Indonesia Clove Cigarettes

Euromonitor International's Tobacco in Indonesia report offers a comprehensive guide to the size and shape of the market at a national level.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

A Good Cigarette Is a Fantasy of Flavor


KUDUS, Indonesia — It was one of those precious moments that seem to prove that life has meaning, a moment of inspiration — perhaps divine inspiration — that makes all the hard times seem worthwhile.

"All of a sudden, out of the blue, I had it," said Djoko Herryanto, a chemist whose mission it is to find the most delicious mixture of spices to enhance the taste of Indonesia's sweet-smelling clove cigarettes.

"Until this day, I don't know," he said. "Did this idea come from my technical knowledge? Or did it come from `wahyu,' a divine inspiration, a flash?"

Indeed, his new creation does seem beyond the imagining of ordinary men.

"A taste of banana mixed with cheese and sugar sauce together with chocolate, all toasted together," he said, still breathless when he thinks about it. "That's the flavor that came to me — Bam! — sweet, nutty, caramelic, fruity, everything!"

A blend of flavors like this may seem hard to imagine in a cigarette, but tens of millions of Indonesians are smoking sticks of candy like this every day. The clove cigarette, it turns out, is a great deal more than tobacco and cloves. It is a complex, infinitely variable symphony of scent and flavor.

Usually about two-thirds tobacco, one-third clove, the Indonesian smoke known as a kretek also contains one more, often secret, ingredient: its sauce, or saus in Indonesian.

This is where divine inspiration comes in: cinnamon, pineapple, licorice, coriander, litchi nut, coffee, strawberry — whatever delights the senses, sometimes in natural flavorings but usually (and more economically) in artificial flavors.

"If you just put in tobacco and clove, it would taste funny," Mr. Herryanto said. "The blending is like making music — how to make the smell and the taste, the positive and the negative flavors, all come into harmony."

Indonesia's 210 million people — mostly its men — smoked 200 billion kreteks last year. There are some 2,000 brands, produced by about 500 companies ranging from tiny family- owned enterprises to some of the biggest and most powerful companies in the nation.

Two big producers, Sampoerna and Gudang Garam, are among the few major Indonesian enterprises that not only survived the economic collapse of the past four years but prospered. Their owners are the only two Indonesians left of a dozen who were counted among the world's richest people before the crash.

Clove cigarettes are so popular in Indonesia that only one smoker out of 10 prefers standard cigarettes, known here as whites. It is one of the few markets in the world where American tobacco companies have failed to prosper.

"Whites are boring," said Baedowi Maroef, the director of the mid-sized Jambu Bol kretek factory here in the birthplace of clove cigarettes. And how else could it be for someone who has smoked kreteks all his life. Some brands even dip their filters in saccharine, making them even more like smokable candy.

When he is too sick to smoke, Mr. Maroef said, he holds his kreteks up to his nose and sniffs them.

Among other things, kreteks offer one of Indonesia's few guarantees of employment. Most are hand rolled and it takes about 200,000 women around Indonesia, working with incredible speed, to keep up with demand. One of the larger companies, Djarum, once held a contest, which was won by a woman who rolled 12,000 in a day.

That is nothing, Mr. Herryanto said, compared with a rolling machine in the United States, which can produce 16,000 cigarettes in an hour.

It is good work, said a roller named Rukayah, 42, her hands flying like lightning as she spoke, "because if I weren't doing this, I wouldn't have a job."

Twenty-six years on the job have given her funny dreams, she said. "Sometimes I dream that I'm locked in here with my friends, still rolling kreteks, and I can't stop," she said.

Developed in the 1880's to minister to coughs and asthma — they were first sold in pharmacies — kreteks were originally wrapped in corn husks, a monsoon-season boon to farmers because that made them waterproof.

Today clove cigarettes are a signature of Indonesia. The whole country sometimes seems to smell of them. In the congested cities, even automobile exhaust is sweetened by the scent of clove.

And they are intimately entwined with Indonesia's history.

"What is that you are smoking, sir?" asked a diplomat, according to an oft-told tale, addressing Indonesia's first ambassador to Great Britain 50 years ago.

The ambassador, Agus Salim, was ready with his riposte: "That, your excellency, is the reason for which the West conquered the world!"

Indeed. In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, it was the cloves of the Moluccas and the nutmeg of the Banda islands — worth more than their weight in gold — that drew European explorers and colonists into the South Seas.

"In this respect, clove may be seen as having played a central role in Indonesia's past and in the history of the world in general," writes Mark Hanusz in a new coffee table book called "Kretek: The Culture and Heritage of Indonesia's Clove Cigarettes" (Equinox Publishing, 2000).

In an introduction to the book, the writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer notes, "You can always tell a kretek smoker by the holes in their clothes — caused by the crackling of the cloves."

A chain smoker since his boyhood, Mr. Pramoedya describes his love of the clove cigarette, saying, "When I moved to Surabaya, I picked up two new habits that would continue to this day — smoking kretek and wearing shoes."

In a taste test, Mr. Herryanto, the chemist, offered a sniff-and-smoke comparison of several delicious- smelling brands. It took his expert nose to tease out the flavorings from the aroma of cloves.

Wismalak Diplomat. Sweet, strong, fruity, mostly plum, with undertones of strawberry and pineapple.

Gudang Garam. Less fruity, more spicy and fragrant with cinnamon, coriander, star anise and lovage.

Sampoerna Mild. A sweetened Marlboro with its chocolate undertone, plus clove and rum.

Nothing seems to happen in Indonesia without kreteks. Fat or slim, filtered or straight, fruity or spicy, they are everywhere. Few people seem to associate them with illnesses like lung cancer.

Asked to describe the quintessential setting for a good smoke, Mr. Maroef smiled a faraway smile. "Most obviously, almost inevitably, after meals," he said. "Or in any relaxed situation, like when you're sitting on the toilet."

His colleague at Jambu Bol, Abdul Aziz, said kreteks also go well with sports, like tennis.

Come again?

"Well, it's difficult to explain," he said. "But after playing tennis it feels really good to have a smoke."