Sumatra is one of the world’s most distinctive coffee origins. Full-bodied, resonant, low-toned and elegantly comfortable, it attracts coffee drinkers who find the powerfully acidy coffees of Kenya and Central America too high-pitched and softer coffees like Konas, Mexicos and Brazils too delicate. Sumatra’s relaxed power doesn’t depend on acidity, rather on depth, weight and echoing dimension.
A favorite of Alfred Peet, the innovative coffeeman who single-handedly originated the slow, dark roast style now standard on the West Coast, Sumatra is particularly suited to anchor the deep, rugged, pungent blends that West Coast roasters favor. I suspect that on the West Coast it has largely replaced smoother but less powerful Brazils as the standard base for quality blends.
However, I approached this cupping with some trepidation. I love Sumatra coffee. It was one of the origins, along with Kenya, that first startled me into recognizing how different and how splendid unblended coffees could taste. That was thirty years ago, and those first extraordinary Sumatras I tasted were imported by Erna Knutsen, one of the founders of the specialty coffee movement.
Recently, however, I have sampled quite a few not-so-extraordinary Sumatras. Hard and inert rather than deep, their presence on the American market ironically may be a result of Sumatra’s popularity. Rather than a few discerning American wholesale buyers competing for the best Sumatras, a growing crowd may be purchasing whatever Sumatras get shipped out by often unreliable exporters scurrying to meet demand.
I also found myself wondering about the coffee-related impact of Indonesia’s recent run of national bad luck, from the catastrophic forest fires that blanketed Sumatra with smoke to the current economic and social crisis.
However, if this cupping is any indication, Sumatra drinkers can relax for at least another year with their favorite cup. The twelve coffees in the cupping ranged from good to outstanding. Not one displayed an outright defect. Furthermore, they played a rather exciting range of variations on the basic basso Sumatra theme.
Also reassuring was the overall intelligence displayed in the roasting. Typically every cupping seems to turn up an over-roasted coffee or two that tastes more like carbon than coffee. The sugars in the beans have been burned rather than caramelized, producing a thin and industrial-tasting cup.
Not here. Even the two darkest-roasted Sumatras still read as Sumatras, and rather good ones.
Finally, if you enjoy Sumatras, best enjoy them now. Next year could be too late. If Indonesia’s current economic crisis provokes the runaway social chaos that many fear, there will not be a lot of great Sumatras to drink for a good while. The ethnic Chinese Indonesians who manage so much of their country’s coffee collecting and importing will not only be out of business, they may be in hiding or out of the country, fleeing the frustration of their ethnically indigenous countrymen, who tend to scapegoat on the commercially savvy Chinese whenever something goes badly wrong with the economy.
So today, when you lift a cup of one of these superb coffees, send a little good wish along the astral caffeine wavelengths to a great but troubled coffee-growing culture, in the hopes that it will right itself and continue to send us fine coffees produced by a happy people.
Why Do Sumatra Coffees Taste the Way They Do?
Coffee drinkers often assume that coffees from various origins taste different purely because they are grown in different climates and soils or produced by different botanical varieties of coffea arabica.
Obviously both assumptions are true. However, we often overlook the influence of how coffee beans are processed, or stripped of their fruit and dried. This procedure has a key impact on how coffees ultimately taste in the cup. Furthermore, I’m convinced that the unique cup characteristics of Sumatran coffees — their heavy body and deep dimension — owe more to the unorthodox methods Sumatrans use to remove the fruit from the coffee and dry it than they do to characteristics imparted by soil, climate and botany. Certainly the only Sumatras processed by the standard large-scale “washed” method, Gayo Mountain Washed coffees, tend to medium body and ordinary flavor when compared to the heavy-bodied, tawny-beaned Mandhelings processed and dried by traditional methods.
Thirty years ago many of us in the infant specialty coffee business assumed that there were only two ways to process coffee: by the dry method, in which the coffee beans or seeds are dried inside the fruit, or by the wet (or washed) method, in which the fruit is removed from the bean in careful steps before drying. In fact, there appears to be an almost infinite variety of nuances, compromises and variations in processing, almost all of which affect flavor.
And Sumatra is home to several of these compromises and variations. The many mysteries and intricacies of Sumatra processing and drying procedures are too complex and problematic to go into in detail here. But it does appear that all Sumatra arabica coffees have their skins removed immediately after picking. In other words, no Sumatra arabicas are “dry-processed” in the traditional sense of the term.
But what happens to Sumatra coffee after the skins are removed from the fruit but before the beans are dried? All of the small Sumatran farmers I visited two years ago proceeded using a simple, backyard washed method: After removing the skins using simple homemade machines, they fermented the slimy beans overnight without adding water (a procedure called “dry ferment”), then washed off the ferment-loosened fruit pulp in water from a creek or well before putting the coffee out to dry. This simple procedure qualifies these coffees as washed coffees, albeit rather primitively washed.
However, several second-hand accounts sent my way by others describe Sumatran farmers who remove the pulp from the skinned fruit by either rubbing the beans on a mat or rubbing them with sand. It is not clear whether this mat-or-sand removal process happens after the coffee is dried with the pulp still attached (which would make these coffees “semi-dry” processed), or after the pulpy coffee has been fermented overnight, as I witnessed.
Regardless, the sweet, fruity pulp remains in contact with the bean without dilution for a considerable period of time, undoubtedly contributing to the deep-toned, heavy-bodied profile of traditional Sumatras, while blunting any tendencies to dry, acidy brightness.Then there is the drying procedure. Small-grower Sumatras, rather than being put out to dry once and decisively, appear to be dried in stages, first for a few hours by the growers, then for a day or two longer by a middleman, then for a third and final time in the port city of Medan by exporters. This haphazard drying procedure is undoubtedly one source of the hard taste of inferior Sumatras, since it allows plenty of space for development of musty or other hard taste defects.
On the other hand, it also might also be a factor in the development of the heavy body of the best traditional Sumatras.
So far as I can tell, all of the coffees reviewed in this issue are traditionally processed, meaning they have had their skins removed (pulped) before being handled in one of the following ways: 1) dry-fermented and hand-washed; or 2) dry-fermented and rubbed clean of pulp; or 3) dried with the pulp still attached and rubbed clean of the dried residue.