Towards the Creation of Better Coffee

by Max Nicholas-Fulmer

If there is any single coffee dogma which applies everywhere in the world regardless of varietal or process, it is that harvesting only ripe red cherry always results in a better cup, period. If all the quality improvement initiatives throughout the world made this their one constant refrain, we would all be drinking sweeter coffee. Unfortunately, this is not how it is done in Sumatra, yet. Pickers get paid by weight, and restructuring the system to incentivize the harvesting of only red cherry is actually a monumental task. The bright side, of course, is that we may have only scratched the surface of how good this origin can actually be.

There are enough cooperatives and mills that we buy from who are interested in pilot projects that we should gain a much fuller understanding over the coming season. At Royal, we love the traditional Sumatra Giling Basah profile. The heaviness and sweet, foresty notes which result from this process are unlike anything else in the world. On the flipside, when done haphazardly or when relying on opaque supply chains which treat coffee purely as a commodity, you get the dirty, musty and occasionally fermented cups which taint the perception of people of the origin as whole. A few in the industry have determined that wet hulling needs to be done away with entirely and replaced with something closer to a washed process. I think this is akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water. The reality is that wet-hulling IS a washed process, and if the proper protocols are followed, it will result in something that is not only clean, but also unique in the face of all the other washed milds out there.

Wet Hulling is no different from Fully Washed, Honey, or Natural processing. Done with care and attention to detail in a clean environment and with the shortest possible supply lines, it will result in a fantastic coffee. One example of the nu-skool approach is the washed coffee from the quasi-Government Soegee Gayo Mill, something they are calling “dry-hulled”. Cherry is received, floaters are skimmed off, pulping ensues, and the coffee is allowed to ferment dry (little to no water added) for 12 to 24 hours. Coffee is quickly rinsed and then sent in parchment to canopied drying patios. It is dried all the way to 11-12% moisture before being sent to Medan for final hulling and sorting. The cup is pleasant enough, and certainly clean, but it lacks the trademark body and sweetness of the best Sumatra coffees, while also falling short of the bright acidity that is so prized in fully washed lots. I liken it somewhat to the frictionally demucillaged, “eco-pulped” Western Ethiopia coffees which have been appearing on offering sheets with more regularity in recent years. While they can be decent, they do not quite hit the mark for me.

The problem with wet hulling is not the process itself. Neither is the problem the much ballyhooed climate in Sumatra and the old wives tale that coffee can not be dried in the highlands there. The real culprit is the culture which made Giling Basah and moving coffee before it is dry attractive options in the first place. Bagging up coffee that is still wet (whether you are talking about cherries, parchment, or green) is always a bad idea and is never the best practice, anywhere. And yet this is consistently done in Sumatra because the coffee trade in the country itself relies on being able to move coffee through a long and convoluted supply chain. Farmers sell to collectors sell to middlemen sell to millers sell to processors sell to exporters, and all along the way the coffee gets dried a little bit more, “adding” value to it. This is not ideal. Cut it out, Sumatra. Fortunately for those buyers who appreciate diverse cup profiles but demand clean coffee, there are now several projects in the works which should really raise the bar for both Washed and traditional Giling Basah coffees. At a mill near Takengon, our longtime supplier has gone whole hog into the world of fully washed Sumatra coffee. This is no “dry-hulling”. This is the real thing. Full Kenya-style underwater fermentation is followed by an extensive scrubbing in tiled-lined rinsing channels. Exceedingly rare in this part of the world, they are attempting to create an entirely new Sumatra profile. Keep an eye on our offering sheet this winter for this and several other Red Cherry special preparation Sumatrans, in both unique process styles.