Sulawesi Source Report – July 2010

The Tana Toraja growing region of Sulawesi, Indonesia is one of the world’s lost coffee origins. For decades this area produced some of the most sought after coffee anywhere in the globe. Sadly, the beautiful coffees that made Toraja famous became tremendously difficult to source. There isn’t a clear-cut explanation but there is no question that a good part of it is due to the arduous journey a buyer must undertake just to arrive. I set off from Portland on a Monday morning and arrived in Rantepao, the largest town in the Toraja region, 44 hours later. It’s easily the longest trek to source in our repertoire. This is the third trip I’ve taken to Sulawesi in the past 18 months or so and after having finally gotten our mitts on a few spectacular lots last year it will certainly not be my last. The Toarco lots were succulent in the truest sense of the word.

These were some of the juiciest, sweetest coffees on our menu last winter. The ripe black cherry flavor was encompassed with fresh maple sweetness and bound together by a huge mouth feel reminiscent of the biggest bordeauxs. I could go on and on about these coffees from their clove-like fragrances to their honey finishes. They were true masterpieces. You all can see why we were itching to get back during the harvest this year.

After finally arriving in Makassar, the capital of Sulawesi located along the southern coastline, we immediately jumped in a van and started off for the mountainous interior of the island and Toraja. One of the bonuses of visiting Sulawesi in the harvest season is that it coincides with funeral season. While this may seem morbid to some it’s actually the most important ritual rites in the Toraja culture. Families save money over the course of their entire lives for the cost of putting on the funeral festivities for their loved ones. The processions are elaborate and stunningly beautiful. Large wooden vessels are crafted just for the transportation of the body from the site of the funeral to their final resting ground.

The landscape is equally stunning. The mountain slopes are emerald green and covered in palm trees and bamboo shoots. Tongkonan, the Torajan traditional homes, are luminous structures dotting the valleys. As we climbed above the town of Rantepao we entered the coffee growing region which reaches altitudes around 1900 meters above sea level. One of the most important dynamics in coffee production is the cultivation of high quality varietals. Toraja seemed to be planted mainly with Typica and S795 varietals which are a recipe for success.

Ripe cherries are depulped manually with old world style wooden machines. The coffee beans are then left to ferment submerged underwater for two to three days before being washed of any remaining fruit. At that point they are dried to roughly 40% moisture before being transported down the mountain to Rantepao where they will be dried to 10-12% moisture on patios or the Japanese rice driers which are entirely unique to Toarco.

There is a world of discovery still to be made in Toraja which makes this project as exciting for us. We plan to lay the necessary groundwork to make this a Direct Trade coffee which means guaranteeing a great price, well above that of the current market or Fair Trade, to the farm level. It’s a work in progress. In the meantime look forward to more excellent Torajan coffee this fall through winter. I know I will!