your name to come and get it. The barista would bring it over and have a little chat – not too long because they’re busy – but that’s what I wanted to do here,” he says.

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It’s not that Indonesia doesn’t have it’s own style of coffee culture, he explains. The country, famously one of the world’s largest exporters of coffee beans, consumes huge amounts of the stuff. The most popular style is either sickly-sweet instant coffee, available anywhere from convenience stores to tiny road-side shopfronts, or brewed in the traditional kopi Tubruk method which produces a thick, sweet drink similar to Turkish coffee. But this is changing quickly with specialty coffee shops opening in the city’s trendy neighbourhoods over the last five or so years.

“The coffee culture in Jakarta is very influenced by Western culture. But they’re good ideas and we’ve given it an Indonesian twist,” he says. “We often have to educate new customers about specialty coffee, like when they ask for creamer because they’re not used to fresh milk.”

For Perwata, it’s all about offering his customers an experience as good as what he received in Melbourne.

“In Jakarta there’s a huge class gap. Specialty coffee can bridge that. Going to a chain, drinks can be Rp 40,000 to Rp 50,000 [$4-$5] and too expensive for some people. A nicely brewed specialty coffee can be a luxurious experience for much less money.”

“Good coffee can be for anyone, even the middle and lower classes can afford it now,” he says.

Perwata is confident the explosion in popularity is more than just a trend.

“Coffee works in a circular motion. [Indonesia] gave the world kopi Tubruk and now the world is giving us specialty coffee. We’ll never stop learning or innovating.”

The Local Independent Coffee Shop Experiment

Christabelle Palar, a community manager for an international startup, is one of many young Jakartans who will be pleased to hear this. With the option to work from home, she often finds herself preferring the atmosphere of Giyanti, among the city’s first specialty coffee outlets after opening in 2012.

“Part of the appeal of the smaller, independent coffee shops is how ‘local’ they are. You may have a favourite drink at Starbucks but the experience would be almost the same in nearly every chain. Once you’re hooked on something – the coffee, the service, one friendly barista or a corner seat – there aren’t any other chains anywhere in the city for you to go and get that same experience,” she says.

Echoing Perwata’s passion, Palar quickly points to Giyanti’s service as the main drawcard.

“Giyanti is especially different to me because it’s run by the owner himself. If he’s not behind the counter making your coffee, he’s making his rounds talking to you and other customers, having a very casual friendly conversation that’s not just small talk.”

Giyanti, which offers flat whites and the best lamingtons north of Darwin, is an industry leader in specialised coffee in Jakarta, drawing a following from around the city.

“Luckily for me, Giyanti is just 20 minutes drive away from my house. But my friend will drive from an hour away because what you get at Giyanti, you can only get at Giyanti.”

“I’m drawn to places that have a soul to it and that soul is not something you can get at the chains,” she says.

For Jakarta, the trend is a welcome break from the monotony of dominant chain stores. But for Australia it illustrates the need to rethink what is valuable and truly unique about our culture. A longtime dependence on sports as our major cultural export isn’t all that exciting, given there are few countries that don’t enjoy a game, and overly blokey caricatures of what makes an Australian never truly represented the diversity of the country. The flat white, Australian invented and loved from coast to coast, makes a good case for a place as cultural ambassador – and the city-dwellers of our most important bilateral relations are quickly becoming converts.