By Jess Brooks – Coffee Buyer & Supply Chain Manager
I remember teaching Coffee Basics classes to Allegro Coffee team members 10 years ago. As a trainer, it was my job to convey a sense of place through tasting and discussion of flavor profiles from different coffee growing regions around the world. I always enjoyed tasting coffee from Sumatra in these classes the most, the distinct cup telling the tale of one of those origins that seemed almost unbelievable to me – a magical distant place where coffee is grown in the hills surrounding the world’s largest volcanic lake, from a super-volcanic eruption 74,000 years ago. The eruption incomprehensible, with global consequences essentially changing human population and climate of the world.
Visiting the Lake Toba region of Sumatra this year awakened that sense of wonder I had those years ago. Coffee here is steeped in history and the region has developed a unique way of processing called Giling Basah, or wet-hulling, that is done really nowhere else in the world. The method allows farmers to speed up their end of process as they have to deal with lots of rain, little sun for drying and high humidity.
Coffee in the Lintong region is grown small garden plots at 1400-1500 meters above sea level, among vegetable crops such as corn, peppers and cabbage. These inter-planted crops are grown for the family’s consumption or to sell at local markets. Plants here are incredibly lush and green – the soil rich in nutrients from all the volcanic ash that has worked its’ way into the ground over the thousands of years. Walking around the farms was like walking on a pillow. The soil, light and fluffy, with little compaction – an ideal environment for all kinds of plants.
Individual farmers pick the coffee cherries and pulp them usually at home and ferment overnight. They then bring the wet parchment (call “Agaba”) to a collector, some farmers brining as little as 1-2 kilos to the collector at a time. The collectors buy agaba from the same group of trusted farmers from year to year. The collector pre-dries the agaba for a half day before moving onto the wet-hulling. The huller removes the parchment, but the bean is still at a very high moisture content at this point – about 35%. The beans (now called “labu”) are then laid out on patios in covered greenhouses where they dry for around 5 days. The dried coffee (referred to at this point as “asalan”) is then bagged and sent to the warehouse in Medan, where it is sorted and prepared for export. Seeing the beans shooting through the wet-hulling machine, dark greenish-blue and bloated with water, was a new sight to me. This method, unique to Sumatra, was developed from the need to dry the coffee quickly, due to all the rain the region receives.
The unique wet-hulling method, along with the varieties and terroir, produce a cup with a heavy body and notes of grapefruit and fresh herbs. Done well, this is the traditional “Lintong Profile” – a representation of this region in the cup. For our Sumatra Lintong we work with two collectors in the region who buy directly from a supply chain of Rainforest Alliance certified farmers. These farmers grown their coffees under the strict standards of the certification producing a sustainably delicious coffee. The result is a cup to Lintong profile (grapefruit, herbal, dense and rich) that invokes the feelings I had tasting this coffee during Coffee Basics classes – a sense of place unique to anywhere else in the world.