Local Enthusiast Spreads the Word on Indonesian Tea

Ade Mardiyati | July 28, 2011

Indonesia’s Tea Lovers’ Community aims to spread the word about the country’s quality teas, at home and abroad.  (Photo courtesy of Ratna Somantri)
There is a Japanese proverb that says, “If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.” Tea enthusiast Ratna Somantri would certainly agree with that sentiment. For her, tea is much more than just a hot beverage — it’s a way of life.

She has long been a passionate lover of the leafy brew and, over the past eight years, she has become one of the pre-eminent figures in Indonesia’s small but enthusiastic community of tea lovers.

Ratna collects tea and tea sets from all over the world and always takes the time to visit tea plantations whenever she travels overseas.

Learning about different kinds of tea, she said, is just like learning about batik in Indonesia. Each area has its own specialty and no two kinds are the same.

The 32-year-old Chinese-Indonesian has been steeped in tea since she was little. She said her mother — who is part Javanese, part Sundanese — drinks more tea than water, while her father’s family, who live in Fujian, an area on the southeast coast of China known for its oolong tea, often sends tea to Ratna and her family in Indonesia.

Ratna, who studied French pastries at Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney in 2003, speaks at culinary events, educating people on the virtues of tea.

She has even written a little book on the subject, “Kisah dan Khasiat Teh” (“The Story and Goodness of Tea”), published this year, which also talks about how to prepare tea properly — a skill Ratna says many people here still need to learn.

“Even when you go to a cafe and pay for an expensive tea, it’s no guarantee that the cafe owner knows and teaches their waiters or waitresses how to prepare the tea,” she said. “For example, the tea bag shouldn’t be left in the teapot for more than two minutes, because it will affect the flavor. So what happens is, customers don’t get the tea they deserve to have for the price they pay.”

In 2007, Ratna founded Komunitas Pecinta Teh, or the Tea Lovers’ Community. The club has around 400 registered members and Ratna said they often organized tea-tastings as well as tours of tea plantations.

Ratna knows exactly what goes into a good cup of tea, so she said she found it ironic that Indonesia, which is among the top five producers of high-quality tea in the world, has no good tea available in the local market.

“All the best quality tea is sold overseas. It goes to, among others, big companies such as Twinings,” she said. “This is exactly what happened during the Dutch colonial era, when we planted tea for them. The best tea was sold overseas, leaving us with the leftovers.”

Ratna recalled visiting a shop in Tokyo and finding a tea from Indonesia that had a TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) grade, which indicates it was made from the highest quality whole black tea leaves.

“You won’t find such tea sold in Indonesian markets. Instead, you will find black tea with BOP, or the Broken Orange Pekoe grade. Those teas are produced not from whole leaves, but just the broken remnants,” she said.

Ratna said she understood why tea producers in Indonesia did not aim for the local market.

“Most Indonesians are not able to appreciate good tea. For many of us, tea is just tea,” she said.

“Some people will say ‘this is too expensive for tea,’ even if it is high-quality stuff. Here, tea is always cheaper than coffee, and certain bottled mineral waters are even priced higher than tea.”

Ratna said very few people, even among the upper class, were willing to paying extra for good tea. That, she said, is why tea producers choose to export their products — they know they won’t make much money trying to sell here.

“And so, the tea sold in Indonesia is the kind that most people can afford and are willing to pay for,” she said.

Ratna said the same thing happened in India, which is also one of the world’s biggest producers of fine teas. Despite the fact that they grow the most expensive black tea in the world, Darjeeling, which is often regarded as the Champagne of tea, it is not easy to find good tea in India, she said.

“Unlike in England, for example, the tea-drinking culture is not ‘sophisticated’ in India. You will most likely only find masala chai, which tastes more like milk than tea,” she said. “Good tea is for the overseas markets.”

However, Ratna said, Darjeeling is better off because it has been made a trademark by the Indian government. Only tea grown in the Darjeeling region of West Bengal can use the name. No other tea, even if it is also grown in India, can be called Darjeeling.

The same cannot be said for Indonesian teas exported to well-known companies such as Twinings, she said, which are rarely recognized when they are sold in the market. “None of our teas, no matter how good they are, have been trademarked or patented by our government,” she said. “So when sold in international markets, very rarely can you find a package that mentions Indonesian tea as an ingredient in the blend.”

Ratna said one of her dreams was to see a homegrown tea patented and become known around the world as a famous specialty of Indonesia, much like kopi luwak for coffee.

The problem, she said, lies in branding. “Indonesia is terrible when it comes to the subject. It is not only about tea, but also other things that could be potential sources of revenue and prestige for the country,” she said.

“Take a look at our tourism industry. Compared to Malaysia, Indonesia has way better natural resources, but they don’t have good branding, so it is difficult to develop.

“As for tea, we don’t really bother packing them in a way that appeals to consumers. Countries such as Japan and Singapore know how to make their products look good. If you visit their shops, you will find beautifully packaged teas.”

Ratna said one way to solve Indonesia’s tea branding problem was to give them new, Indonesia-specific names.

“Why not create new names for them, so we can patent them and have our own specialty tea, like they do in India?” she said.

A study by a tea research center in China found that, thanks to its tropical climate, Indonesian tea has more antioxidants than varieties grown in Japan and China, Ratna said.

“It makes me wonder why we don’t have our own Indonesian tea that can be known worldwide,” she said. “Considering the fine quality of the tea we produce, we should have the confidence to try to make that happen.”

Komunitas Pecinta Teh (Tea Lovers’ Community)

Taken from Jakarta Globe. Read the original article