Coffee was not a native plant to the archipelago. In the 17th century, when Indonesia was still under Dutch occupation, the VOC brought Arabica coffee plants to Indonesia. They were interested in growing the plants and sought to break the worldwide Arab monopoly on the coffee trade.
The Dutch Colonial Government initially planted coffee around Batavia (Jakarta), and as far south as Sukabumi and Bogor. Coffee plantations were later established in East Java, Central Java, West Java, and in parts of Sumatra and Sulawesi. Large areas of forested land were cleared and cultivated specifically for the development of these plantations. The growth of coffee plantations was responsible for the development of a lot of infrastructure in Central Java during the turn of the 19th century. Roads and railways were needed to transport the coffee beans from the island interior to the ports where the coffee was loaded on ships and exported.
Prior to World War Two, Central Java, in particular, had a very strong rail transportation system that brought coffee, sugar, pepper, tea and tobacco out of the province to the port city of Semarang. East Indonesia, East Timor, and Flores were also producing coffee during this period. These islands, however, were still under Portuguese rule. The Portuguese had also imported Arabica coffee plants, but they were from a different root stock that what the Dutch had imported.
Near the turn of the 19th century a huge portion of the coffee plants in Indonesia, as well as Sri Lanka and Malaysia, contracted coffee rust. Coffee rust is a fungus that creates the growth of a fine yellow-orange powder like substance that starts on the underside of the leaves of the plants. This fungus spread very quickly and wiped out entire plantations, devastating the colonial Indonesian coffee industry. The east side of the islands was also affected, but not to the extent that Java was hit because of the different root stock they had planted. Some plantation owners did not replant coffee plants but opted for tea or rubber trees instead which they felt were less prone to disease. Many of these plantations still remain in operation today.
The Dutch responded to the coffee rust by importing and planting Liberica coffee. This variety had a short-lived popularity and was also affected by disease. The Liberica cherry can still be found throughout Java, but is seldom used as a commercial crop in Indonesia. The Dutch colonial government then opted for the more resistant Robusta variety to replant the affected plantations. Robusta still makes up around 90% of the coffee crop in Indonesia today.
World War II and the struggle for independence played a big part in subsequent changes in the Indonesian coffee market. today. Plantations were taken over briefly by the occupying Japanese. After independence, the plantations throughout Indonesia either came under the control of the new government or were abandoned. Many colonial plantation owners fled the country to avoid being arrested. Today close to 92% of coffee production is in the hands of small farmers or cooperatives.