Throughout history, people have started wars for various reasons. Oil, gold, territorial gains, nationalism…. we’ve heard it all before. But a coffee war? Well it happened in Toraja, Indonesia.
This is Toraja
The story begins in a tiny mountainous region located about 1,500 metres above sea level in South Sulawesi. With high altitudes, weak acidic soil, the right amount of rainfall, and temperature spikes between day and night, Toraja was considered ideal for growing the coffee plant. It’s known for producing some of Indonesia’s best coffee beans.
Back in the day, coffee was considered a rare commodity and a luxury good, especially when it was first introduced by the Dutch during colonisation in the late 17th century, and when it was first brought to Toraja in the 1850s. In 1876, the arrival of rust disease – a plant disease caused by pathogenic fungi – affected a large number of major coffee plantations in Java, and as a result of this, coffee planting by small independent farmers in Toraja became a booming business. Unfortunately, this was the beginning of a war to come: the coffee war between the indigenous people of Toraja and the Buginese, one of the biggest ethnic groups of South Sulawesi.
The coffee war
Suddenly, Toraja coffee was viewed as a prized commodity, and it seemed everyone wanted to gain control and ownership of it, including the supply and trade routes. Driven by the valuable coffee trade, the Buginese attempted to take over and conquer Toraja in the 1890s. Battles begun and feuds were sparked. This is why today in Indonesia Toraja coffee is sometimes called perang kopi, which directly translates to “war coffee”.
Although this is how the story goes, some of the older generations seem to have forgotten that coffee was the motivating factor for this war. The period was generally a tumultuous time for Toraja for reasons beyond coffee beans and trading routes.
Preserved and protected
Today, Toraja coffee is under the Geographical Indication Protection (also known as GI), which works in a similar way to trademarks under intellectual property and intellectual rights laws. The use of a geographical indication via a sign or a name is equivalent to that of a certification, which implies that the product possesses certain qualities, is made using traditional methods, or has a certain reputation due to its geographical origin.
In the case of Toraja coffee, its geographical indication ensures that its “Toraja” trademark is never misused or misrepresented, and that the quality of the coffee beans that originate from Toraja to make Toraja coffee is always top-notch, following strict production and processing methods. This also helps prevent issues of counterfeiting in the region and around the world.
Smallholders and low yields
For Toraja coffee, things haven’t changed much. Most of the coffee that’s produced in the region is still grown by independent smallholders, and the yields are low – about 300 kilograms per hectare – making it even more special and hard to get. Today, Toraja coffee is still picked and sorted by hand – a necessary process to guarantee high-quality coffee for consumers.
In Toraja, the land and the soil gives the iconic coffee its distinct full-bodied flavour that’s both sweet and spiced – something that’s widely sought after by coffee lovers around the world, including Japan, the US, and even some parts of Europe. Of course, if you are ever curious to try this unique coffee, the best place would undoubtedly be Toraja, where you can sip a perfectly balanced brew while taking in the gorgeous views of the region from above.