Predictably unpredictable, this wild and wonderful Indonesian offering keeps reappearing and surprising us with uncommon intensity. Pulpy fruit flavors intermingle with herbal and earthy tones and present a complex cup for the adventurous coffee drinker. It’s unlike any other coffee we’ve ever tasted, and it’s back again for a limited run on our menu as a Crown Jewel.
Part of what makes the coffee so unique is its post-harvest handling. Honey coffee, also known as pulped natural, involves stripping the fruit away from the seed, just like a washed coffee. However, it usually differs in that honey coffees are not intentionally fermented in a tank, but rather move straight from pulping (sometimes with a wash, more frequently without) to drying. This allows a bit of the sticky fruit mucilage to adhere to the drying coffee and impart some of its sweetness.
However, because these terms are often only loosely defined, they may mean different things to different people. Dody, the coffee manager for the mill and exporter Yudi Putra, told me that the coffee does ferment for 24 hours before moving to patios to dry. In addition, the entire process uses no water.
But that’s hardly all. The coffee marries this unique honey process with locally commonplace wet-hulling (known locally as giling basah). Rather than waiting for coffee to fully dry to the standard 9-12% moisture content, wet hulled coffees are… well… hulled wet, usually somewhere between 20-45%. This wet parchment coffee is delivered to the dry mill, where the parchment is removed while still damp, and the coffee completes its drying afterwards as the raw green seed. This method leaves its mark on the distinctive jade-like color of Sumatran coffees, as well as their funky, earthy flavors, unmatched elsewhere on the globe.
The coffee is grown and processed by farmers located in three villages that have been in partnership with a dry mill and exporter called C.V. Yudi Putra, a second generation family owned business located in Medan, the closest major port city to Lake Toba. Yudi Putra was established by Syahrial Jauhari in 1979, and has been buying the honey process selection from Lake Toba since 2008.
Farmers living in the villages—Sidalogan, Sibisa, and Motung—are all located south of Medan in the district of Ajibata on the eastern shore of Lake Toba in the province of North Sumatra. Lake Toba is the globe’s largest volcanic lake, technically a caldera formed by the demise of a super volcano that blew its lid around 75,000 years ago. The rich soil and dramatic ridges that were once volcano walls provide exceptional land for cultivating coffee, as you might have surmised.
Unusual tasting coffee matched by unusual physical specs. One of the more notable aspects of the green is its size, mostly 16 and up, with more than 50% at 18 and up – pretty large by most standards, but with a fairly wide distribution among all the screens. The density is very middle-of-the-road, and is matched by average dryness but a higher than average water activity, no need for concern here though as it is well below the danger zone and within an acceptable range for shelf stability. Keep an eye on a coffee that will likely require extra attention in the roaster, especially with regard to charge temperatures, turn-around points, color change, and heat absorption at first crack.
The lot is comprised of two interesting plant types. One is Caturra, a dwarf mutation of Bourbon first observed in Brazil in 1937 and commonly seen distributed throughout the Americas, but less frequently in Indonesia. The other is Jember, which is known by a plethora of names, including S795 and Linie S (the “S” just stands for “selection”), much more common in the South Pacific. Jember is the name of a regency in East Java, and the location of a research station through which it was distributed, but the cultivar was developed in India from two resistant parents, Kent (an Indian Typica selection) and S228 (a spontaneous arabica-liberica hybrid).
I think that Sumatra, along with Colombia and Brazil, were the first coffee ‘origins’ I’d ever heard or thought of – I’m talking multiple decades ago when the concept of ‘coffee’ as an adult drink seeped into my consciousness. It, of course, never occurred to me the diversity of flavor and practices to be observed within a region, let alone a country! I was mystified by the giling basah process and mostly put off by it, by receiving poorly processed coffees that had been charred into unrecognizable ‘coffee’ tasting beverages. A shame indeed, but it sparked a desire to taste what a well processed Sumatran coffee would taste like, as the roast profile always preceded the inherent flavor profile.
I’m going to say it right here in black and white, I LOVE Sumatran coffee. I love the flavor profiles from across Indonesia, but Sumatra has a special place in my heart. Why? It’s flavor profiles are, when you first encounter them and have no expectations, wild! I was not expecting to taste flavor notes of lemongrass and bamboo in my coffee in the first place, but the fact that they could add up to deliciousness was, well, unexpected to say the least.
This particular coffee is big. Large beans, a significant proportion being above screen size 18, worried me at first, but the coffee is fairly dry and moderately dense, so I knew the Probatino could handle the coffee well. Big beans equal heat to me, and so I hit this with the maximum straight out of the gate. I wanted to eke out as much sweetness as possible, so I started stepping down off of the gas about a minute after coloring began. Small steps down to the minimum gas application used on this machine (2), meant that I was able to extend the coloring stage to over 50% of my total roast time. My end temperature was a little higher than I intended, as the coffee gives up its remaining moisture easily and takes off after first crack, so watch out for that. But all in all, the coffee was a pleasure to roast, performed as I thought it would in the roaster and came out tasting just lovely! Yes to bamboo, yes to lemongrass, but also a lemon and lime acidity, as well as black cherry, black tea, melon and a fresh sage note. The silky, long finish of this mellow coffee was appreciated. Dare I say that I think this is a coffee for black and milk drinkers alike? I dare – it would be remiss not to!
Unless otherwise noted, I follow a set standard of operations for all my Quest roasts. Generally, I’ll allow the machine to warm up for 15 minutes until my environmental temperature reading is at least 250F, weigh out 150g batch size, and begin roasting when I’ve reached my desired charge temperature. Read my initial post here.
This week I did indeed try something different (aside from the coffees, of course). While I’m sticking with my newer roast method, (which you can find in my updated ‘Roasting on the Quest M3s’ article) I am using only 100g of coffee for this week’s analysis.
Personally, I’m a fan of Sumatran coffee, and not just from some iconoclastic, disestablishmentarianist bent. There are flavors in coffees from Sumatra that just aren’t available elsewhere. This is as much a result of the way the supply chain works as it is the process behind the coffee, but I’m not here to talk your ear off about Indonesia! I just wanted to express those flavors in their best form with my roast.
I approached this coffee similarly to recent coffees such as CJ1306 from Tanzania: I begin with maximum airflow as I charge the drum with coffee. At turning point, I kill the fan and open the back of the roaster to cut airflow entirely. For this coffee, I reintroduced airflow when the bean temperature read 268F. From this point, I ramped up airflow until I reached full fan speed at 298F, a bit earlier than usual in order to draw out Maillard. In my experience, this is a great way to mitigate some of the drier herbal notes present especially in Toba area coffees.
I began ramping heat down to 7.5A at 3:05/305F, and cut heat application entirely at 8:05/401F, well after first crack, because this coffee needed more momentum than most to move through first crack nicely. The last drop in heat application really depends on the coffee: some natural coffees really don’t need much of a push, and other types of coffee need steady heat application for much longer. If you want some deeper reading on this, I would suggest Chris’ article on Density, specifically the ‘Qualitative Significance’ section.
The result of a quick turnaround through the drying stage and a good deal of the roast being spent in Maillard was a sugar-forward cup with peachy acidity, cedar aromatics, and a flavor like dark chocolate laced with lemongrass. I rather enjoyed this coffee, and it’s one we won’t soon forget – we tend to carry it each year because of its unique flavor profile, and because of its consistency. Ready for something completely different? Try this on for size.
Hello again, old friend! This coffee marks the first coffee that The Crown’s baristas have gotten to taste for the second harvest in a row; we featured this coffee on our brew bar when we first opened! We all loved this coffee the first time around, so I was very excited to taste the fresh crop. I remember this coffee having lots of crisp acidity, so I opted to brew to cups with cone-shaped brewers – one with the v60 and one with the c70, making the only real difference between these two brews the angle of the brewer wall.
The first cup was absolutely bursting with vibrant acidity! We tasted lemon, lemon, plum, cherry, blueberry, and pineapple, with a pleasant nuttiness and just the right amount of that Sumatran “origin character”. I would admit this cup could’ve used a bit more sweetness, and would extend the brew time the next time around to try to draw more out of the coffee. Still, this was a remarkable cup, and a fun way to showcase what coffees from Sumatra are capable of! The second brew was much like the first, but, with a longer brew time, I extracted much more sweetness. Some of the fruit shifted to dried fruits like dates and raisin, and a smooth caramel and baking spice sweetness came to the foreground. Absolutely delicious! If you are looking for an exceptional coffee from Sumatra, you need not look any further than this one.