By February 5, 2010 |Reviews Tasting Report
Map of Indonesia

Coffees of Sulawesi, Bali, Java, Flores, East Timor

In beverage-world terms, coffees from Indonesia and East Timor could be considered the single-malt whiskies of coffee. Generally absent are the tart fruit and sweet floral notes of the finest pure, high-grown, wet-processed coffees of Latin America and East Africa. In their place are rich, ambiguous notes of nut, aromatic wood, sometimes earth, sometimes a chocolaty fermented fruit. Most of these characteristics are created through various idiosyncrasies of fruit removal and drying that are part of the complex, diffused coffee tradition in these vast islands.

Sumatra of course is the best-known origin from this part of the world, and most coffee lovers most likely have taken personal positions on the typically musty-earthy, mildly fermented richness of traditional Sumatras. Sumatra is not the only island producing coffee in the Malay Archipelagalo, however. Growers in exotic destinations like Bali, Flores and the Toraja region of Sulawesi are shipping interesting and improving versions of their traditional coffees. Portuguese-speaking East Timor, only relatively recently independent from Indonesia, has long produced engaging coffees. Finally, there are the classic estate coffees of Java, produced by more orthodox, although still traditional, processing methods.

Small Turnout, Impressive Impact

Despite often long histories, however, none of these coffee origins appears to have attracted a robust following in North America. My co-reviewer Ted Stachura spent considerable time on the Internet looking for companies that roasted and retailed one or more of these five origins, and even after that canvassing we only ended with nineteen samples from ten roasting companies.

As a whole these nineteen samples were engaging and distinctive, however, and suggest that both roasters and coffee aficionados may want to do a little more exploring off the well-trod Sumatra track. Although in general the nineteen samples shared the regional tendencies to round, low-toned acidity, full mouthfeel, and various idiosyncratic flavor notes, they expressed these tendencies in different and often striking ways.

Processing Pluralism

The dominant driver of difference appears to be processing method, or techniques used to remove fruit residues and dry the beans. Taste distinctions created by botanical variety and by terroir — altitude, climate soil — undoubtedly have an impact, but from this distance it appears that the details and methods of processing are the necessary starting points for understanding the often dramatic differences in cup character among these coffees.

In fact at least four methods of processing are currently at play in Indonesia, which is unusual in the world of coffee. Typically one, sometimes two, processing methods dominate production in most coffee countries and the impact of these methods is irrevocably, often invisibly, linked to the cup character associated with that country.

In the Indonesia and East Timor region, however, one can find all of the following methods in use: natural or dry-processing, in which the coffee is simply allowed to dry in the fruit (for example, the two Bali coffees reviewed here); pulped natural, in which the skin of the coffee fruit is removed but the beans are dried with the pulp still adhering to them (probably one of the two Flores samples reviewed this month), and traditional wet-processing, in which both skin and the pulp are removed before the beans are dried (Java).

Simple Variation, Profound Impact

The most prevalent processing wrinkle at play in Indonesia and East Timor, however, is “wet-hulling,” a variation on wet-processing to my knowledge only practiced in this part of the world. In normal wet-processing, after outer skin and fruit pulp have been removed, beans are dried to about 12% moisture with the woody “parchment” skin still adhering to them. The beans are then stored “in parchment,” and the parchment skin is only removed (an operation called “hulling”) just before the beans are sold or shipped.

On the contrary, with the wet-hulled method, the parchment skin is removed while the coffee is still being dried, when the moisture content is around 18%. The beans are later dried to 12% or 13%. Thus the beans are dried in two stages, before and after the removal of the parchment skin.

Assuming you are still with me, this variation on normal procedure doubtless may appear trivial. However, it is not. This seemingly minor variation on the normal sequence of drying and parchment skin removal appears to be the main reason traditional coffees from Sumatra, Sulawesi and East Timor display their characteristic profiles. The two-, sometimes three-stage drying procedures promotes a musty character than can read anywhere from sharp and mildewed to richly earthy and malty.

Seven Sulawesis

Of the five origins considered in this month’s reviews, the most likely name to be found on specialty coffee menus is Sulawesi — sometimes called by its old Dutch colonial name, Celebes. The main growing area on the sprawling island of Sulawesi is Toraja (Dutch colonial name Kalossi) in the mountains near the southern tip of the island. Although conventional wet-processing is pursued in the region, the most distinctive Sulawesi coffee is produced by small holders and processed by variations on the wet-hulled method with its prolonged or interrupted drying. In the forty or so years I have cupped them, these traditional small-holder Sulawesis typically have expressed various degrees of particularly dicey combinations of musty earth and fermented fruit, sometimes combined with a sort of mushroom-like note called “foresty” or “pondy.” The three coffees we review here, all probably wet-hulled, are all free of the more aggressive flavor idiosyncrasies of Sulawesis past, yet retain some of the upside of their unorthodox preparation: fullish body and pungent aromatic wood, earth and raisiny and chocolaty fruit notes.

The Victrola (90) and the Wicked Joe (89) are the most typical and traditional. The top-rated Roasterie Sulawesi (94) is a surprising refinement of the type, and most resembles the new, more refined yet still traditional styles of traditional Sumatras like the Blue Batak. It is almost swooningly sweet, but with a complex, elegant pungency suggesting aromatic wood and grapefruit together with a small bowl of other fruits.

Java(s) from Java

Java is the most famous coffee name from this region. Coffee from Dutch colonial Java first reached Europe in large volumes in the 17th century, breaking the monopoly on coffee until then held by the Mocha coffees of Yemen. Java coffee went on to become so popular in Europe and the United States that the name “Java” became slang for coffee generally. The Java coffee industry has gone through many changes since then, however, including complete destruction by the coffee rust disease in the 19th century. Today most Javas are produced by large estates the Indonesian coffee authorities took over from the Dutch after independence. These “government estates” use traditional wet-processing methods of the kind typical in many parts of the world in the first half of the 20th century. In other words, Java estate coffees are processed by methods more orthodox and modern than traditional Sumatra or Sulawesi coffees, but less modern than the newer, more mechanized mills of Central America or Colombia.

We received three Java samples, two of which are reviewed here, both from government estates: the Our Coffee Barn Java Estate (90) and the Orleans Coffee Exchange Java Kayumas Estate (90). These are quiet but complex nut-toned coffees, free of dramatic taint but rich with low-toned nuance.

Bali and Flores

Bali is a familiar name in travel magazines, though not in coffee. Coffees from central Bali are relative newcomers to the North American specialty menu. Produced in relatively small volumes in the central highlands, most Bali coffee exported outside the island is conventionally wet-processed, like Javas. However, of the four Bali samples we received, the two most interesting were dry-processed, or dried in the whole fruit. Both displayed unapologetically intense reflections of fruit ferment developed during drying. The lighter roasted Roasterie Tri Hita Karana (92) show-cased the lush, cherry-brandy-like side of dry-process ferment; the medium-roasted Bard Coffee Kintamani Organic (90) the pungent herb and raisiny dark chocolate aspect.

Flores would be called a large island anywhere else in the world, but in Indonesia it is a relatively small one, one of a string of islands stretching east of Java and Bali. Flores coffees have only recently begun to makes appearances on North American specialty menus. Apparently in Flores coffees may be processed by any of the methods in play in Indonesia. Judging by the cup, the Orleans Coffee Exchange Flores Bajawa (90) reviewed here is an almost classic example of the wet-hulled Indonesia profile, the mild but rich musty notes that are typical of the type reading as a foresty dark chocolate. On the other hand, Joe van Gogh Organic Flores Bajawa Ngura (also 90) read as a pulped natural coffee (beans are dried in the pulp but not in the skin). Removing the tough outer skin of the coffee fruit allows the pulpy beans to dry more quickly, typically promoting, as here, a low-toned but delicate nut- and fruit-toned character. For me, this coffee suggested some of the better pulped natural coffees of Brazil.

Problems in East Timor

Portuguese-speaking East Timor is separate politically and culturally from Indonesia, but in terms of geography and coffee style it is closely related. After its long and bloody struggle with Indonesia ended in independence in 1999, development money flowed into the country to assist in its rebuilding, and coffee production intensified; it was common to see East Timor coffees, usually certified organic and often Fair-Trade, on North American specialty menus. Then another round of social and political conflict flared up in 2006, internally this time, again disrupting coffee production. Perhaps owing to the impact of these latest disorders the two East Timors we received were less impressive overall than the sprinkling of coffees we received from the four Indonesian origins. Both appeared to be wet-hulled coffees, although the highest-rated of the two, the Joe van Gogh Organic-Fair Trade Timor (88) reviewed here, displayed a slightly bitterish lemony acidity along with the earth, nut and chocolate notes, suggesting that alternatively it could be a conventionally wet-processed coffee that picked up some musty character during drying.

Lots of Detail, Lots of Promise

If you have stayed with me through this island-hopping, detail-laden account, your main takeaway probably is that there are a lot of different coffee practices in Indonesia and East Timor, resulting in a lot of different interesting coffee profiles, and you should try some. Fair enough, but stay tuned, as the larger specialty coffee world is only now beginning to understand the details of the processes behind these coffees and their potential, and I expect that we may enjoy some even more interesting examples in future.

I am indebted in writing this introduction to the work of Tony Marsh, the Australian coffee scientist who with his colleagues has done so much over the last two to three years to enlarge our knowledge of Indonesian coffee production.

2010 The Coffee Review. All rights reserved.

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About the Author:

Kenneth Davids is a coffee expert, author and co-founder of Coffee Review. He has been involved with coffee since the early 1970s and has published three books on coffee, including the influential Home Roasting: Romance and Revival, now in its second edition, and Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying, which has sold nearly 250,000 copies over five editions. His workshops and seminars on coffee sourcing, evaluation and communication have been featured at professional coffee meetings on six continents.

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