Sulawesi Coffee and the Sumatra Effect

A few thoughts from the coffee trail in Indonesia…

There’s a market history to Sulawesi that’s not easy to explain. It was known once as Celebes Kalossi, using the Dutch colonial name for the island; the name you see broadcast now is Sulawesi Toraja. But Kalossi is a town and Tana Toraja is more of a cultural area. They aren’t the same thing. Toraja was always the name popular in Japan where Toraja coffee is a big deal. But some legit Toraja can be 1000 meters and others pushing 2000. So there’s a huge range of cup quality.

Much coffee here is traded wet and smells rank and musty. Others can be acidic, super clean, with complex tea aromas, foresty, sweet. They can be among the best Indo coffees. But when the market prices go crazy high, as they are now and have been for years, even the slimy and moldy coffee gets the same wet-parchment price, and there’s no incentive for any farmer or trader to do any better. Quality can be extremely difficult to find and separate under these conditions.

Coffee outside Rantepao said to be S- Line which means it came originally from India

The demand for Sulawesi also has something to do with Starbucks, and maybe Peets (Dutch colonial roots?) Starbucks has featured Toraja coffee for many years, as the dark roast style and Indonesian wet-hulled process pair well. One of the main suppliers to Starbucks in Sulawesi had a retail Starbucks bag on display in their office near Enrekang. I’ll never forget a braggadocio on the label … that they went “further than the National Geographic people” up a particular dirt road. I guess “winning at coffee” is pretty quantifiable by that definition, but in fact buying a huge volume of coffee mixed from good and stinky batches at the same time isn’t really a home run in Sulawesi.

When Sulawesi coffee is sourced with some care, that is, not mixing good coffee with bad, it really can be the best of Indonesia. There is still a lot old coffee varieties planted here, and the altitudes coffee is grown at are  unparalleled in Indonesia. I visited here quite a few times, mostly to see the operations of Toarco. Toarco really dominates coffee in Rantepao. They market most of their coffee in Japan, but in recent years ownership has turned over several times.

Yes, it must be Toraja. In this case the embellished granaries are concentrated together for a family enclave, near some farms we visited.

They’re now part of the Ecom group, a big multinational. Yet to my knowledge their quality procedures are still the same. But what I longed for, and couldn’t get from them, is micro-regional coffee, options on where my lots came from, differentiation. So that’s been my focus in recent times, with (I do admit) very little coffee to show for it! But then again the recent crops have been so small!

This year has very high local pricing, a win for farmers and traders/collectors in gabah or asalan coffee (wet parchment or unsorted green coffee). While Sumatra pricing his year ($$$) is driving up prices all over Indonesia, where many coffee from other places like Flores wet-hulled get passed off as Sumatra, Sulawesi has always been expensive. And like Sumatra, hat is partly due to the volume of coffee bought by some of the larger roasters, Starbucks namely, as well as Japanese roasters and others.

We went to some nearby smallholder farms from the family of Mama Zena.

But a new force in local pricing is Indonesia’s own roasting businesses, centered in Jakarta. The prices paid by smaller roasters around Indonesia is very high, especially since they buy in smaller quantities. They are pushing for many new experimental processes with their coffee as well,  since the local taste tends toward the distinctiveness of fruity coffee.  I’m seeing a lot of naturals (dry-processed) and black honey lots on drying beds. Some Javanese roasters have even set up their own processing stations, like Floresian coffee I visited in Bajawa area.

There’s an opposite movement toward washed (wet-process) coffees as well. In Sumatra I’m seeing some really nice, brighter flavor profiles from washed coffees. This was something I first encountered years ago when I bought my first washed Sumatra from Erna Knutsen. I didn’t know what to think really. It was so unlike anything I had tasted, and at the time the usual fare from Holland Coffee (who was in the Bay Area but had their own processing operation in Aceh Sumatra) or Royal or others could be really rough in appearance and cup. I had a feeling that the small buyers like me were just being offered rejected containers from buyers like Peets.

If you live in Rantepao Sulawesi but must look like Cristiano Ronaldo.

Washed Sumatra was delicate, but the problem was, and is , that more of the coffee tree variety can come through in the cup unmasked by the foresty/earthy notes of wet-hulling. That means that hybrid arabicas that have some robusta genes are going to taste a lot different from old typica seed stock that the Dutch or Arabic traders had brought to these islands.

Well the good news is that coffee generally pays well to farm in Indonesia despite the global market being super low. The NY C market doesn’t dictate price here, global demand does. (Anyone in Nicaragua ready to do wet-hulling Indo style for better prices? Ha. Actually that’s a pretty sound idea!)

And the other good effect is a wide diversity in flavor, within Sulawesi, where I started this post from, and in Kerinci Sumatra where I finish it. There’s super clean bright coffee flavor profiles, fruity ones, earthy, umami, mushroomy, herbaceous, foresty, resinous, bakers cocoa, raw sugar, dark chocolate… you name it. And of course a few sulfurous and barnyard scented cups mixed in there for good measure.

In many part of Indonesia it’s common to make kopi tobruk, just super fine grind of dark roast (often robusta) with hot water poured on it. Aka cowboy coffee!

And if the buyers would look farther and wider for coffee sources here in Indonesia, rather than poaching each others coffee or outbidding each other to ridiculous levels, this could really be a Renaissance for the Indonesian coffee farmer. The opportunity for good prices to grow coffee in a serious way, not just by planting a few coffee shrubs in your cabbage patch, or as a hedge around your pepper plants, could spread Arabica coffee farming into new areas. Maybe that will be a good thing. I hope.  -T.O.

Torajan people are one of a few remaining cultures that use stone megaliths in their beliefs and burial grounds. This is a site we passed incidentally..
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