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The 'Kretek' Story

Updated on February 13, 2015

Despite its unhealthy side effects, smoking has been a part of many Indonesian lives. Smoking habits in Indonesia can be traced back to the colonization era, when the region was still referred as Netherlands Indie and the Dutch was the colonial ruler.

It was said that around mid 19th century, the colonial government first start tobacco plantation in the region, introducing smoking habits subsequently.

As smoking habits grew, innovation then followed. One particular alteration was made in the late 19th century, when Haji Jamahri mixed clove with tobacco cigarette ingredients. This ‘experiment’ was done by the native of Kudus (a city in Central Java) as he looked for ways to ease the chest pain caused by his asthma. He wanted to bring clove oil (eugenol ), which traditionally used as mild analgesic, to more direct contact with his lungs.

The result of mixing clove with tobacco was a success, and by smoking the combined result, Jamahri’s chest pains vanished. Words of Jamahri’s findings then spread in Kudus. He began producing the particular mixed cigarettes and commercializing it. Due to the popping sound ‘kretek.. kretek..’ from the burning cloves, Jamahri’s creation then recognized as kretek cigarettes.

Sadly, before fully commercializing his invention, Jamahri passed away in 1890. However, despite the demise of the creator, kretek cigarettes industry continued to grow. A number of small, hand-rolling workshops sprang up in Kudus. Noto Semito, who for some the invention of kretek is ascribed, developed his own blend of tobacco and clove and began selling them under the brand name Bal Tiga.

Bal Tiga grew into Indonesia’s leading kretek brand at the time and Noto Semito became the first tobacco millionaire in Java Island. To challenge the domination of Bal Tiga, other kretek producers then began experimenting on adding mixed ingredients to their tobacco-clove blend, such as spices, fruits and other substances to smooth the taste of their products. The added ingredients is known as ‘saus’ (from the Dutch word of sauce), and enrich the taste of the kretek.

New dominants names appear in the later years, such as Sampoerna, Djarum and Gudang Garam. These companies, which started as home industries, become major names in Indonesia and creating multi-billion rupiahs business.

Sampoerna, which now controlled by PT Phillip Morris Indonesia (subsidiary of Phillip Morris International Inc), gain a net profit up to 1,512,521 million rupiahs only in the first quarter of the year 2010. Djarum expanded their business to other sectors, notably when the company joined a partnership to acquire majority control of Bank Central Asia in 1998, putting up most of the US$ 539 million for the 51 percent stake in BCA.

Gudang Garam also expanded their business by establishing Kediri-based PT Surya Pamenang in 1991, which provide high quality packaging material. Starting out as minnows home industries, the companies thrive as conglomerates, thanks to the ‘kretek.. kretek..’ sounding cigarettes.


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