Ubud, Bali lies midway between the ocean and the mountains, between the imagined and the real. For those coming to Bali for the first time, the very real and rowdy night life of Kuta and Seminyak is the immediate choice. Others choose Ubud, which has been deemed the cultural capital of Bali, and a bulwark of artistic talent. Seniman Coffee Studio is a cafe that lies in the center—and the periphery—of this complex interplay.
Rice paddies surround Ubud and its swarm of yoga gear and batik, its ashrams and luxury hotels. People come here as much for the cultural tourism as for spiritual respite from the workaday lifestyle. One is just as likely to bump elbows with Julia Roberts on these narrow sidewalks as a gaggle of brightly clad tourists fresh off the plane from Beijing. All these folks have one thing in common: coffee. Cafes here are bustling.
One of these cafes is Seniman Coffee Studio, started in 2010 by Rodney Glick and David Sullivan. Cafes the world over are known for attracting the creative and counter-cultural. This cafe is no different; in Bahasa Indonesia, seniman means “artist.”
Seniman and their roasting branch–Tetap Happy Coffee Roasters, located across the street–are in the center of Ubud, an optimal place to meet people of all sorts. Shop owners, tourists, expatriates, and coffee professionals all gather here. Large windows in both spaces let in lots of natural light, and the bar rocker chairs provide a comfortable place to relax with a cup of coffee. Upcycled serviceware forged from the remainders of a night’s revelry collects on a communal table, the sandblasted glass flasks and jars filled with varying amounts of coffee. Glick and Sullivan are ever in attendance, greeting customers and working with their staff.
Design is a major component of Seniman’s vision, Sullivan tells me. The first thing that might catch your eye is the attention paid to lighting; even a short stay in Indonesia will attune you to the white blare of fluorescents. Here, warm light and backlit displays are easy on the eyes. The aforementioned serviceware comes to your table on a paddle fitted with spaces for water, a small jajan pastry, and your coffee drink (or fresh juice, if that’s your thing).
Being inside this cafe is very much like being inside a work of art, and Glick agrees amiably. “I don’t tell people that though,” he says, “since it’s meant to function in the world as a real thing–saves a lot of conversation!”
The coffee service at Seniman proper has everything from espresso-based drinks to siphon coffee. If you’re a mite peckish, everything from soto ayam (chicken soup, Indonesian style) to the Fat Trucker (a full English breakfast) is served to accompany. Across the street at Seniman’s roastery, you can enjoy a wide variety of cold drinks while you watch as I Kadek Edi, their head roaster, knocks out batches on a 6 kilo Yang-Chia roaster. At night, grilled items are served to accompany their selection of beers.
One of my favorite cold drinks is the single origin smoked Lampung Cocoa Nitro, made from Sumatran chocolate, and served under pressure from a whip cream canister. While developing their cold coffee service Glick noticed an inordinate amount of time was being spent on creating garnishes. “Here,” he demonstrates for me, setting down a pair of pears in a bowl next to my drink. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Indeed, the fruit was beautiful in and of itself; furthermore, the visual pun was right up my alley.
Conceptual art is very much a part of Glick’s life and repertoire. His work establishing IASKA (now Spaced), his familiarity with the works of the “Leviathan of modern philosophy,” Jean-Bernard Klus, and his collaborations with Balinese master carvers eventually led him to Ubud, that imagined center of Balinese artistic life. His sculptural works bridge the visual language of Hindu and Buddhist iconography with that of the modern commercial everyman, destabilizing the identity and history of his subjects.
In some ways an art cafe in Bali is simply a cafe in Bali. In others, it is a potent statement.
In the early 20th century, Dutch colonials offered patronage to high caste families such as that of Cokorda Gde Raka Sukawati (a prince of Ubud). This worked to assuage Western anxieties about colonial policy as well as quash local political discontent. Sukawati, in turn, hosted Western artists such as Miguel Covarrubias and Walter Spies, and guided them through his vision of what Bali was, and perhaps what it would be in the future. Covarrubias and Spies, with their academic and artistic authority, became unwitting spokesmen for this imagined Bali. In this way, an ideal representation of Bali as a timeless, harmonious, and exotic ‘Island of the Gods’ captured the minds of an international audience.
As Glick says of his own work, and of Seniman: “The imagined becomes real, and the real becomes art.” In the context of Ubud, Seniman represents a new, and more positive iteration of this process.
Bali attracts twice as many domestic tourists as it does international, which means these days, you’re most likely to meet someone from Jakarta than London. The domestic market for specialty coffee in Indonesia is growing right alongside the country’s expanding middle class. In the old days, kopi tubruk (finely ground coffee often mixed with corn or rice) was quaffed in roadside stands with hefty doses of sugar. Almost all high quality coffee was sent directly to export. Currently, locals are gaining discerning palates through working in coffee industry in Indonesia, or by living abroad. A large portion of Seniman’s coffee comes from Bali, and most of their employees do, too.
Seniman’s lead barista is named Ni Made Adi Yani Mataram (she goes by “Dea” for short), and she tells me, “There is always more to learn with coffee. I always push to learn more.” Back across the street, head roaster I Kadek Edi is a certified Q Grader, and he considers his trade to be an art; his first job was as a wood carver, so he is no stranger to subtractive processes. “I enjoy the challenge of roasting,” he says. “There is so much to create and explore–it’s a complicated job.”
These are the new faces of specialty coffee in Indonesia. It is indeed a complicated job–imagining a new reality for coffee in a changing and diverse nation–but that process is its own kind of art, and something beautiful to behold.
Evan Gilman is an American coffee professional based in Indonesia. Read more Evan Gilman on Sprudge.