By Evan Gilman and John Cossette (Royal Coffee, Inc.)
SCAA welcomes this year’s portrait country, Indonesia, a diverse and fascinating archipelago of over 17,000 islands and hundreds of languages. Indonesia is the supplier of some of the world’s finest and most famous coffees, and the home of some of the world’s first coffee plantations. Coffee lands in Indonesia stretch from the Northwestern tip of Sumatra all the way to Papua and includes the islands of Sulawesi, Flores, Bali, and, most famously, Java, where coffee cultivation on a truly commercial scale began over 400 years ago. Suffice it to say, one thing on all our minds is our next cup of Java.
Indonesia is a giant archipelago straddling the equator that covers 2 million square kilometers, roughly 12 times the size of the state of Georgia; coffees from Indonesia can run the gamut of flavor profiles. In Sumatra, the earthy, creamy coffees of Gayo are sometimes reminiscent of tobacco. On the same island, the herbal and tart coffees of Lintong distinguish themselves with their relative dryness. If you’re interested in brighter flavors, Sulawesi’s Toraja region is home to sparkling high grown coffees that can have notes of tropical fruit. Coffee from Flores’ Bajawa region can have unique spicy notes that some people compare to white pepper. Bali exports a natural process coffee that screams guava, cherries, and chocolate. Javanese washed coffees were once the world standard, and display heavy molasses sweetness, cocoa, and a pop of grapefruit acidity at their best. With such a wide range of flavors, Indonesian coffee has the potential to satisfy many different palates.
This exceptional diversity in flavors is partially due to geography, but more so to the varied methods of coffee processing performed on the different islands. Indonesia is the origin of wet hulled coffees, a unique processing method that is a result of both necessity and logistics. Due to the relative inaccessibility of the places the coffee is grown (and the inability of farmers to transport all the coffee they have grown), a system where coffee is passed through many hands has evolved. In wet hulled coffees, the cherry is harvested and pulped by the farmer, fermented and washed, then delivered to collectors or sold at market after minimal drying. After being sold, it is finally delivered to a processing mill that will hull the coffee while it is still relatively wet – 25 to 40% moisture content. The coffee is then dried down to 12 or 13% without the protective covering of the parchment, which fully exposes the coffee to the elements. The manner and the conditions under which the coffee undergoes this final drying greatly influences the ultimate flavor of the coffee.
Though wet hulling is the best-known process in Indonesia and foremost of Sumatra, many areas produce fine washed coffee as well. Java, Bali, Flores, and Sulawesi all produce washed coffee alongside wet hulled coffee. Recently, dry processed coffee has found its way to market from Northern Sumatra, Bali, Timor, and even Flores. Natural coffees from Northern Sumatra have all the intense fruit you would expect, with a more sparkling and tropical bent than more familiar offerings from Ethiopia.
The complexity and variation of arts and culture throughout the archipelago is just as multifarious (and lively) as the coffee and language. While the official language of Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia, for many it is a second language. There are more than 700 languages spoken throughout the archipelago, and within some languages there are even different registers. The same geographical constraints that affect coffee and language allowed many distinct cultures to thrive and develop, and the result is one of the most culturally diverse regions of the world. The government of Indonesia is very focused on preserving cultural heritage with schools for the arts, and provides primary education in regional dialects. Aside from the multitude of languages, someone traveling through Indonesia can hear varied music from the traditional Tapanuli ogong in Northern Sumatra, to the large bronze gamelan ensembles of Java and Bali. Each ensemble has different repertoire, and different instrumentation. If you’re more interested in pop music, try starting with the kroncong oldies, moving to jaipongan, and finally exploring the ever-popular dangdut dance music. What better way to enjoy a cup of coffee but alongside some great music?
The coffees of Indonesia are coffees of character – bold, intense, tricky to tame, and unmistakable in their presence. If you are not familiar with the great variety of flavors and styles of coffee produced on these islands, please visit the Remarkable Indonesia plaza at this year’s conference and open yourself up to another world. You need look no further for a great cup of Java.
Evan Gilman is the Creative Director at Royal Coffee Importers.
John Cossette is the Vice President of Royal Coffee, Inc.