I had heard about Indonesian tobacco recently from two different places. One was on reddit talking about Tambolaka as something to try out and it had mixed reviews and the other was on the Gentleman's Pipe Smoking Society on Facebook. The post on Facebook was what intrigued me as it was a picture of Soppeng tobacco being processed in an old fashioned way.
This was the picture and the note:
The most popular local-native Indonesian pipe tobacco among pipe smokers is Soppeng tobacco. This tobacco is a kind of traditional cavendish, using palm sugar as the sweetener and then fire cured — pressed on a bamboo sticks.
It serves at shag cuts and packed on bamboo sticks. The taste is quite sweet with the scent of palm sugar flavored and fresh bamboo and some producers gave additional flavor like cinnamon on their production process and will give enough strength of the nicotine.
Originally, this tobacco is for hand rolled cigarette but also great for pipe. Burnt well and have consistent taste and flavor until finish a bowl. For me, I really love and enjoy to smoke this tobacco purely or blend it with 25% — 35% matured Srinthil, the taste is awesome…
As soon as I read this I was pretty much hooked and wanted to sample some. Of course the problem is this tobacco is not sold here in the US (with exception of Tambolaka). This was remedied by reaching out to a guy who goes by the name of zippo who sends sample packets here to the US and around the world.
What you see before you is 6 samples that I received exactly a month after I ordered them — it takes a while for it to travel here, but it’s worth the wait. Before I get into reviewing these tobacco’s I think it’s important to know more about them and the industry in Indonesia to fully appreciate what you’re smoking.
Indonesia in General
According to Wikipedia Indonesia lies between 11 degrees S and 6 degrees N and 141 degrees E and consists of 17,508 islands of which only 6,000 are inhabited. The largest of the islands you most likely have heard of are Java, Sumatra and Borneo. Additionally there is New Guinea (share with Papua New Guinea) and Sulawesi. Indonesia is located in the ring of fire area of the Pacific and thus has a lot of volcanic activity which makes for amazing soil and is where you find some of the finest tobacco used for Cigars — the Sumatra leaf — usually used as a wrapper and is dark brown, mild, with a sweeter aroma.
The same area (Java) also grows coffee — which was exported with the Dutch with the Dutch East Indies Company back in the 1600s.
Brief Indonesian Tobacco (Tembakau ) History :
There is an ancient Javanese transcript called ‘Babad Ing Sangkala’ (1601) shows that tobacco crops have flourished in Indonesia for Centuries, especially on Java Island, where tobacco has been planted and harvested using the same traditional methods for many generations.
The first modern tobacco plantation was established by Jacobus Nienhuys, the Dutch Businessman, in 1863 as a result of his quest for high quality tobacco that he knew could be grown successfully in the region known at that time as the ‘East Indies.’ His first plantation was on the land near the Ular and Wampu rivers on Sumatra Island.
Today more recently we see TBN being cultivated and bought by many of the premium cigar makers. TBN stands for “tembakau bawah naungan”, translated as “tobacco under shade” or shade grown tobacco, and is a strain of Connecticut seed tobacco.
We also find Lombok Virginia which some have said is one of the top 3 Virginias in the world. According to Rick, the soil in the Lombok area is dry and poorer as compared to Java, but virginia tobacco leaf usually does well in this climate condition. So a gentleman by the name of Andrew Cockburn started a program to help the farmers in the area plant Virginia there, and he managed to get some big tobacco companies to build some flue curing sheds and thus the area now has come a very large producer.
I love the history and story behind tobacco, like so many things in pipe culture this is our link to the past, present, and future. In order to really get a good understanding of the blends I was sent and how they are made and blended I had to reach out to someone who was very knowledgeable of the area to fill in the details. Enter Rick Head who has lived in Indonesia for over 22 years and has been more recently involved in the local pipe club the PTCI (Pipe and Tobacco Club of Indonesia).
Most of the blended tobacco comes from the Java area and have a basic or base Indonesian taste that as Rick puts it, reminds him of musty old furniture. After smoking it I’d say it reminds me of walking into an old antique store or a dusty old Asian store that peddles strange and unusual items. Supposedly this unique taste that is across much of the tobacco is the yeasts present in Indonesia and how they aid fermentation. Most of the tobacco in Indonesia aside from what’s previously mentioned can be classified as burly, and is sun and air cured.
The pipe tobacco industry in Indonesia is a very cottage or boutique industry. There are no large pipe tobacco manufactures — all the larger companies are cigarette companies and cigar companies. From what I have gathered there are 5 tobacco blenders in Indonesia ; RnR, Sutet, Putu Cowe Toko, Naga Hanya Satu, and Siswa Pipa.
I’ll start with Soppeng tobacco since it’s the description of it that got me interested in it enough to order some. Soppeng comes from the island of Suluwesi and is a burly tobacco. What sets this apart like a lot of Indonesian tobacco is that it is first “rangingan” or “di iris” meaning after it is harvested it’s shag cut and then it’s cured.
Soppeng is even more different because they spray it with Aren (which is sugar that comes from a special palm tree that itself has a tendency to spontaneously ferment. Next they hang the shredded tobacco in barns and burn coconut shells to smoke it very similar to how Latakia is made. After it is cured they pack it in bamboo, usually wrapped with banana leaves and store it for 6 months before selling it in the bamboo.
The consistency is like a krumble kake, and the taste is totally different from what you may be used to. Rick notes that it does burn a bit hot for him, and I noticed this as well but it wasn't too bad, as I've varied the pipes I smoked it out of and and varied the moisture — too dry it smokes very similar to semois (fast) so re-humidifying it slightly after you receive it does help slow the smoke.
My smoking notes on soppeng: slightly dry, sweet, and with a very small hint of cinnamon. I notice the woodsy taste that likely is imparted from the bamboo, it burns very well. I find it quite enjoyable.
Srintil tobacco is actually an abnormality of tobacco and as such is very rare. It is grown in the Java region in Temangung Valley. It’s an aberration that only occurs occasionally to some of the plants and as Rick says they have not been able to replicate it anywhere else nor can they force it to happen. The locals say it’s considered a blessing from God and because of this it’s very expensive when compared to other tobacco. It manifests itself in the malformed tops of the plant (and if you know your tobacco leafs the tops are usually where the nicotine is greatest) and produces an extreme amount of resin. Because of its potency and price it is most often used as a spice (like perique) with other tobaccos
As you can see it’s very gummy looking and black. Rick states that he’s heard they sometimes wrap it in banana leaves and bury it for a period of time. The flavor profile has a musty taste similar to other Indonesian tobaccos — and is similar to gawith twists. Now as this is usually mixed, my sample came as a blended sample which came from the same blender “Patrick” that also did some of the other blends like Demit666. While he didn't reveal all of the secret top note he uses for his Srintil mixture what we do know is that it comes from raisins — like a wine that it is cured in.
My smoking notes of Srintil: It’s mixed with another burley that I can tell, it’s got fruity notes (most likely the raisin) and because of this its slightly sweet, I’d call it borderline aromatic. It does not smoke as hot per say as soppeng.
Tambolaka can be found here in the US by going to 4noggins and is the only Indonesian pipe tobacco that I know of that is available here. The history behind it according to Rick is that it used to be sold in a shop in Bali and an American guy named Bob discovered it on the island of Sumba. Upon discovery he formed a company to market it both as pipe tobacco and also cigars that he made from it. Then unfortunately he had a stroke a couple years ago and his Indonesian partner took over. His partner concentrated mainly on cigars instead of the pipe tobacco. Now aside from buying from the shop in Bali and the company that was marketing it — the locals can buy it directly.
The way it is made is very time consuming and similar to perique. They take the newly harvested leaves and roll them very tightly into long poles about 10' long. Then they wrap the poles with rope or cord very tightly and store them for a minimum of 5 years. During that time anaerobic fermentation turns the leaves black.
It’s sold in slices that you have to cut into cube or shred into lose/shag cut yourself. It’s suggested that you steam it to help separate the leaves then you cut them however you’d like. Now what came in the sample was already cut in lose ribbon cut, and apparently its a bit messy and time consuming to actually prepare it yourself. A fellow redditor has put his review which includes the steaming here.
My notes: Earthly, Leather, slight spice in the back of the throat. It seems to have a much higher nicotine content thus you should have a full stomach before smoking. Very rich, full smoke, and you don’t need to smoke much to feel the nicotine.
Now I’ll discuss the blended tobaccos and Demit666 is blended by Patrick of Putu Cowe Toko. It’s a blended tobacco of some of the base one’s we’ve talked about: it’s Kasturi, Sopeng, a bit of Srintil mixed with kemenyan. The thing that sets it apart is the frankincense top note that is prevalent throughout the smoke, except as you get to the bottom of the bowl, there is some grassyness and earthiness that really sneaks up on you. The irony of the name of the blend is that it reminds me of church with the frankincense. Rick says that you may also note white specs in the tobacco that add an almost menthol taste to it; I didn't notice it in my sample packet though. My notes I took was that its not an every day smoke for sure but its definitely something to change up the variety when you’re looking for something different and exotic. Slight amount of cinnamon and frankincense, great room note, grassy and earthy, a little musty.
Kama Sutra is a blend made by RnR (Roni Wibowow) who is a tobacco grader for one of the big tobacco companies in Indonesia. Rick has not been able to pry the secret ingredients out of him but its local tobaccos blended with some natural flavor and the addition of jasmine top note. My notes: flowery jasmine is very strong (not over-powering though). Almost like a lakeland but without the soap. There is a hint of orange, dark chocolate in the retro-hale and the after taste on the tongue is light and different and not at all bad. For some reason this was harder to keep lit, it took 5-6 relights to fully light. Personally I found demit666 to be a better smoke but this was an interesting change in pace.
The last of the blended tobaccos and also blended by Patrick of Putu Cowe Toko in the small village of Ambarawa outside the city of Semerang. For those Virginia lovers I’d say this is your blend. Its very natural and lacks any real casing or top note that I can find and is flavorful like a cigar with a lot of grassy and earthy notes to it. It smoked well down to a white ash and I didn't have to mess with the humidity of this much once I received it.
Out of all of the tobaccos I received I found I like the straight soppeng, the blended demit666 and blended Kama Sutra the best. If you are interested in getting some samples then you can contact Zippo on facebook and he’ll try to get you some for a small amount through Paypal. Keep in mind it takes 3-4 weeks to arrive.
A special thanks goes out to Rick Head who without his help I would not have had all the additional history and information about these blends to share with you.