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Indonesia – December, 2008

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 Process

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.

Lake Tawar – Takengon, Aceh, Indonesia

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.

Flowering at Toarco – Toraja, Sulawesi

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!

Jember

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.

-Aleco