Tea drinking is deeply ingrained in Indonesian culture, with adults and children alike indulging in multiple cups a day of the warming brew. Despite this, there is no one coherent tea culture followed throughout the country; rather, in keeping with the diversity prevalent throughout the over 17,000 islands that form the Indonesian archipelago, each region has its own customs and preferences when it comes to tea drinking. This makes exploring Indonesia's many tea cultures a true foodie adventure, with endless variations for connoisseurs to uncover.
Tea was introduced to Indonesia in the 1600s by Dutch colonists eager to replicate the success of English tea plantations in India. Although they initially experimented with varieties of Chinese tea, it was soon discovered that Assam teas from India are more suited to Indonesia's hot, humid tropical clime. The mountainous islands of Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi proved particularly favourable to cultivating tea, with slightly cooler temperatures than those found elsewhere in the archipelago.
By the late 19th century, Indonesia's tea trade was flourishing, and despite experiencing setbacks and disruption during the Second World War, the country today ranks as the sixth largest producer of tea in the world.
Indonesia produces predominantly black tea, although a small amount of green tea is also grown. The finest varieties are often compared to high-grown teas from Sri Lanka, and are produced almost entirely for export. Black leaf tea from the plantations of Cibuna, Santosa, Taloon and Malabar are worth seeking out, as are those from the estates of Bah Butong, Gunong Rosa and Gunong Dempo on Sumatra.
Most Indonesians drink plain black tea usually sweetened with a large amount of sugar, which is often added before the water and allowed to sit at the bottom of the pot without being stirred. It is also common to steep jasmine leaves in the pot for extra flavour. Other regional variations include mixing tea with milk, lemon, ginger, lemongrass or even raw egg.
Tea plays a central role in most Indonesian meals and social occasions, so you won't have to look far during your stay to find a local brew. All restaurants and hotels in Indonesia will prepare tea in the local fashion, and many cater to international tastes as well. If you're interested in viewing Indonesia's beautiful hillside tea plantations, be sure to incorporate a visit to Java or Sumatra in your itinerary, either by land or as part of an Indonesian island cruise.