Third Coffee

Coffee beans spread upon a tray

Jasmine blooms on the ledge do rest

I’ve been dreaming till break of day

My sweetheart sleeping upon my chest

“Buah kopi di atas loyang

Kembang melati letak di bangku

Saya bermimpi hampirkan siang

Jantung hati tidur di pangku”

Coffee Flower Island South-east Asia produces a lot of coffee.  The word Java, now perhaps most famous as a computer language, came to English as a word for coffee because so much of it was grown on the island of Java, the home island of Indonesia.  This was before Juan Valdez came on the scene. Coffee lovers are probably aware of Sumatra Mandheling, the fine beans from the highlands of Sumatra island.  And if you’re a real coffee snob, you may even have tried the coffee prepared from beans that have passed through the digestive tract of an Indonesian civet cat: kopi luak.

And yet, local people are not drinking any of that.  All the really good stuff gets exported to the West and simply cannot be found in the marketplace even at export prices.  What we get instead are bins of greasy beans of uncertain provenance roasted in a traditional process: margarine and sugar are mixed in with the beans as they are stirred over a fire.  In the end you get a very black bean with a milimeter or two of oily sugar glazing on it.  Virtually all coffee you drink in Malaysia will be prepared from this stuff, usually by pouring boiling water over a pot of grounds.  This yields French press coffee or cowboy coffee, depending on whether you find this method sophisticated or crude.

The bean itself is almost certainly not arabica, which comes from the first species to be brought under human cultivation, Coffea arabica.  Originating in the highlands of East Africa, it doesn’t grow all that well here in the hot humid tropics.  An epidemic of coffee rust, Himileia vastatrix, wiped out the bulk of Coffea arabica several decades ago in SE Asia, and what is still grown in the cool uplands of Java and Sumatra goes straight to export.

Unripe berriesThe second species to be commercialized was Robusta, C. conephora.   Robusta is more productive, easier to take care of, and less picky about climate, but is considered inferior by discerning coffee drinkers.  Thus, most robusta enters the global coffee-stream mostly as powdered or instant coffee, or as a cheap filler for blends of beans.  At the moment, discerning drinkers turn up their noses at robusta, but it may be we’ll all be drinking it in the future.  Arabica production in the Americas is threatened by the same disease that wiped out most arabica plantations in SE Asia originally.  Industrial growing conditions are likely at fault, according to University of Michigan Prof Vandermeer. If there is an arabica holocaust in the Americas, what will we drink?

It turns out Coffea is a big genus, and there are apparently many species that yield caffeinated beans that are more or less untested.  In Sarawak, down in the sweltering lowlands where I live, robusta is grown together with a third species of coffee, Coffea liberica.   Liberica is a larger tree than arabica or robusta, with cherries larger than arabica and more oblong than robusta.  It is much more resistant to rust and has been used in hybrid breeding programs for hardier arabica.  As arabica wanes, selection and improvement of liberica varieties may well yield the coffee of the future.  If you want to try tomorrow’s coffee today, you need to head down to Carpenter Street in Kuching.
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One of the few remaining streets of the historic Chinese district in Old Kuching, Carpenter Street begins at a large red arch opposite the old courthouse complex.  The narrow one-way lane winds through several blocks of shoplots, including a large number of jewelers, before terminating at a Chinese temple and former Chinese open-air theater.  The best coffee shop in Kuching is the second to last storefront before the temple:  Black Bean Coffee Shop.
Black Bean Coffee Shop
Gracious and low-key, the cafe has been doing business essentially unchanged since I got here ten years ago, before the first Starbucks arrived, before our local Starbucks competitor chain, Bing! Coffee, opened up.  To the best of my knowledge, it is the only place in town you can find locally grown coffee, which the proprietor sources from individual growers in the area and roasts himself.  Several times I’ve walked in to find big bags of green beans in various stages of processing at the rear of the small store, someone picking and tossing defective beans by hand.

Coffee beans upon the shelf
Coffee beans upon the shelf

The key is the roast.  The same beans that produce one flavor roasted in sugar and margarine become something very different after a skilled dry roast.  The espresso drinks at Black Bean are made from two parts liberica to one part robusta, scooped out from the big glass jars in front of you.  The coffee is delicious.  And exceedingly potent:  Robusta and Liberica beans contain roughly double the caffeine of arabica.  Adjust your dosage accordingly.

Before a ring better a necklace

A necklace graces the entire body

Better mustached than cleanshaven

With a mustache you can strain your coffee

“Daripada cincin eloklah rantai

Rantai dibuat penghias diri

Daripada licin elok bermisai

Misainya dapat menapis kopi”

Gracious and low key
Gracious and low key

Pantuns courtesy Malay Civilization
Translations mine.

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