THE NEW HEROS
Coffee mogul, US
When Duane Sorenson founded Stumptown Coffee roasters in 1999, his intention was simple: to source, roast and sell the best coffee out there. Almost a decade later, his company – which started with a single café/roastery in Portland, Oregon – is a leader of the US’s growing specialty coffee movement. Stumptown consists of ﬁve cafés in Portland, two in Seattle and another, which will open this winter in New York’s new Ace hotel (see issue 18). Sorenson’s method – to work directly with farmers in Africa and Latin America to ﬁnd beans from one region and heirloom varietals – was born out of frustration. As a young barista in Washington, he would travel to meet farmers, only to discover that they didn’t know where their coffee cherries went after being picked. This concerned him, as did the mediocre beverage that passed for coffee at many chains. “The coffees I tasted weren’t very good,” he says. “The only way some chains sell coffee is using marketing and bells and whistles.” In comparison, signs at Sorenson’s Division Street café in Portland indicate which region, and even which farm, the coffee comes from and customers are encouraged to taste coffees side-by-side at regular tastings, or “cuppings”. he also founded Bikes to Rwanda, which ships custom-made cargo bikes to the south of Rwanda. The bikes are used by farmers to transport their coffee to coffee bean washing stations more efficiently. Stumptown offers its roasters internships in Portland, covering their plane fare, English lessons and a US salary. Thanks to Sorenson, the average Portland resident knows the meaning of terms such as “cupping” and “single origin”. “It’s my mission to help people understand how special and complex a cup of coffee can be,” he says. — hw
In many ways Indonesia is a final frontier for Stumptown Coffee Roasters. We roast quite a bit of coffee from the origin and it plays a critical role in our offerings. It sounds basic considering our track record in Latin America and East Africa, but it’s never as easy as it seems. This is particularly true when taking into consideration the nature of the beast. While we need to ensure a direct and consistent supply of outstanding coffee from Indonesia, it is mired in tradition of bad processing and purchasing habits, preventing us from successfully bring great coffees home to the Pacific Northwest.
Wet hulling here is not the problem. In fact the process of removing parchment from the green bean, at about 40% moisture (or after drying for only one day in the sun) may be productive, what we look for in some Indonesian coffees. Wet hulling is also thought to lessen acidity levels and heighten the tactile sensation, or body, of the coffee. The real barrier lies in non-selection of ripe cherry and letting the cherry sit overnight in plastic sacks before depulping, not allowing for the fermentation process to be properly stimulated. Processing in this way leads to unclean environments and taking wet parchment to market, IN PLASTIC BAGS!, and selling it off to middle men. All steps are a recipe for disaster.
Needless to say I looked at this trip as a learning experience and a major opportunity to connect with the different people managing different quality projects across Northern Sumatra to Aceh and Sulawesi. I don’t think I’ve been as excited for any single trip all year!
I arrived in Medan almost 30 hours after leaving Portland and I was most definitely grimy and jet-lagged. A hot shower and quick nap were all I could want at that point but neither of those things was in the cards. After bribing my way through Indonesian customs, again, I met up with some new friends from the USAID project based in Jakarta. Meetings were panned for that afternoon and apparently I was already late. The first stop was at the Menacom offices were we met with the family behind the operation. The most impressive program run by Menacom is their traceability project, through which they claim to be able to trace quality back to the farm level and ensure payment directly to farmers. Needless to say, my imagination is already running wild with ideas for Direct Trade and quality assistance. Unfortunately we didn’t get any field time with these folks, but the communication lines are open and we will most definitely be taking a look at what they offer first hand on our next visit in the spring of ’09.
Somehow I managed to get Eddie, our USAID tour guide, to take me back to the hotel after our second cupping so I could wash up for supper. After some great seafood I crashed out for a solid 8 hours before getting up, checking out and embarking on our 13-hour drive to Takengon, Aceh. The drive was stunning; filled with an endless array of palm trees, ocean inlets and beautiful Sumatran huts built on stilts to protect from flooding. We headed north along the coast from Medan for the 10+ hours before finally cutting inland, and uphill towards Lake Tawar. It was right to bed again that night for the following morning and afternoon held visits through the coffee producing zones of Aceh.
Eating breakfast the following morning from the rooftop restaurant I noticed we were only a stone’s throw from the fabled Lake Tawar to which many coffee professionals relate coffee production to in Aceh. Little did I know later in the afternoon, after hiking Gayo Mountain, we’d be taking a dip in it. We met with a host of exporters that day including the IKA group whose has supplied us with very nice coffees in the past. We also took a trip up into the producing regions to take a fist hand look at the processing. The cherry selection and wet milling infrastructure was horrible to be frank. An equatorial producing region and facing serious climate change, Aceh has a harvest that can range from September through June. That’s difficult for any farmer who has to constantly to tend to his or her trees and focus on picking constantly through the year. According to some folks there are cherries picked in July and August as well. The processing was rudimentary and unclean. Coffee farmers are depulping into baskets or dirty fermentation tanks and washing beans before the fermentation process can fully take effect. CLEARLY, they are not getting any technical assistance from anyone and it’s direly needed.
We spent the next day out near Gayo Mountain with PT Gajah’s friends we’ve been trying to coordinate a project with for the past couple of years. PT Gajah has a large, centralized washing station that could potentially solve several of these processing problems we continue to encounter. They also have hope of tracing coffee back to the farm level and rewarding farmers who are putting the effort into their craft. There is plenty of work to be done here but real direct trade possibility exists. It’s up to these PT Gajah folks to make it happen. We’ll be pushing from our end.
After another day spent learning the purchasing and milling infrastructure we headed to Jakarta for a quick pit stop before flying northeast to the island of Sulawesi. I was most excited for this portion of the trip as many think that this island is where the true quality potential exists in Indonesia and we would soon find out why. There are countless stories told of the Tana Toraja region and the Toraja culture that calls it home.
We landed early in Makassar and headed to north to Toraja. It was another long drive although at 7 hours, not nearly as rugged as the Medan-Takengon journey. This time the landscape was filled with Batak-like huts, reminiscent of the Lake Toba area in northern Sumatra. In fact the Christian Toraja culture is supposed to be closely related to the Bataks in Lintong and that Toba region.
Our morning was spent with some cooperative folks and another dry mill visit. The cupping was easily the most interesting aspect of this stop. These Sulawesian coffees had a cleaner, brighter aspect to them that was not much like anything I had tasted in Indonesia before. As it turns out, most of northern Sulawesi is planted with what Indonesians call Kopi Jember. Jember is a coffee research station outside of the Eastern Javan city of Surybaya. The researchers from this station were responsible with planting most of Indonesia with S795, the original typica varietal brought to Indonesia, via India, from Africa, centuries ago. The more advanced producing culture in northern Sumatra and Aceh have replanted their farms with the more productive Ateng, or Catimor, varietal while the isolated farmers of Sulawesi have never uprooted their S795. This is a quality breakthrough!
The afternoon led us to the Pedamaran Estate owned by the Japanese Toarco Company. Now these folks are really on to something special. They have a full wet processing station at which they’ve instituted strict cherry ripeness standards, a clean and controlled fermentation process and parchment drying. Remember that parchment drying is a more gentle process that allows the green coffee to maintain more of its inherent nuance. Maybe most interesting of all were the mechanical rice driers that dry coffee over the course of 3-4 days. This is a slower, more gentle process than the standard drum coffee driers that can dry coffee in 48 hours or less. After speaking with our hosts for a couple of hours I learned that it’s possible to separate out cherry coming from the small holder farmers at altitudes reaching 1900 masl. I honestly believe that this has the makings for some world-class single origin coffee unlike anything we’ve ever tasted from Indo before.
Looking back in hindsight I can easily say that my perception of Indonesian coffees, and their potential, has made a 180-degree turn. Nuance and subtlety, via proper cherry selection and processing, is attainable. There are so many new things happening in Indonesia that Stumptown is now poised to capitalize on. We may even see coffees from the Indonesian side of the Papuan in island down the road. It’s not until a year ago that people even considered realizing the potential of these coffees. A big thanks to Dieter Fischer and his crew at USAID/DAI for helping us put this trip together and for taking a genuine interest in developing the Indonesian coffee trade. Since the trip we’ve corresponded on quality issues and it looks like DAI will be floating the boat for raised, drying beds across the countries producing zones. Thanks, Dieter!
Needless to say we finally have a foundation to work from out East. The future holds endless potential and you can be sure we are going to be pioneers in the cause.
Ethiopia 2nd Harvest Review
First off, the Ethiopian government has instituted a new trade format called EthEx. Essentially this is a commodity exchange to which all non-farm owner exporters and cooperatives will have to trade their lots. Identity and therefore traceability are potentially lost in this format. The Ethiopian government has managed to find yet another way to mess up everything that good willed companies like Stumptown are trying to accomplish. The Ethiopian government’s perspective is that not enough Ethiopian coffee is sold as specialty vs. commodity and that this will somehow correct this to some degree. I say it takes all the steam out of the engine we’ve finally created some momentum with. Ethiopian coffee farmers have finally been given some incentive to do the job properly and it’s come from the private companies with our support. Without identity we have no cause to continue working the way we do.
All of the private washing stations we work with are holding out hope that they’ll be able to petition for specialty grade coffee to become exempt from this commodity exchange. We are working rigorously with them to make this happen and we all feel confident that Stumptown’s Ethiopian coffee will continue to be traded in transparent fashion. More to come as the harvest and this issue evolve.
On to the positive side of things. The harvest is down a bit from last year but the ripening is better than I’ve ever seen! Clearly the second flowering this past spring must have been gloriously strong. Trips out to Tega + Tula and Mordecofe were ultra-impressive (more later on that). Not only were branches evenly ripe but entire trees and areas of the farms were as well. The peak of the harvest is coming around Christmas time and what a gift it will be. As long as the washing stations have ample capacity, this will be a harvest for the ages, quality-wise.
My first stop was out to Tega + Tula and I was blown away by Membratu Kidane’s commitment to cherry selection this year. He is taking his game to a new level. My first trip out to Mordecofe was an arduous one but well worth my while. Haile Gebre has created something special out there and we’re going to do our best to make him famous for it. Look for them both at a Stumptown near you in late April. Yup, that’s right, Ethiopia ‘Meet the Producer’ headed to the Pacific Northwest. Check back for source reports pertaining to both farms and Yirgacheffe as well. coming in the next few days.
Sometimes I feel like I lose myself along this path I’ve chosen. Between the myriad of trips, flights, booking the next one and trying to remember to breathe, I forget why I’ve chosen this life. It becomes way to easy to lose focus and eventually plummet into a grey area where you forget what your initial purpose was. Tega & Tula made me remember.
I’m writing this particular log from the guest room in Wush Wush, Ethiopia not far from Bonga and the glorious Tega and Tula farms. It’s Thanksgiving and I’ve found mine. For those who are not familiar Bonga is located in what was once known as Abyssinia’s Kaffa Kingdom. Coffee was originally discovered in the virgin forests scattered across this kingdom. Membratu decided to purchase some of this wild forest in 1999 and discovered acres and acres of decrepit coffee trees under the soaring canopy of palm trees and other jungle vegetation. Tega & Tula are the sites traceable to the wild forests where we’ve read so much about in coffee history books! Tega and Tula is a jungle and is infested with the creatures we’d all associate with that notion. We saw white-faced monkeys and baboons. Haggos, the farms’ manager, told me stories of Abyssinian lions stealing cows from the farms as well as jaguars (or tigers as Membratu says) feeding on their calves and goats. This place truly is where the wild things are. It’s harvest season now in southern and western Ethiopia, which is reason enough to be excited about this particular trip. I found myself, however, in a bit of a lackluster state as I made my way back to the airport in Addis, this time headed due west to Djimma and eventually, Tega & Tula.Our Ethiopian Airlines flight touched down an hour or so late but somehow I managed to wait another hour for Membratu Kidane, owner of the farms, in the desolate parking area outside of Djimma’s airport. Luckily a shack serving cold St. George beer is also conveniently located in that parking area!
Eventually Membratu and his assistant Nedgar, arrived and we made our way into town for a quick meal of fasting food. Wednesday and Friday are fasting days in Ethiopia, the world’s second largest Coptic Christian country. Personally I love the wide array of lentils and vegetables. They, like a scorching hot day in Djimma town, happen to go remarkably well with a cold St. George. Things were looking up but particularly due to the new conversation struck up between Membratu and myself regarding the history of the country.
So now the three of us are hopping along a gravel road through the towns of Sacca, Sheeba, Gimbo and Bonga before we arrive at Tega. The conversation weaved through Membratu’s stories of having to replace the under-producing trees with new Ethiopian varietals plot by plot over the course of the past 8 years. We walked the farm for hours looking at the different varietals, (all seeming to have Typica roots) and taking in the outrageous scenery.
We put quite a bit of pressure on Membratu after our visit last year. The quality of the cherry they were selecting as first grade was adequate, but far from outstanding. Haggos, Tium and the management crew have certainly put that ship back on course this year! The cherry I witnessed them pouring into the washing station the past three days was extraordinary! Couple the ripe cherry with a Kenya-like process and we’re on to something special here people. The cherry is delicately depulped with a 2-disc depulping machine, fermented for up to 48 hours, cleaned and density sorted in channels and soaked for 24 hours!
The coffee is pre-dried, or skin dried as the Kenyans say, in half-inch layers for 24 hours before being taken to raised beds where the remaining drying time takes between 7-9 days. That short of a range correlates with consistent sunshine, something most equatorial producing countries would kill for.
When Tega & Tula is hitting on all cylinders, it is one of the most extraordinarily unique coffees in all of the coffee market place. It’s flavor profile is laden with a sweet melon flavor complimented with sweet spice and bergamot notes that are not found anywhere else. The Tega & Tula lot we have on offer now is as good as the initial lot we bought two years ago and leagues ahead of last year’s lot. If what I saw these past few days is any indication, we’re all in for a treat next year.
We’ve worked out an agreement with Membratu to cup through all of his day lots from this current harvest. This means that we will be tasting every day of harvest/process from his farm and selecting what we believe to be the crème de la crème. This requires more work from all parties involved, but we are poised to pay and even better price than last year for Tega & Tula and thereby make it Stumptown Direct Trade. That’s right, our first Ethiopian Direct Trade offering is within sight. How many of you have tasted an outstanding Djimma or Bonga or Kaffa coffee before? How many have even seen one offered from another roasting company? I’m always one for encouraging the celebration of deliciousness.
A November spent relearning the fundamentals in Indonesia and making the pilgrimage back to the sacred home where this journey began over a thousand years ago has brought my focus back into alignment. For that I’m thankful on the day where my friends and family are doing the same back west.