Why don’t more Indonesians drink? A look inside Indonesia’s love-hate relationship with alcohol

Posted on 1 September, 2020

Disclaimer: This article does not promote alcoholism or the abuse of any form of substance.

Written by Fahry Slatter – AIYA National Blog Editor.

Edited by Clarice Campbell – AIYA National President.

For the Indonesian version, click here.

If all the Asian countries were at a house party, I would imagine it would look something like this: Japan would be the most popular kid handing out shots to friends, South Korea would be flirting with a girl, a bottle of soju in hand, Thailand is dancing on top of the beer pong table with the Philippines and China, India is passed out on the couch and then, out of the corner of my eye, sitting alone at a table is Indonesia, sipping a can of diet coke.

Go to any Indonesian event – let it be independence day celebration, birthday or any other occasion and you probably won’t find tubs of beer in the backyard or bottles of wine on the kitchen table. If you’re wondering why this is, it’s because drinking is just not part of Indonesia’s culture.

How is it that in a country of over 250 million people, the world’s 4th largest population, only around 500,000 actually drink alcohol?

Chart 1 – Data taken by the Indonesian Ministry of Health

When compared to other beverages, alcoholic drinks don’t come anywhere near instant tea, coffee and instant drinking powder (wait, what?). 31.2% of Indonesians drink instant tea, followed by coffee and packaged drinks. If you go down the chart……yes keep going down……you’ll find that alcoholic drinks survive in the industry by the skin of their teeth, with just 0.2% consumption.

But there’s more than meets the eye, because at some point in Indonesia’s history, that bar chart would have been the other way around, with beer topping the list and sugary drinks scraping the remains off of the beverage industry.

So what happened?

To understand the present, it is important to understand the past. Looking at the past reveals the golden age of alcohol consumption in Indonesia.

Believe it or not, Indonesia actually has a rich history of drinking. Besides coffee, this archipelago has brewed iconic alcoholic beverages: Sopi, Ciu and the infamous Arak – a famous moonshine from Bali. According to Risyiana Muthia, the history of alcohol in Indonesia has been around since the 9th century. Even tiles on the Buddhist temples of Yogyakarta, depict vendors and royals drinking. 

Yingya Shehlan led a Chinese naval operation to the Majapahit empire, in the 15th century. Historians believed he saw several villagers getting drunk off of Tuak, a local wine in East Java. 

Then, in 1929…..


One of the earliest posters of Heineken’s Bintang brand, taken from the National library of Indonesia. 

Dutch brewery, Heineken, opened their first brewery in Indonesia and the Dutch would set up Indonesia’s most popular beer brand, Bintang. Interestingly enough,  beer came before sweet tea in Indonesia, as PT. Sinar Sosro didn’t even make their iconic Teh Botol until the 1940s. This makes beer an older part of Indonesia’s history, compared to packaged iced tea.

Pakistan president, Ayub Khan sharing a champagne toast with President Sukarno, 1964, archives by Nadeem Farooq Parcha. 

To add to that, tropical spices in Indonesia also meant more room for invention and creativity in alcoholic drinks and it was thanks to these Indonesian spices that Europeans were able to make mulled wine and other spiced alcoholic beverages. Exotic spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger made this possible. The industry was flourishing under European trade and many islands strewn throughout Indonesia had their own unique style. Much like how every region in Indonesia had their own unique coffee bean, every region also had their own unique alcoholic drink.

So why do so few people consume alcohol now?

In 1993, under the rule of President Suharto, alcoholic beverages were officially deemed as closed investment, meaning that the industry wasn’t allowed to develop or grow from foreign investments.

From there, things would only get worse.

In 2013, various groups attempted to push a bill that would ban alcohol consumption in Indonesia. This partially worked, as alcoholic drinks would eventually be banned from being sold in convenience stores. In 2015, imported alcoholic drinks would be taxed at 150%, one of the highest in the world. This made beer even more inaccessible. Unlike Europe, beer and wine are also expensive. A bottle of Krating Daeng (sort of like Asian RedBull), costs Rp. 8.000 (~ A$0.80) whereas a can of beer (250ml) costs Rp. 24.500 (~A$2.45) – that’s triple the price of an energy drink, which one would you buy?

From a cultural standpoint, Indonesia’s religious muslim majority, which has since grown since the 15th century, frowns upon drinking and it is heavily discouraged.  This virtually acts as a social barrier that prevents beer and other drinks from being a staple in Indonesia. To add to that, there’s been a shift in taste – Indonesians simply prefer sweet and sugary drinks. Evidence of this comes from the ominous data on diabetes, which shows that 10 million people in Indonesia had diabetes in 2013, and that data shows diabetes has been a problem since at least the 1980s.

Naturally, there are certain exceptions to the rule. Tapai (tape) is a popular dish that consists of sticky rice and fermented yeast. Through the fermentation process, tapai has more alcohol content than what is permissible by standards in some religions. Yet it is a widely consumed dish that is a staple in many Indonesian households. Tapai, along with soy sauce, certain types of rice and other foods fall into a grey area that is often excused by their consumers, possibly because it doesn’t intoxicate you and/or because it is a traditional dish. These traditional foods get to keep their seat at the front of the bus, whereas wine (which is essentially processed grape juice) and other alcoholic beverages are treated somewhat differently…

Tapai – Courtesy of whattocooktoday.com. 

In conclusion, alcohol in Indonesia today is a far cry from what it once was during its most popular phase. But history cannot be erased. Our culture has gone through massive shifts in terms of religion, politics and business. All these factors may not have killed the industry, but it has certainly influenced the way people think about it.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to read some of our other works that covers a variety of topics, such as financial planning in Indonesia or Indonesia’s biking craze by clicking this link. If you want to stay in touch, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.