We Want The Funk.

Author: Grady Posted: September 24, 2009

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.

2 Responses to “We Want The Funk.

  1. Kyle Wheeler says:

    A few weeks ago we got in a Sumatran called Takengon, and it was the first coffee we’ve had in a while that made me say ‘wow’ after my first sip. It had fig and tobacco, and some pine or juniper spiciness to it. Most other Sumatrans I’ve had have been good, but this one jumped out at me and has joined the ranks of one of my favourite coffees ever. To this post I give a hearty agreement, an ‘aye’ in favor of the notion that coffee grown in one place should by no means taste the same as a coffee grown halfway around the world from it.

  2. ya.wei says:

    @KWheeler, that seems to be the same Sumatran that Square Mile has. I have tried some of that and it was ‘wow’ to me, too. It was so clean and didn’t have that musky taste that’s common in Sumatra, which really allowed other flavours in the coffee to cut through more for me. Rarely would I describe Sumatra in this way, but it was pleasant!

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