Bringing Back the Indonesians.
Washed, ultra-clean Centrals are enjoying current acclaim in the specialty coffee industry. These are often roasted very light, to highlight the inherent clarity and brightness of these wonderful coffees. We at JJ Bean are very much a part of this clean cup movement. Our favourite offerings at the moment are La Providencia of Guatemala, and San Emilio of El Salvador.
But as autumn and winter approach, a nostalgic feeling starts to enter my soul. My thoughts turn eastward, to the exotic, spicy and pungent flavours of Indonesia. My first sips of specialty coffee were Indos. This was during the so-called “first-wave” period. In those days specialty coffee was almost defined by Sumatras and Sulawesis. They were so different than the bland, vaguely nutty commercial coffee on the supermarket shelves. They had character. They were spicy, woodsy, powerful, and earthy. Often they also had a considerable amount of roast character.
But now Indonesians, especially those that are processed using the traditional semi-washed method, are experiencing disfavour in certain coffee circles. They are considered dirty coffees, with rough edges and ferment taints. Similarly, many fruity naturals are written off as funky and fermenty.
Before returning to Indonesia, let us diverge on an even greater contrast for an illustration: the difference in character between washed and natural coffees. I liken the difference between washed Centrals and African naturals to the difference between Czech Pilsners and Belgian lambics. In a good Pilsner, the only thing the drinker should taste is clean malt and hop. Any perceivable yeast character is considered a taint. On the other hand, many Belgian beers are defined by their yeast character. Malt and hop are perceived, but the beer is characterized by the taste of fermentation itself. It would be unthinkable to apply the standards of a good lambic to a Pilsner.
In the same way, to apply the standards of a washed Guatemalan to a natural Ethiopian is equally unthinkable. How drab the coffee world would become if all coffees were washed! Like the Belgian lambics, naturals are defined by fermentation itself. If done properly, this imparts a remarkable fruity character to the coffee. Some consider this a defect; some consider it a romantic encounter.
Back to Indonesia, where the processing method lies somewhere in between washed and natural. Traditionally, semi-washed Indos are defined by their earthy “funk” somewhat like blue cheese is defined by its funk. When this funk is not too intense, it is considered very desirable to the lover of Indonesian coffees. Indonesians offer many things that centrals cannot. They often offer huge, syrupy body. They can be spicy, like cloves. They can have “forest floor” flavours. It is said that the drinker of Islay Scotch whisky actually tastes Scotland in a dram. Similarly, the Sumatra drinker tastes Indonesia. Of course, we don’t want our Guats to taste like Sumatras. But surely it is proper, and even good, that our Sumatras taste like Sumatras? This winter, bring back the funk! Drink Indos.
About the Author: Grady Buhler serves as Coffee Quality Leader at JJ Bean Coffee Roasters. He thinks French press coffee tastes the best. He also enjoys ale (drinking and brewing), theology, early music, and smells & bells. Most of all, Grady loves his wife and daughter.