Sweetness and Earth: Java, Sulawesi, Bali, Timor
One starting point for understanding the intriguing coffees that emerge from the islands of Indonesia (Sumatra, Sulawesi, Java, Bali) and Timor is the prosaic issue of processing, or how the fruit is removed from the coffee seeds and how they are dried.
The famous "earthy" character of traditional Sumatra and Sulawesi coffees clearly derives from a peculiar prolonged sequence of drying acts performed by traditional small producers that give the coffees a musty or mildewed character. For writers of coffee bag copy, of course, this pervasive flavor note is most definitely earthy, not musty. Who wants to drink mildew? Well, quite a few of us do, judging the loyalty of some consumers to their Sumatras and Sulawesis. And these musty notes often do taste literally like fresh earth, though they can assume many other variations, from the soft, round odor of wet, just-fallen leaves to the less attractive sharp mustiness of damp basements.
Most Bali and Java coffees, on the other hand, are subjected to a more decisive, conventional routine of fruit removal and drying, using methods resembling those in use in regions like Central America and Kenya. Javas and Balis reflect this orthodoxy in the delicacy of their profiles. Yet both also carry a hint of musty earth buried in their delicate aromatics. Finally, the best coffees of East Timor often seem to express a sort of happy middle ground between the earthy heaviness of small-producer Sumatras and Sulawesis and the more delicate conventionally wet processed coffees of Java.
The Sweetness Part
If it were only the earthy/musty character that made the coffees of this region distinctive, I doubt whether they would have much of a following. Fortunately, however, another prominent characteristic of the best coffees from this vast area is a natural, powerful fruit-toned sweetness. I assume the sweetness derives from relatively low growing altitudes close to the equator, plus other factors that, given our current incomplete knowledge, we can only guess at. But however the best coffees from this region acquire their sweetness, they most definitely have it.
For me the originality and appeal of these coffees resides in this striking sensory juxtaposition - of profound, fruity sweetness with pungently musty "earthiness." This overlap is what provides the inner sensory similarity that links the coffees of this region despite their often equally striking differences.
This Month the Non-Sumatra Islands
This month we focus on the less celebrated coffees of the region. In 2005 we reviewed the coffees of Sumatra, the best selling origin in the archipelago. For 2007, however, we decided to take a little run through coffees from the other islands - Sulawesi/Celebes, Java, Bali, East Timor - all interesting coffee origins often overlooked by roasters and consumers.
Sulawesis: Read the Fine Print
One logical way to move through these origins is to start with the most extreme. The musty/earthy note is typically most intense in the tribal, small-holder coffees of the Toraja region of Sulawesi (or, for those using the older, colonial names, the Kalossi region of Celebes).
All of the Sulawesi/Celebes coffees that turned up in our survey displayed variations on the same intense musty/earthy note, usually accompanied by a robust, sometimes gritty body. These coffees are the Islay whiskies of the coffee world, with analogies to the heavy body, smoky peat notes and medicinal character of those challenging beverages.
The unorthodox profiles of Sulawesis make it difficult to determine ratings for them. It would seem that their musty/earthy tendencies place them too far outside the conventional expectation of the majority of coffee professionals and aficionados to justify ratings into the 90s, even though they might deserve to go there purely from the point of view of distinctiveness and authenticity.
Consequently, the usual Coffee Review admonition to look past the rating to the fine print is particularly relevant here: Despite their unspectacular ratings, you too may be among those who enjoy the often gloriously unorthodox profiles of these coffees. The Sulawesis/Celebes from The Roasterie and Moore Coffee (both 88) are intense but reasonably balanced in their juxtaposition of musty earth and sweetness. However, the version from Coffee Maria (86) is truly wild and extreme: still sweet, but so sharply musty as to take the profile into another realm altogether.
Javas: Pungent Delicacy
If Sulawesis are the Islay whiskies of the coffee world, too strange and overpowering for most tastes, the Javas reviewed here (ratings 88 to 90) offer another sort of pleasure, and another kind of risk: quite sweet, floral, but delicate, perhaps too delicate. Yet running underneath the delicate, often gently complex, floral-toned aromatics is a quiet pungency that for me is the muted analogy to the full-throated mustiness of the Sulawesis. This juxtaposition - of sweet aromatic delicacy and pungent notes that often reminded me of walnut ? was often quite pleasing in the cup, though the shadow pungency often contributed a slightly astringent finish.
Bali: Rare and Subtle
The one surprise for me in this month's reviews was a fine Bali coffee from Morghan Rake, a brand of Pennsylvania's Greencastle Roasters (92). Bali, celebrated for its exotic musical and visual culture, also produces small quantities of an interesting coffee. It is conventionally wet-processed like estate Javas, and similarly delicate. However, this sample shows a coffee with considerably more complexity than most Javas: softly and sweetly acidy with unusual and rather striking aromatics.
East Timor: Impressive Recovery
Finally, the coffees of East Timor, the small Portuguese-speaking nation that only recently achieved independence from Indonesia. Timor, whose coffees, like the traditional coffees of Sumatra and Sulawesi, are produced by small holders, is currently making a recovery from the destruction attending the independence struggle.
Most exported East Timors are organically grown, many are Fair-Trade certified. And, in many respects, the best of these coffees, benefiting from the support of quality programs sponsored by international aid agencies, are among the most complete and balanced of the traditional coffees from the region. The Fair-Trade, organic certified Timor from PT's Coffee (92) displayed the richness, syrupy mouthfeel and powerful sweetness of the best of the regional types, with almost none of the ambiguous mustiness that both distinguishes and often haunts them.
Furthermore, the Fair-Trade mechanism in play with this coffee assures aficionado consumers that some of the premium they pay for its suave pleasures makes it back to the producers, a reassurance that is still not common in the coffee industries of these islands, characterized as they are by long established but often opaque relationships between small producers, local middlemen and exporters.
The Double Value of Transparency
Hopefully we will see more transparency in these relationships in the future, which both should help small producers achieve better prices while giving buyers a more refined understanding of how these fascinating island coffees come to taste the way they do, and how we can refine those tastes without destroying them with technically clumsy interventions.