Kretek is a uniquely Indonesian creation. Cloves, one of the three main components, are indigenous to the island country. Indonesia's rich and fertile soils, tropical climate and rainfall patterns, yield some of the best tobaccos 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.
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 Jamhari in the city of Kudus, Central Java. The story goes that Haji Jamhari 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 Jamhari 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 take 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 comhusks. 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 figa 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 19608, 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 Suharto, the government decided to invest some of the money resulting from the oil boom of the 19703 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 '705 kretek was competing directly with foreign brands. The clove cigarette, once a peasant's pleasure, had been successfully reinvented as a sophisticated smoke, a 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 sauce 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 sauce may use up to 100 ingredients or flavors. 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.