This wild, wonderful honey process Sumatran coffee appears seasonally on our cupping table, and never ceases to surprise us. 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.
The practice arose from Indonesia’s earliest days of cultivation under the Dutch colonizers, and is as pragmatic an exchange as exists in the coffee growing world, minimizing labor and time at the front end of the supply chain while still adding value. 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.
An unusual tasting coffee, matched in kind by unusual physical grade. The usual jade-like coloration of wet hulled coffees is presented here with a honeyed hue, a little more orange than usual due to increased contact time with the mucilage. It’s a relatively, but not uniformly large size, and it has retained a fairly high moisture content and water activity. It is remarkably low in density as well. These are all within established norms for Sumatran coffees, though well outside the average range for most of the rest of the world. Be gentle with this coffee in the roaster, especially early in the roast, as it may be prone to scorching.
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).
This honey processed from Sumatra has become an old friend of mine at The Crown and I am always excited to see what interesting flavors it will bring to the table year after year. Sumatran coffees are larger in screen size than most coffees and usually have quite a bit of moisture, and I knew that I needed to employ one of my longer profiles on the Ikawa roaster. In Roast 1, first crack started at 5:02 which was much earlier than our washed wet-hulled Sumatra CJ1263. Although there was plenty of time for post crack development, the beans did appear mottled in color and I was worried that the coffee was underdeveloped, so I increased the total roast time on Roast 2 to 6:30 and increased the end temperature to 412F.
On the cupping table, Roast 1 had a bright acidity with cherry, orange, and peach. The sweetness was akin to vanilla and butterscotch – pretty much the best of both worlds. The post crack development time on Roast two was more than double that of Roast 1 and the flavors on the table showed it with lots of plum, cranberry, cedar, and cocoa. Oftentimes when coffees with higher water activities are roasted we can see that the sugar browning stages are accelerated and that is what happened in these two Ikawa roasts.
After taking our first spin with this coffee on the Ikawa, we had a few expectations before roasting this coffee on the Probatino. The first is that we would need a good amount of heat to drive off moisture because of the high moisture content. The second is that first crack would happen at a high temperature because of the high water activity. Once we reach the yellowing stage, the coffee might roast at a high pace because of the high water activity, but we need to make sure that we give the coffee plenty of time in the roaster so we do not get any underdeveloped flavors.
Roast 1 had a low charge of 353F and we delayed turning up the heat until 37 seconds into the roast. In Roast 2 we started with a much higher charge temperature, 380F and we waited until the 2 minute mark to turn the heat up to 3 gas. Both roasts had nearly identical total roast times and the same development time from the yellowing stage until first crack. Because of the higher charge, Roast 2 had a shorter drying stage, and the quick reduction of heat at first crack increased our post crack development time by 12 seconds. Although both roasts had the same total duration and similar end temperatures (411F/412F), roast two had more time for non-enzymatic browning reactions and had a slightly darker (higher) ground colortrack number.
On the cupping table Roast 1 had a bright acidity with lots of strawberry and juicy orange. It was syrupy and the sugar browning made me think of a fresh, ripe apple with a side of vanilla ice cream. Roast 2 had lots of great sugar browning descriptors like dark chocolate and maple syrup. The fruit manifested into a sweet slice of blackberry pie with some fresh lime zest. While Roast 1 had a lot of tropical juicy fruit, Roast 2 had a heavy mouthfeel and a sweet lingering finish. This coffee is an allstar and tastes good at any roast level.
This delightful honey processed Sumatran coffee packs a whole lot of sweetness, plenty of acidity, and some really lovely base notes. Using pour over devices with paper filters may help mitigate the cedar notes that tend to creep in, especially with over extraction.
On the Kalita, a shorter brew ratio around 1:14 created a cup with a bright, acidic beginning, stone fruit tartness, and caramelized sweetness. Starting with the EK 43 set to 8.75, we coarsened up to 9 and found that this created incredible sweetness along the lines of baked fruit, vanilla, bourbon, and sweet tobacco. On the V60 at a 1:16 ratio, this sweetness was kicked up a notch and featured notes of maraschino cherry, blackberry pie, and honey.
This is a surprisingly delicate Sumatra, and will easily accommodate different brew recipes and palates.