Although coffee was first planted successfully on Java around 1700, cultivation spread slowly throughout what would become the great archipelagic state of Indonesia, and did not arrive on Sulawesi, then called Celebes, until 1750, after the coffee of Java had performed its role as progenitor to the coffees of Central America and begun its ascent to being considered, alongside Arabian Mocha, as one of the best coffees in the world. Somewhat parenthetically, it should be noted that nearly all coffee from any island in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) was considered “Java” until the early 20th century, so Celebes/Sulawesi has no real history on the consumption side of coffee prior to that time.
Commercial cultivation of coffee on Celebes did not begin in earnest for decades after the first plantings, after the Dutch government took over administrative control of the islands from the Dutch East Indies Company. In 1822, annual production on Celebes amounted to only 10,000 pounds; but by 1889, production had reached nearly 3 million pounds. Coffee planting did not reach the Toraja highlands on the western edge of the island until the 1850’s.
Unlike Java and Sumatra, coffee on Celebes was grown by people native to the region rather than Europeans. Coffee from Toraja, where peaks stretch to above 10,000 feet, was commercially successful by the 1870’s. This was partly due to exceptional growing conditions, but also to the fact that Arabica on Java was being devastated by leaf rust and Toraja was on the winning side of supply and demand. The coffee growers of Toraja were so successful that people from southern Celebes attempted to invade and take over coffee production in 1876. The invasion was repelled and today this is the region where Olam finds it’s Sulawesi specialty coffees, including an aged Sulawesi from the Mamasa valley, due to arrive on our U.S. shores in … 2022.
It was the Dutch government that introduced the process of aging coffee from the East Indies for 2-3 years and the “brownish” beans came to be associated by consumers with high quality and a “mellow” cup. Later, this coffee would assume the moniker “Old Government Java.” Aged coffee became so popular that when disease decreased supply from Java and Sumatra to the point that producers could ill-afford to sit on coffee, they began to “sweat” coffee during its 4-5-month voyage, much of it through the tropics, as an alternative to aging. The coffee would be sealed in the hold of cargo ships to sweat during the voyage, arriving brown. The darker brown the coffee, the higher the price paid. In fact, if a captain managed to deliver “extra brown” coffee, they were paid a bonus.
Like the aged coffee that proceeded it, this sweated coffee became popular and for this reason coffee from Indonesia continued to be shipped by sailing ships long after steamships were the norm, just because of the premium paid for sweated coffee. The last shipment of coffee to arrive by a purely wind-driven vessel was aboard the Padang, which arrived in New York from Indonesia on Christmas day, 1914. Demand dropped, in part, when it was discovered that some importers were imitating the look of sweated coffees by steam heating after coffee had already arrived in the U.S. Buyers could tell the difference in taste but not appearance.
Perhaps the most interesting, if not famous, aged coffee from the East Indies was coffee from Timor, which left Batavia (the city that would become Jakarta) on July 4, 1914, aboard the Brisbane, a German steamship. Fearing capture with the outbreak of war a few weeks later, the Brisbane sought port in part of India controlled by the Portuguese. When Portugal joined the allied forces in 1916, the Brisbane was seized and turned over to the British, who moved it to Bombay. Eventually, three and half years after beginning its journey, the now aged Timor arrived in New York in January of 1918. There is no record of who owned the coffee at that point or the price it fetched, but one is tempted to imagine that the reason the story has been passed down is because the price paid was notable.
For much of the 19th century, the Dutch government not only held a monopoly on coffee production throughout their colony, they also forced the indigenous peoples to grow coffee. But over time, coffee grown on private estates expanded because they were more productive. Coffee grown under forced labor conditions produced on average only a half-pound per tree, whereas coffee grown on private estates with free labor (relatively speaking) being better compensated, produced 1-2 pounds per tree. In 1905, the Dutch government began to extract itself from the coffee business, first in Java and then on other islands. At the same time, coffee plantations throughout the region that had been devastated by leaf rust underwent a massive transition from Arabica to the more resistant Robusta. By 1918, 84% of all coffee grown in the East Indies was Robusta.
On Java and Sumatra, the privatization of the coffee industry in the late 19th century meant estates owned by Europeans. On Celebes, however, most coffee farming was in the hands of those born on the island. But until the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 (specifically, Food Inspection Decision No. 82), virtually all coffee grown throughout the East Indies was labelled as Java, a regulation the government was forced to confirm by an additional regulatory announcement in 1918, due to continued abuses. Therefore, despite growing coffee commercially for 100 years, Celebes was not really identified, even within the trade let alone among consumers, as a coffee origin until after the first world war.
Interestingly, U.S. law did not even allow Robusta coffee, grown on the island of Java, to be labelled as Java. In 1921, the United States Bureau of Chemistry ruled that Java coffee was, specifically, “Coffea arabica or Coffea liberica” grown on the island of Java. But by this time, at least within the coffee trade, individual islands had begun to establish identities apart from Java.
Among these was Celebes, dubbed Sulawesi after Indonesian independence. For a long time, Sulawesi was little more than a footnote as far as the coffee trade was concerned, but with the emergence of the specialty coffee industry, this coffee, grown at higher altitudes than most Indonesian coffee, gained more attention and with more attention came improvements in processing and refinement to wet-hulling. Today, Sulawesi coffees deliver the good body and herbal notes expected from Indonesian coffee, but also some unexpected brightness and fruit.