Checking in our hotel, at the reception, the attendant uttered the words, “we are close to the famous ‘kopi joss’ shop”. Say what?
When I asked about Kopi Joss, he said that it is coffee with charcoal on top. Hmmm. The only thing I researched about Yogyakarta was whether to go to see Borobudur at sunrise from Setumbu Hill or book a ticket to visit the city’s main tourist landmark, Borobudur. So hearing about this coffee from a local like it was a normal thing for a tourist to try made the coffee very intriguing.
Of course we have to try it! Yogyakarta, is also known for its fancy and artsy coffee shops (of course Java—the mother of all coffee beans). To try this one of a kind coffee would definitely be a unique experience fit of a bucket list entry.
So what really is a kopi joss?
Kopi joss is simply translated as charcoal coffee. No, you’re not using ground charcoal as a substitute for your coffee bean (it’s not that extreme). It is coffee prepared in a traditional Java way with a fiery ending; loose coffee grounds mixed with sugar (sometimes with condensed milk), filled with boiling water straight from a tin kettle and lastly topped with a flaming hot (red) charcoal. You heard it right, charcoal on top. Imagine a burning piece of log in your coffee.
To be honest, I wasn’t prepared for it. At first I was imagining my coffee served in a very hipster way; an artsy cup, probably a mason jar, and on top, there is a metal dish acting as a cover where the charcoal would be placed to keep the coffee warm. But no! No fancy cup, no dish even, just plain coffee with floating charcoal. OH MY!
How it Started?
Before I tell you my full reaction, let us first get into the history. How was Kopi Joss invented and why did someone try putting burning charcoal in their drink?
Apparently, The first person who tried dipping charcoal in a hot cut of Java coffee was a man named Pak Man (Mr. Man). He started making the (not yet) famous kopi joss back in 1960.
On the day it all began, Pak Man had an upset stomach while manning his own local coffee stall. He saw the burning charcoal that he was using to boil water and thought that the charcoal would make his stomach better. He dunked a piece in his cup and to his surprise it worked!
After the incident, he offered it to his patrons the coffee. Many people tried it and testified to its benefits. More than it’s benefits, a cup of kopi joss has now became a novelty in the city of Yogyakarta where locals enjoy it and tourists are fascinated by it.
There are only a few studies about the benefits of kopi joss. When I posted it in my social media, those who saw it commented mainly on it being a health hazard. Comments such as the effect of carcinogen when induced and drinking pieces of burnt wood is bad for your health… hmm you think?. Though activated charcoal is well known for its health wonders, the one used for kopi joss is not activated. With all the logical scepticism uttered, many locals still attest to its benefits.
According to the locals, the main benefits of dumping burnt charcoal into your coffee is to neutralize the acidity. This makes it easier to drink and helps if you have an upset stomach. It also lowers the caffeine as this is absorbed by the charcoal.
In terms of taste, it burns the sugar adding a caramel-ie taste to your cup of coffee.
If you are looking for a fancy – hipster coffee shop to get a cup of kopi joss, you will never find one. We did that and ended up at the end of Malioboro without any success. On our way back to the hotel, at a strip north of Yogyakarta’s main railway station, we saw several street food stalls with big KOPI JOSS written on banners. YES we found it.
In all honesty when I saw how it was prepared the first time, I almost backed out. My jaw dropped after seeing a large chunk of flaming charcoal get dumped in what was supposed to be “my” cup of coffee. Note, this charcoal came from the pile of wood used to heat up the water kettle. First thought was the hygiene, next was the carcinogen. Where I come from, we don’t consume anything burnt. Even grilled food, we remove the burnt parts.
Once the cup was handed over, they told me to let the charcoal set. The thing we missed was, how long we should keep the charcoal in my coffee. We ended up putting it too long so my coffee really tasted burnt. I only got 3 sips and I was done.
I didn’t want to feel defeated so after asking locals we found out that you only have to keep the charcoal for a minute and remove it. So the next day I went back and acted bravely to try it again! It was the same quick process, coffee grounds, condensed milk, hot water and the charcoal! I am surprised that I finished my cup on the second try. It surely is an acquired taste and once you know what you are expecting, it really isn’t bad. Imagine a burnt butter-caramel coffee. The only thing that bothers me are the loose coffee grounds that you drink while you sip your coffee.
Note: if you want milk in your coffee, avoid additional sugar because it tends to be very sweet.
Will I go back and try it? Yes! I think once you acquired the taste for kopi joss, drinking it will not be a problem anymore, I am still not sure about the health benefits though. I love coffee and normally I never get an upset stomach drinking it.
If you are looking for something interesting to do in Yogyakarta aside from visiting all the cultural sites, dropping by one of the kopi joss stalls definitely is a must,. Even if you don’t fancy drinking, just watching the dance of how it is prepared is worth the experience.