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Now More Than Ever: Traditional Coffees of Sumatra and Sulawesi

It may seem a bit ghoulish to carry on about the pleasures of Sumatra coffee when communities not very far from the Sumatra growing regions are suffering through a catastrophe of unimaginably horrific proportions. However, as stark as the contrast may be between a coffee cup and news footage of upended cars, shattered houses and body bags, appreciating Sumatra coffee can only help Sumatrans. The higher the price paid and the more recognition the small-holding farmers of the Sumatran highlands receive for their coffees, the quicker the entire region, including the tsunami-swept northern lowlands, can return to something resembling normality.

There are two main growing regions for fancy Sumatra coffee. One, the most traditional, is the Mandheling region around the high mountain basin of Lake Toba, in North Sumatra Province. At this writing no significant earthquake damage has been reported for this region, which is several hundred miles northeast of the epicenter.

However, the other growing region, the Gayo mountain region around Lake Tawar near the northern tip of Sumatra in Aceh Province, is only a hundred or so miles inland (though three thousand feet uphill) from the horrific damage along the eastern and southern coasts. It is quite likely that the earthquake itself, rather than the subsequent tsunami, may have damaged buildings and infrastructure in this mountain region. Information is limited at this writing.

More Ways to Help

The connection between drinking Sumatra coffee and helping Sumatrans has not escaped other members of the coffee community. Starbucks has announced that for every pound of whole-bean Sumatra or Sumatra Decaf sold in the month of January 2005 it will donate $2 or the equivalent in local currency to aid agencies benefiting victims of the December 2004 tsunami. (Both a Starbucks Sumatra and Decaf Sumatra are both reviewed here.) Fonte Coffee Roaster promises to do the same for Sumatras purchased on their website, and Tully’s Coffee is sending 100% of proceeds from sale of its special World Vision Tsunami Support Blend to World Vision’s relief efforts. On a more grass-roots level, a reader, N.Z. Bear, has written encouraging other readers to buy Fair-Trade Sumatras (two are reviewed here) and offering a list of companies selling Fair-Trade Sumatras and other relief-oriented coffees.

Finally, and more directly, Coffee Kids, a long-established non-profit organization supporting families in coffee-growing regions, has partnered with ForestTrade, the importer that organized the successful organic/Fair-Trade certified cooperative in Aceh, to establish a Sumatra Relief Fund. If you have not already made a contribution to the relief effort or if you want to make another contribution that will go directly to the coffee farmers of Aceh, log on to Coffee Kids.

In the coming days, we will list additional charitable and relief initiatives rising from the coffee industry that provide assistance to communities affected by the earthquake and tsunami disaster.

Creative Flavor Taints

At any rate, what can we say to promote more respect and better prices for Sumatra coffees (and their cup-cousins, the traditional coffees of the Toraja/Kalosi region of southwestern Sulawesi)?
First by understanding and appreciating that traditional Sumatras and Sulawesis attract a modest premium over coffees from most other parts of the world based in part on a rather unique interplay between culture and nature. An unorthodox set of traditional fruit removal and drying procedures add a layer of what we might call creative flavor taints to the essentially low-acid, balanced, and rather delicate Sumatra cup.

Essentially, partial fruit removal and drying the beans in often moisture-interrupted stages together create a complex of flavor taints that regularly include fermented fruit and musty or mildewed notes. These notes, which would be considered flavor defects in coffee origins known for their taint-free, transparent cup, can be a virtue in Sumatras when the musty ferment is sweet rather than bitter or harsh, and when it does not overwhelm other aspects of the cup. This set of unorthodox fruit removal and drying practices also mute acidity and increase body, and give the unroasted Sumatra beans their characteristic very deep green or darkly tawny color.

The Peet’s Connection

Dutchman Alfred Peet, usually credited with originating the West-Coast practice of dark roasting, came to California by way of Indonesia, and harbored a particular affection for traditionally processed Sumatras. Their sturdy character held up well to dark roasting, which tends to turn mild musty ferment notes toward a kind of rugged, fruit-tinged bittersweet chocolate. This partiality to Sumatras was passed on both to later incarnations of Peet’s Coffee and to Starbucks via the complex intertwined history of these two companies. To this day Starbucks remains a dominating buyer and user of traditional Sumatra coffees.

The Sumatra Cup

From all of this history we might propose a description of the typical Sumatra cup from a North American specialty roaster: dark- but not extremely dark-roasted, medium to full body, low acidity, often deeply pungent or bittersweet, with an aromatic complexity that may range from floral and fruit notes in less tainted lots, through the more typical cedar, papaya fruit and dark chocolate notes, to rather heavily musty or “earthy” notes in heavily tainted lots.

The Sumatras of which I have the fondest memories are the very, very mildly tainted style, with just the barest hint of musty ferment, enough to introduce some hearty cedar-toned richness and a dark chocolate twist to the fruit, but mild enough to allow some of the classic floral and fruit top notes to bloom.

Typical and Atypical Pleasures

Of the twenty coffees we cupped for this month’s review, the Quartermaine Sumatra (90) comes nearest to fulfilling this perhaps idealized expectation, with the Stumptown Sumatra Mandheling (89) a close second.

The most remarkable coffee in the cupping was the Terroir Sumatra (92), a coffee traditional in Sumatra character yet virtually free of taint and brought to a very, very light roast. The light roast allows an amazingly sweet, though rather vegetal, coffee purity to emerge in the cup. I suspect this coffee would drink even better had the roast been taken just the slightest bit darker to round the vegetal cocoa toward chocolate, but as it is, this coffee offers a striking experience, one that even aficionados from the darker side of the tracks may enjoy sampling.

And On the Wild Side

Some experienced coffee drinkers value more extreme versions of the traditional Sumatra profile, and depending on their preferences they may enjoy either the lushly fermented First Colony Sumatra Mandheling Light Roast (88) or the sharply musty/earthy Pioneer Coffee La Mattina Sumatra (83). The five-point difference between my ratings for the sweetly fermented First Colony Sumatra (88) and the more sharply musty Pioneer version (83) reflects my own preference for sweet fruit ferment, which I enjoy in moderation, to the sharply musty sensation, which to my palate is too dominating and flavor-flattening. Nevertheless, some coffee drinkers look for such dominating musty or earthy notes in their Sumatras, and they should not be put off by my modest rating for the Pioneer Sumatra, but rather follow their own sensory drummer.

The Peet’s and Starbucks Tradition

Certainly the importance of Peet’s and Starbucks in disseminating a taste for traditional Sumatras among American specialty coffee drinkers called for inclusion of their versions in this review. Both roasters offered agreeable and credible renditions of the traditional style of darker-roasted Sumatra, though the Peet’s version, perhaps owing to superior freshness or more tactful roasting, showed more complexity and power. Those who buy the pleasant and true-to-type Sumatra from Starbucks in the coming month of January will experience the satisfaction of provoking another small donation (two dollars per pound) to tsunami aid, thus amplifying the gesture of solidarity that buying any Sumatra coffee represents at this moment in history.

The Aceh Earthquake Application

Finally, we have included two organically grown and certified Fair-Trade Sumatras from earthquake-struck Aceh Province, both with attractive traditional Sumatra profiles. Almost all Sumatra coffee is produced by small-holding farmers, and buying any Sumatra assures some recognition and financial support for these producers. Nevertheless, buying a certified Fair-Trade coffee assures that a robust, formula-determined percentage of the purchase price makes it back to farmers, in this case Aceh farmers whose humble frame houses, homemade pulping machines and children in neat little school uniforms may have escaped the tsunami, but surely felt the devastating effects of the recent massive earthquake centered only two or three hundred miles to the west.

2005 The Coffee Review. All rights reserved.

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Posted in: Tasting Reports

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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