Jakarta’s Java Secret

Jakarta's Java Secret: Warung Tinggi aka Tek Soen Ho
Jakarta's Java Secret: Warung Tinggi aka Tek Soen Ho

JAKARTA, Indonesia — One of Jakarta’s best-kept secrets lies on a dingy, nondescript street in the city’s Chinatown.

Since 1878, Warung Tinggi Coffee (also known as Tek Soen Hoo or Tek Sun Hoo) has been trading in some of the finest coffee available anywhere in the world. We stopped here in the middle of an amazing day.

You wouldn’t know it from the tiny storefront at Jalan Sekolah Tangki 26 framed with bird cages, featuring a 70-year-old Toledo scale and fronted with a “Shalom” sign in the window. It lacks even an awning to tout its role in the history of caffeine addicts around the globe.

Among coffee’s many monikers, one of its most popular reflects the island of Java, where so much of the world’s finest varietals originate. Warung Tinggi modestly displays three jars of whole, handpicked coffee beans: Betina, Jantan and Excellence.

Excellence, which of course I smelled first, consists of male coffee beans, sorted individually by hand. The beans were about a half-inch in length, and they exhibited a robust, almost spicy aroma — sharp and mixed with earthy notes and floral overtones. Really.

Betina showed much of the same liveliness, but more rounded and gentler, with a hint of sweetness. The wonderfully friendly saleswoman informed us these coffee beans were female; they were approximately three-fourths-of-an-inch long and seemed plump.

The middle jar contained Jantan coffee beans, which were three-eights-of-an-inch and more elongated than the other two varieties. Its scent landed somewhere between the other two: robust yet restrained, a hint of sweetness with a subtle complexity.

I opted for a cup of the Betina. The saleswoman followed it with a complimentary cup of Excellence. I didn’t want to be greedy and ask for a third sample, so I didn’t.

Betina was smooth, well-rounded and offered just a barely-there bitterness.

Excellence jumped on the taste buds with a bold presence, a bit of a bite and a slight acidity that felt like a sparkle. Yes, that’s right. I said “sparkle.”

The coffee shop had just a single table and two chairs. Its walls displayed black-and-white photographs of the store’s various incarnations, from its ramshackle start 132 years ago, through the colonial era when it displayed a sign in Dutch and beyond.

The store also sells Kopi Luwak, touted as the world’s most expensive coffee for its rarity and its unusual path from plant to pot that includes a trip through a specific type of civet’s intestinal tract. Kopi Luwak means “civet coffee.” It costs $250 per kilo.

No, I am not making this up.

Anyone who knows me knows I couldn’t be farther from a coffee — or any other type of — snob. Yes, I’ve had crappy coffee (no pun intended) and I’ve had great coffee. But these two cups were probably the two most memorable I can ever imagine tasting.

Thanks again, Josh.

(Thanks also to Kathryn for her generous contribution of time and her excellent guest-editing prowess.)

4 thoughts on “Jakarta’s Java Secret

  1. yeah, the “shalom” is quite a sight, with the Tabgha picture.

    They were roasting coffee beans when i was there. It was just amazing, to smell and see the roasting process. Mr Rudy Widjaja, the owner of Warung Tinggi Coffee was giving offhand advice on the color of the correct roast.

    Which i believe is in the range of a medium roast and cooled just around the 2nd Crack.
    He even told me stories of how the coffee “husk” can be collected and made into a drink for the “poorer” people.

    Oh my. I would assume it as “decaf” =)

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