Sumatran coffee has flavors people love or hate. SumatraIndonesians are available as a unique wet-hulled or dry-hulled (washed) coffees. Giling Basah is the name for the wet-hulling process in Bahasa language, and will have more body… …more coffees are famous for their peculiar flavor profileFlavor Profile implies a graphical impression of a particular coffee, whether it be an artistic portrait or data graph of the perception of flavor compounds. In the case… …more, low acidityAcidity is a positive flavor attribute in coffee, also referred to as brightness or liveliness. It adds a brilliance to the cup, whereas low acid coffees can seem… …more, thick bodyAssociated with and sensed by mouthfeel, body is sense of weight and thickness of the brew, caused by the percentage of soluble solids in the cup, including all… …more, and rusticA general characterization of pleasantly “natural” flavors, less sophisticated and less refined, but appealing. : What is Rustic? This is a general term we came up with… Dried… …more flavors that can often be described as earthyEarthy is a flavor term with some ambivalence, used positively in some cases, negatively in others.: Sumatra coffees can have a positive earthy flavor, sometimes described as “wet… …more. The base level flavors, pungency of the roast, and low acidity are draws for those who fall for the Sumatra flavor profile. Much of the flavor comes from the way Sumatras are processed, the wet-hull method , not to be confused with wet-processed coffee.
The flavor of typical wet-hull Sumatra is polarizing among buyers in the coffee trade. as well. Some love it, but they must bracket this type of flavor profile because it would be considered unacceptable from any other originIn coffee talk, it refers to a coffee-producing region or country; such as, “I was just at origin.” Of course “Origin” for most product we use is not… …more besides IndonesiaUSDA is (obviously) the United States Department of Agriculture. USDA also had coffee plant breeding programs in the past and one variety they distributed to Indonesia and was… …more. Each coffee drinker has to discover if this type of flavor is right for them, or not; whether it’s a go-to daily drinker, an occasional diversion, or flat-out unacceptable.
So why this schism in the way the coffee trade treats wet-hull Indonesian coffees, and Sumatra in particular? On a cupping table of well-processed Central American coffees, a Sumatra would immediately be thrown out as defective! The earthy and “foresty” flavors – herbalA flavor descriptor in coffee reminiscent of herbs, usually meaning aromatic, savory, leafy dried herbs. Usually, more specific descriptions are given, whether is is a floral herb, or… …more, sometimes mossy or even mushroomy – would be attributed to processingThe removal of the cherry and parchment from the coffee seed.: Coffee is either wet-processed (also called washed or wet-milled) or dry-processed (also called wild, natural or natural… …more errors, and the coffee labeled as flat-out bad.
If a Sumatra supplier can consistently provide the same coffee, processed the same way, be it fruityIn some coffee taster’s lexicon, “fruity” means the coffee is tainted with fruit, and “fruited” means a coffee is graced by positive fruit notes. We don’t exactly see… …more or earthy, there are buyers who see this as a uniquely different flavor profile, and a welcome break from the Central America, ColombiaColombian coffee is highly marketed and widely available in the US. They have been largely successful at equating the name Colombian Coffee with “Good” Coffee. This is half-true…. …more or KenyaKenya is the East African powerhouse of the coffee world. Both in the cup, and the way they run their trade, everything is topnotch.: Kenya is the East… …more coffees.
And of course the bottom line is that their customers like it. Those who like minimally-processed wines, or those wines with complexThe co-presence of many aroma and flavor attributes, with multiple layers. A general impression of a coffee, similar to judgments such as “balanced” or “structured” …more flavors of leather, peat moss, fir, cedar, humus, tannins, will see something in the Sumatra flavor profile.
Indonesian coffees like Sumatra are nearly always processed by the wet-hull method. Wet-hulled coffee is called Giling Basah in Bahasa language. Most coffee in Indonesia is grown on small-holder farms, a family with anywhere between 100 trees to a few hectaresWe use this metric term often to discuss the size of coffee farms. 1 Hectare = 10000 Square Meters = 2.471 acres: We use this metric term often… …more of land. They pick the coffee and pulp it, which means that they run it through a hand-crank drum with a surface like a cheese grater that peels off the skin of the fruit. Then they will fermentAs an aroma or flavor in coffee, ferment is a defect taste, resulting from bad processing or other factors. Ferment is the sour, often vinegar-like, that results from… …more the coffee in any number of ways – either in a polypropylene bag, a plastic tub, or a concrete tank – to get the fruit layer (mucilageMucilage indicates the fruity layer of the coffee cherry, between the outer skin and the parchment layer that surrounds the seed. It readily clings to the inner parchment… …more) to break down. After overnight fermentationA key part of the wet process of coffee fruit is overnight fermentation, to break down the fruit (mucilage) layer that tenaciously clings to the coffee seed, so… …more, the mucilage can be washed off, and you have wet parchmentGreen coffee still in its outer shell, before dry-milling, is called Parchment coffee (pergamino). In the wet process, coffee is peeled, fermented, washed and then ready for drying… …more coffee – the green bean inside the parchment layer that encompasses it, still swollen with water.
Sometimes origins like Sumatra are available as a true wet-processed coffee (although this term would probably not apply well, a better description would be dry-hulled). In wet-processing a farm would slowly dry this coffee for days or weeks, usually on a patio or raised bed, or sometimes in a mechanical dryerMechanical dryers are used as an alternative to sun-drying coffee on a patio, either due to poor weather, or when the patio does not have enough capacity. It… …more, down to 10-11.5 % moisture. In this process, the green bean would become the small dried seed we know, and the thin parchment shell is removed, preparing the coffee for export.
But in Sumatra and other parts of Indonesia, the farmer doesn’t want to wait for all this to happen – they want to get paid! They want to do as little work to process the coffee, and get cash. And who can blame them? So they take their clean wet parchment coffee, dry it a few hours until it has 50% moisture content, and sell it to a collector middleman, or deliver it to a mill. They get paid faster, and do less work this way.
The mill might dry the coffee a little bit more, a day or two, but in general they send it to a special machine (the wet-huller) when the coffee still has 25-35% moisture content. This machine uses a lot of friction to take the tightly-attached parchment layer and tear it from the water-swollen green bean, which at this stage is often white and looks nothing like the green bean we finally see. Then the coffee is laid out to dry, totally unprotected by any outer layer, on a patio, on a tarp, on the road, or sometimes on the dirt! Drying without the shell is rapid, so the mill is able to sell the coffee and get paid with rapidity.
What does this do to the coffee? It creates a lower-acid cup, less brightnessA euphemistic term we use often to describe acidity in coffee. A bright coffee has more high, acidic notes. : A euphemistic term to describe acidity in coffee…. …more, and seems to enhance body. But the risk is great: the wet and unprotected green bean can easily be damaged in the hullingHulling is the step at the dry mill where the green coffee bean is removed from the parchment shell. (See Wet Hulled for the Indonesia method). …more, or on the drying patio. No farmer in Central America would think of exposing their green bean direct to the patio or bed without the parchment layer. This layer protects the coffee from taints, keeps it clean, and allows a slower, gentler, more uniform drying. And coffees that are dried well will last longer when they arrive at the buyers; good tastes won’t fade quickly into papery or burlap bag flavors.
This might make is sound like all wet-hulled coffee is bad, since this method isn’t rooted in creating good-tasting coffee, but rather speeding up the process. But there is good vs. bad wet-hulled coffee. There are mills drying coffeeAfter coffee is picked, it must be dried. In both dry-process and wet-process (and the other hybrid processes like pulp natural and forced demucilage) the coffee must always… …more on patios so clean you could eat off them, covered in a green-house like structure to protect from the unpredictable Sumatra rains, treating the coffee with great respect, and consistently producing great lots. It takes a lot of cuppingCupping is a method of tasting coffee by steeping grounds in separate cups for discrete amounts of ground coffee, to reveal good flavors and defects to their fullest…. …more, and identifying a different set of reference points to determine what a really good wet-hull Sumatra should be.
We look for sweetnessSweetness is an important positive quality in fine coffees, and is one of five basic tastes: Sour, Sweet, Salty, Bitter, Savory (Umami). In coffee, sweetness is a highly… …more in the cup, an expanded definition of sweetness than one might use when cupping other origins. This could be raw sugar, like muscovadoA type of unrefined brown sugar with a strong molasses flavor, although it is not made by combining molasses with white sugar.: Also known as “Barbados sugar” or… …more, or molasses. It could be unique syrups like brown rice syrup, or sorghum syrup. In any case, a coffee with no sweetness is rarely, if ever a good coffee. We look at the rustic elements to distinguish gross flavors like dirt from positive clean-earth, humus or other positive and relatively clean natural scents and tastes. While slight green herb and mossy is good, vegetal notes that are too bittering hint at poor processing or under-ripe fruits. In our lab we also check the defectIn coffee, a defect refers to specific preparation problems with the green coffee, or a flavor problem found in the cupping process. Bad seeds in the green coffee… …more count, ultra-violet appearance of the coffee, water activity, humidity and densityThe density of a coffee bean is often taken as a sign of quality, as a more dense bean will roast more with a better dynamic. The density… …more of the bean. These tell the story of the coffee, but ultimately we find that cupping reveals the truth just as well.
Sumatra was planted in coffee after the crop was introduced to JavaThere are several types of Abyssinia, but they are not from Ethiopia but rather Indonesia. Abyssinia 3 = AB3. PJS Cramer, a Dutch plant researcher, introduced this variety in 1928,… …more in Indonesia. ArabicaArabica refers to Coffea Arabica, the taxonomic species name of the genus responsible for around 75% of the worlds commercial coffee crop.: Arabica refers to Coffea Arabica, the… …more production in Sumatra began in the 18th century under Dutch colonial domination, introduced first to the northern region of AcehThe northernmost district in SumatraL Aceh District is north of North Sumatra and produces some very classic Sumatra coffees. The center of coffee in Aceh is Lake Tawar… …more around Lake Tawar. Coffee is still widely produced in these northern regions of Aceh (Takengon, Bener Mariah) as well as in the Lake Toba region (Lintong Nihuta, Dairi-Sidikalang, Siborongborong, Dolok Sanggul, and Seribu Dolok) to the southwest of Medan.
In the past, Sumatra coffees have not been sold by region, because presumably the regional differences are not that distinct. Rather, the quality of the picking, preparationPreparation refers to the dry-milling steps of preparing coffee for export: hulling, grading, classifying, sorting.: Preparation refers to the dry-milling steps of preparing coffee for export: hulling, grading,… …more and processing of the coffee determines much of the cup character in this coffee. In fact, Sumatras are sold as MandhelingA trade name used for wet-hulled Sumatra coffees. It is an area and a culture group as well (spelled Mandailing often) but there is not as much coffee… …more (Mandailing) which is simply the Indonesian ethnic group that was once involved in coffee production. The coffee is scored by defects in the cup, not physical defects of the green coffeeGreen coffee refers to the processed seed of the coffee tree fruit. Coffee is a flowering shrub that produces fruit. The seeds of the fruit are processed, roasted,… …more. So a fairly ugly-looking green coffee can technically be called Grade 1 Mandheling. A grade 1 coffee can be a good cup or a very dirty and ugly-tasting coffee. The grading sometimes seems arbitrary by any standard. The way coffee is shipped via the humid port of Medan also damages quality as it can gain moisture before shipping, then flash dried in the hot, hot sun to get it back down to an acceptable level. This ruins cup quality.
The main story behind the coffee here is processing, but the varieties of coffee grown do factor into the cup, and certainly into the farming practice. Sumatra has a range of cultivars. The original Typica type was brought from Yemen or Ethiopia via India. This is sometimes called Jember Typica. There are 2 main Typica types: Bergandal and Sidikalang. Hibrido de Timor, a cross between arabica and robusta, is sometimes found with the name “TimTim” … we offered TimTim Blangili a while back. The majority of coffees are arabica types that have robusta inputs, like the Catimor coffees found in Central America. Ethiopia strains were reintroduced with the names Rambung and Abyssinia, which were brought to Java in 1928, and later to Aceh, Sumatra. Another group of Ethiopian varieties found in Sumatra are called “USDA”. Knowing the specific cultivarCultivar is a term used interchangeably with Varietal in the coffee trade to indicate plant material, although there are distinctions.: The naming of a cultivar should conform to… …more is nearly impossible, and they are often a mix of many. In SulawesiSulawesi coffees are low-acid with great body and that deep, brooding cup profile akin to Sumatra. The coffee is sometimes known as Celebes, which was the Dutch colonial… …more for example, Djember means S-795S-795 is a variety based on the ” S-Line” coffees of India, and stands for Selection 795, It has a very fine cup, one of the best in… …more from IndiaIndian coffees are under-represented in the coffee market: they are good balanced, mild coffees. You will find the pronounced body, low acidity and subtle spicy notes pleasing, and… …more, not a pure TypicaA coffee cultivar; a cross between Typica and Bourbon, originally grown in Brazil: Mundo Novo is a commercial coffee cultivar; a natural hybrid between “Sumatra” and Red Bourbon,… …more. Many Aceh coffees are AtengAn improved Ateng selection of Timor variety with Bourbon reportedly. The specifics are a little doubtful (Timor x Bourbon) as it is not the result of a plant… …more types of catimorAteng is a common name for Catimor coffees widely planted in Sumatra and other Indonesia isles.: Ateng, with several subtypes, is a common name for Catimor coffees widely… …more, although there is still old varieties of coffee tucked away in this zone. Our Lintongs are a mix of Onan GanjangA locality in North Sumatra within the greater “Lintong” growing area, as well as a local cultivar.: Onan Ganjang is a locality in North Sumatra within the greater… …more, Djembers, and Ateng types. All of this is really second fiddle to the process flavors, the Indonesia wet-hull method called Giling Basah. Process flavors trump all in the Sumatra cup.
Sumatra faces many problems in coffee cultivation. There are types of fungus such as leaf rust. But the most damage to the crop and the livelihood of the small farmer is CBBCoffee Berry Borer is a pest that burrows into the coffee seed, and a major problem in many coffee origins. In Latin America it is known as Broca… …more – the Coffee Berry Borer – or Broca, as it is called in Latin America. Broca runs rampant in most areas of Sumatra. The small beetle drills into the fruit and seed while it is on the tree, and these beans must be sorted out from top grade coffees before they are exported. It is forced from the bean in processing, so the insect itself is not a risk but the damage it does to the bean and the plant’s reaction to the attack will result in a whole host of defect flavors in the cup.
On my last trip to Sumatra I was shocked at the amount of Broca I saw on the plant, and also on the wet parchment coffee. They were all over the bags in the local markets where coffee is traded. It was very sad both for the damage to the cup quality, as well as the value and volume of the crop. There are natural control methods, like alcohol traps made from used 2 liter soda bottles. But one of the best prevention methods is to pick coffee promptly when it is mature, and not let coffee fall to the ground. The borer only wants to live in the ripe fruit. But Sumatra has a poorly defined crop cycle and weather patterns, meaning the coffee shrub often has ripe fruit on it. It’s like a Broca motel – the borer always find a room available.
There is a tendency to over-roast Indonesians. The reason is that they don’t show as much roast color, and have a mottled appearance up until 2nd crackAn audible popping sound heard during roasting. In coffee, one refers to “first crack” and “second crack,” which come from two different classes of chemical reactions.: An audible… …more and even a bit into it. Don’t let this make you think you have to roast them dark (although they can be nice this way too). Great Indonesians will be wonderful roasted just to the verge of 2nd crack but NOT into it at all. So ignore the weird beans you see green, and ignore the mottled appearance of lighter roasts, and only focus on the what you get in the cup.
With prices high, you expect quality would be up too. But in general this is not the case. What’s the incentive to pick and prepare coffee better when the market guarantees a premium anyway? It’s why we buy very selectively from Sumatra and cup our lots hard. What I have seen is blends of old crop and new cropRefers to fresh shipments of green coffee within the first month or two of the earliest arrivals … not quite the same as Current Crop, which means the… …more early in the Grade 1 window (Nov-Jan in particular), which is a deceptive practice. Nonetheless, roasters need Sumatra and I am sure someone buys it … someone who doesn’t cup their lots that is! Problems aside, we have been able to find great Sumatras in both the traditional rustic flavor category, and cleaner, well-processed types, because we have established good relations directly with the sources.