“I say let the world go to hell, but I should have my tea,” wrote one of Russia’s most celebrated writers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in his novel Notes from Underground. Thankfully, nobody has to go to hell and we can have our cups of tea anytime.
Tea lovers might have the same degree of sentiment when it comes to selecting tea and serving it properly, but visitors to the recent Nusantara International Tea Festival learned to further appreciate the wide variety of the commodity that is available.
Held by Lingkar Teh Indonesia, a movement to encourage tea tradition, along with Jakarta Endowment for Art and Heritage (Jeforah) and the Jakarta administration, the four-day festival showcased a number of local and international tea brands and tea-making practices, as well as a small exhibition on the history of tea.
It was the first tea festival in the capital, and is expected to become an annual event to commemorate the city’s anniversary.
Well-known brands taking part in the festival included Tong Tji, Banten Tea, Teh 63, Sariwangi, the tea houses of Siang Ming Tea and Koningsplein Tea, PT Pagilaran and the Tea Board of India. Although the number of participants may not reflect the multitude of local tea brands, visitors to the festival could taste numerous tea blends while listening to various tea stories.
Suwarni Widjaja, the owner of Siang Ming Tea, a tea house that has existed in Jakarta since 1995, said anyone could develop a penchant for a certain tea. That is the reason people should explore tea products and discover “their own tea”, she said. And, once they find it, they need to practice the best way to serve it.
“Every kind of tea is best served at a certain temperature, which is the hardest thing to control. When you buy a Chinese tea, make sure you ask how to brew it and know the kind of teapot, because the two things will influence the taste of your tea,” she told The Jakarta Post.
She said customers also needed to have some basic knowledge on storing tea. She smiled when recalling a time when one of her customers kept an expensive package of Chinese Pu-erh tea in the refrigerator, which damaged the tea’s quality.
Suwarni’s son Sutejo Wirohutomo said some Chinese black teas could even be treated like wine.
“The longer they are kept, the better they will taste because they will have been through a longer process of oxidation. In Chinese tradition, tea also reflects respect. A family will serve its best tea or give it as a gift to a guest they really honor,” he said.
Their tea shop boasts various kinds of Chinese tea, including green tea, white tea, ching or Oolong tea, red tea, black tea and floral tea. According to their advice, Oolong tea, red tea and black tea are best served in purple clay teapots, while others are best in porcelain teapots.
Kridoyono Handaruroso, a research and development officer at the PT Pagilaran tea plantation, which is owned by Gadjah Mada University’s Faculty of Agriculture, said areas of Indonesia generally have their own preferences for tea products.
His company, he said, does not make products from its own tea. It sells dried tea to companies known as packers, which blend various teas and additional fragrant elements such as jasmine and vanilla.
“These packers are the ones that reach the customers. They develop their own signature taste and color, which makes their brand distinctive,” Kridoyono told the Post.
He said people in Sumatra, for example, love vanilla-flavored black tea, while people in Central Java prefer jasmine black tea.
One of the little-known tea products that was introduced during the festival was white tea, which is literally white in color.
Kridoyono said white tea was his company’s most expensive product because it came from plants’ youngest buds and leaves, which are hand-picked in parts of the company’s 115-year-old tea plantation. Some plantations, he said, use scissors because they can not afford the cost of hand pickers.
“This white tea has the highest value because the best nutrition is located in the buds. Every hectare of tea plantation only produces two kilograms of white tea. One kilogram of white tea now costs between Rp 2 million [US$167] and Rp 2.5 million,” he said.
He said most Indonesians drank black tea because Dutch businesspeople cultivated black tea in Indonesia and sold it to European countries in the past. According to tea company PT Sinar Sosro, tea was first introduced to Indonesia in 1684 when a German named Andreas Cleyer brought tea seeds from Japan to grow decorative plants in Jakarta.
Tea became a commodity in the Dutch’s cultural system in 1828 during the administration of governor Johannes van den Bosch.