Kretek is a uniquely Indonesian creation. Cloves, one of the three main components, are indigenous to the archipelago.
Indonesia’s rich and fertile soil, tropical climate and rainfall pattern, yield some of the best tobacco in the world.
From its small scale beginnings to the mass production of today, the development of the kretek industry intimately reflects the twists and turns of Indonesian history.
- The innovation of kretek
- The birth of kretek industry
- The kretek revolution
- What sets kretek apart
- Kretek today
- Type of kretek cigarettes
Kretek is essentially a special blend of tobacco and cloves. Although tobacco was introduced to Indonesia in the seventeenth century by European explorers, it was not until the late nineteenth century, in 1880, that the crucial ingredient of cloves was added.
Credit for the discovery goes to one Haji Djamhari in the city of Kudus, Central Java. The story goes that Haji Djamhari suffered from asthma and would rub clove oil on his chest for relief.
He experimented with adding cloves to his cigarette on the chance that inhaling the smoke would help his lungs.
Miraculously, Haji Djamhari was cured. Excited, he marketed his invention, which he named ‘kretek‘ after the ‘kemeretek’ sound that the cloves made as they burned, as a medicinal cure.
Thus was kretek born.
The first kretek was sold through pharmacies, as a medicine. As kretek grew in popularity, cottage industries began to spring up, producing hand-rolled cigarettes.
Unfortunately, Haji Jamhari passed away before he could make his fortune. It was left to another resident of Kudus, Nitisemito, to revolutionize the kretek industry.
Nitisemito was instrumental in transforming kretek landscape. Termed the ‘father of the kretek industry‘, Nitisemito launched a brand called Bal Tiga, accompanied by an innovative marketing campaign the likes of which Indonesia had not seen before.
At the time, cigarettes were crude homemade, hand-rolled affairs wrapped in cornhusks. By contrast, Nitisemito used labels printed in Japan, and offered promotional loyalty gifts to customers in exchange for empty packs. Customers quickly took notice.
Meanwhile, Nitisemito developed a production system called the abon system. Under this arrangement, Bal tiga provided tobacco, cloves and other raw materials to middleman, called ‘abon’, who then assumed to job of delivering the finished product to the company.
Bal Tiga then paid for the finished products piecemeal. This system was quickly adopted by other kretek companies and continued up till the middle of the twentieth century, when companies began to hire permanent staff as a way of ensuring quality and loyalty.
Although Bal Tiga went bankrupt in 1955 as a result of the Second World War, the production practices Nitisemito pioneered permanently transformed the scale of kretek manufacturing from a cottage industry to modern industrial production.
Post-world war, kretek began to decline in the face of foreign influence. By the 1968, kretek was a dying breed, eclipsed by the popularity of Western cigarettes, especially prestigious international brands.
A combination of fortuitous government intervention and new production techniques combined to revive the fortunes of kretek.
Under President Soeharto, the government decided to invest some of the money resulting from the oil boom of the 1973 into the development of indigenous industries including kretek makers, thus recapitalizing the industry through cheap loans.
At the same time, government policies of transmigration – moving families from the crowded inner islands of Java to less densely islands such as Sumatera and Kalimantan – spread the previously Java-centric habit of kretek across the archipelago and by doing so expanding the domestic market for clove cigarettes.
Meanwhile, licenses were issued to companies for the automated production of kretek. The uniform size, shape and sleek packaging of this new breed of kretek cigarettes appealed to the upper classes and by the ’70s kretek was competing directly with foreign brands.
The clove cigarette, once a peasant’s pleasure, had been successfully reinvented as a sophisticated smoke, middle and upper class luxury.
Kretek cigarettes are unique creations. Kretek is more complicated to manufacture than other kinds of cigarettes.
Besides the tobacco and cloves, of which Indonesia produces some of world’s best, the taste of each kretek brand is determined by a carefully-guarded special ingredients which is added during the production process and which varies from cigarette to cigarette.
A single kretek blend may use over 30 types of different tobacco to achieve the perfect balance, while the special ingredients may use up to 100 ingredients or aroma.
The age of the tobacco chosen also plays a role, as does the proportion of tobacco to cloves.
Finally, a saccharine is added to the cigarette paper for extra sweetness.
With so many variables involved, it’s no wonder that the kretek experience stands in a league of its own.
Outwardly, the kretek of today is a far cry from the crude hand-rolled products of the 1800. But behind the enhancement of attractive modern packaging and new innovative aroma, the essential enjoyment of a kretek smoke remains unchanged.
This classic experience continues to appeal to new generations of customers both domestically and internationally.
The kretek industry is presently the largest employer in Indonesia, with over 500 active kretek manufacturers employing an estimated 180,000 people to produce some 2,000 brands.
New aroma and tastes are constantly coming onto the market as modern research and development methods are employed to create new kretek products.
More recently, European companies have developed a range of aroma especially for the kretek industry.
As such, kretek products are widely consumed through the Indonesian archipelago as an everyday indulgence.
With so many brand and aroma available, kretek is consumed by consumers of all classes. Some brands are aimed at the lower classes, while others have cultivated a distinctly high-end image.
Additionally, a growing international audience has come to know and appreciate the delights of kretek. For international smokers in particular, kretek is likely to be a select indulgence, one reserved for special occasions.
Another demographic shift has been the emergence of female kretek smokers, a phenomenon unthinkable a hundred years ago. In short, kretek has successfully evolved and changed to keep with the times, without losing touch with its traditional roots.
Klobot kretek cigarettes are the original kretek cigarettes. Manufactured by hand, these traditional cigarettes use cornhusk wrappers.
Though rare today, Klobot cigarettes are still made in rural and East Java, usually by elderly women for an elderly male farmer consumer base.
Introduced around 1913, these paper-wrapped kretek cigarettes were the first commercially produced clove cigarette.
Workers would sit on the floor using hand-operated machines to produce the cigarettes. In 1970, goverment legislation required companies to provide tables and benches for staff.
Sigaret Kretek Tangan (SKT), which do not have filters, continue to be popular today.
Launched in 1974, machine-rolled kretek cigarettes (SKM: Sigaret Kretek Mesin) prompted a boom in the kretek industry.
Equipped with filters and similar in appearance to Western cigarettes, the slick, uniform appearance of these products was instrumental in reclaiming kretek’s popularity.