Heritage of Kretek

Development of Kretek

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 Invention of Kretek

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 Birth of the Kretek Industry

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.

The Kretek Revolution

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. In 1973, the Government decided to invest money from the oil boom era into the development of indigenous industries which include kretek makers through recapiltalisizing the industry by using cheap loans instrument.

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.

What Sets Kretek Apart

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.

Kretek Today

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.

Types of Kretek Cigarettes

Klobot Kretek Cigarettes
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.

Hand-Rolled Cigarettes
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, which do not have filters, continue to be popular today.

Machine-Rolled Kretek Cigarettes
Launched in 1974, machine-rolled kretek cigarettes 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.

Product of Nature

Derived from Nature

Kretek is made up of natural products. The base ingredients of tobacco and cloves are finished off by special ingredients to enhance the aroma. Grown in Indonesia's unique climate and soil. These components are what give kretek its distinctive taste, depending on the type, age and proportions of the tobacco, cloves and special ingredients used.


Tobacco was introduced to the archipelago by European explorers on their expeditions. Today, Indonesia known for producing some of the finest tobacco in the world. More than 100 varieties flourish in its rich volcanic soil, occupying over 250.000 of cultivated land primarily in Sumatera, Java, Bali and Lombok. Regional differences in the aroma and nicotine content occur due to soil conditions, rainfall, altitude, climate and local fanning traditions, but the best tobacco is accepted to be that from the Temanggung region of Central Java. The unique climate of this mountainous area is said to produce not only the most aromatic tobacco, but also tobacco with the highest nicotine levels in the world.


Cloves are actually the unopened flower buds of the clove tree, an evergreen plant indigenous to Indonesia. Despite finding their way into historical usage all over the world from India to Europe, until modern times, clove trees grew only on "the Spice Islands' of Maluku. The spice was thus expensive and highly sought after.

This valuable spice was indirectly responsible for the creation of the Indonesian nation, as the Dutch, English, Spanish and Portuguese all sought in turn to colonize Indonesia and dominate the clove trade.

While cloves are now grown in other countries as well, Indonesia remains one of the top producers of quality cloves. This is fortunate as the kretek industry demands vast quantities of cloves each year, amounting to 95 percent of the world's clove output.

Clove trees take at least five years to mature, after which they generate an annual crop. The buds are picked by hand in a labor-intensive process, then set out in the sun until perfectly dry. The cloves will then be weighed, sold, and eventually shredded before being added to the master tobacco blend.

Special Ingredients

There are final secret ingredients in every kretek; a closely guarded taste containing herbal extracts, and numerous natural aromas and compounds. These secret ingredients augment the tobacco and clove master blend, delivering the final component that makes up the distinct taste of each brand.

Kudus, City of Kretek

The story of kretek begins in the city of Kudus, Central Java, Indonesia. It was here in the 1880 that Haji Jamhari, a local resident, first invented the kretek cigarette, mixing locally grown cloves with tobacco to invent a cigarette to ease his chest pains.

This fortuitous discovery taken a step further by Nitisemito, another savvy Kudus resident who, seeing an opportunity, took it upon himself to market and begin mass-producing the unique new cigarette. In doing so, he created what would eventually become an enormous industry with a worldwide reach. Such is the scale of the kretek industry today that 95 percent of the world supply of cloves goes to kretek manufacturing. Sadly, Nitisemito's company, Bal Tiga, is long gone, but a road bearing his name still exists in Kudus, testimony to his legacy.

Today, Kudus continues to occupy a focal point on the kretek landscape, maintaining its tradition of kretek manufacturing. Of an estimated 600 kretek manufacturers in Indonesia, the majority are based in Kudus. Djarum itself employs some 60,000 people in the city.

Home to the only kretek museum in Indonesia, Kudus, whose name derives from the Arabic word, Al-Quds, meaning 'holy,' also happens to be a Moslem site of pilgrimage. Each year thousands of visitors flock to the sacred Menara Kudus (Kudus Tower), a Kudus landmark that is associated with the Nine Saints (Wali Songo) responsible for bringing Islam to Java.