Last July I had the opportunity to go to Indonesia and visit PT Toarco Jaya in Sulawesi, Indonesia. We’ve carried this coffee through two other harvests, and it’s been a customer favorite each time. Last year, crop was down 70% and so we weren’t able to offer this coffee, but now it’s back! I wrote a little bit about Indonesia in this blog: (click) a few months ago, but I just wanted to share some more specifics about the coffee process at Toarco and some photos. More photos are on our flickr page as well.
Toarco is unique in that it is a washed process coffee. Indonesian coffees often get lumped into a category that folks immediately associate with flavors like earth, tobacco, dirt, leather etc. Much of this is due to the processing flavor that comes from wet hulling, or giling basah, where coffee is stripped of it’s protective parchment layer at 35-40% moisture content and then finishes it’s drying, exposed to all the elements. Since coffee is porous and absorbs whatever’s around it, in this process the “flavors of the earth” become part of the cup. There’s a huge part of the market that really enjoys these flavors. When we first opened we definitely felt that we needed an earthy, Sumatran coffee to fulfill what would be the “dark roast” people. This was either someone who had been ordering dark roast all his or her life, and had never tried anything else—or was turned off by bright acidity. We never roasted Indonesian coffees dark, so those “earth” (or just dirt, if you want to be frank) flavors were really prominent. There was of course, some acidity, but it was much more mellow than on a Central American or African coffee we would offer.
PT Toarco Jaya is a Japanese company producing coffee in the Tana Toraja region of Sulawesi in Indonesia. It was established in 1976 by the Japanese coffee company, Key Coffee, which recognized a unique flavor and value in the coffees of Tana Toraja. The name stands for To(raja) Ar(abica) Co(ffee). Nifty. Quality has been the focus at Toarco, and over the past many years, they have established various ways to harness that quality, through collections, education for small growers and collectors, and creating systems to encourage and ultimately guarantee that they’re buying good parchment.
While they do have their own plantation, called Padamaran, it is at a relatively low elevation (900-1250). Almost all of the plantation coffee is exported to Japan, and the coffee we get is grown by local people and purchased at higher elevation purchasing stations. The collection system involves buying wet parchment (at about 40% moisture content) and analyzing it back at their main buying office in Rantepao. The bags of coffee are completely poured out along a chute and inspected (making sure there’s no junk hiding at the bottom).
The coffee is then graded in parchment for defects, and sort of speed dried in a an old Jabez Burns sample roaster, hulled, and then sample roasted and cupped. The coffee is really being cupped to check for cleanliness and defects, because this type of “speed processing” really makes for some interesting flavors. I had never cupped coffee quite in that condition before. I’ve cupped extremely fresh coffee, but this kind of cupping added another element of experience to my palate.
From there, the coffee is brought to the Padamaran plantation and mill, where the drying is finished either on patios or dryers, which in this case, are actually rice dryers, which function in a similar manner to mechanical coffee dryers.
All the wet milling for the Toarco estate coffee is done here as well. The coffee is pulped and washed with a mechanical washer, but also allowed to naturally ferment in tanks for 12 hours and then washed in channels, removing all traces of mucilage.
Coffee is dry milled, density and size sorted.
The finished coffee is hand sorted for defects.
Toarco does some roasting for local consumption as well. And look! They have the same boxy roaster at Dogwood. Ours is a little bit bigger (and cleaner.)
The green coffee is sorted into four general categories, AA, A, P (peaberry) and Estate coffee. This categorization is based on bean size, AA being the larger. When we offer Kenya coffee in the past sometimes we attach the AA, or AB or whatever on to the name of the coffee, as we did here. I sometimes feel like doing this because I think it just points out another aspect of the coffee, or raises a question and gives an opportunity to learn something. The larger bean size is generally correlated with higher quality coffee, but that’s not always a complete truth. So much happens along the way that affects the cup quality of the coffee that you could never solely base quality on bean size, of course. Anyway, the beans are big guys. This coffee is pretty much all Typica S795 variety. Though much of Indonesia grows Robusta (about 75% of total production) or Ateng, which is a type of Catimor (Arabica-Robusta hybrid), Sulawesi has mostly stayed Arabica, which is great for quality.
The operation is really smooth, and Toarco has done much over the past several decades to push for quality. They’ve provided local growers with seedlings of quality varieties, established standards and a registration system for small growers, trained collectors on quality and accountability. Still though, it sort of amazes me that coffee gets to us as amazing as it does. We visited several collection stations, and they were all well organized and fast moving, but then there’s all this parchment smooshed together in bags sitting around at 40% moisture content, which made me nervous. At one of the collection stations up in the highlands, we walked around to several of the bags and smelled handfuls of the parchment. Each bag had a slightly different scent, which also makes me nervous, but everything ends up OK on our end. It’s a reminder to me that many times, some of the best coffee is not as controlled as it can be, and there’s a likely chance that everything is still going to be ok. In a collection system, you’re relying on thousands of different people, with different trees, different levels of “caring” or motivating, different terrain. Maybe they let their kids pick it and they didn’t tell them what colors to pick, or maybe they picked it and they were very meticulous about it. Even with the same amount of training, perhaps they’re fermenting it differently, drying it differently, whatever. With the parchment collection system like this (as opposed to cherry collection), you’re leaving a pretty big step of the process up to thousands of different people. Whatever happens, it goes to a market, goes to the dryers or patios, gets hulled sorted and comes to us and it’s awesome.
Other than the coffee, Tana Toraja has a long history of fascinating tradition, particularly involving death, funerals and afterlife. While much of the time I spend traveling is dedicated to work, seeing farms and processes and meeting people (and then going back to my hotel room and catching up on emails all night) when there’s opportunity to see more, unrelated to coffee, it’s good. I feel like I’m in this weird space between a tourist and not. But really I am. Maybe not as much as these guys:
Har har. I really couldn’t get a better shot without being a jerk. They had matching outfits and they were doing all these funny-serious poses for photos that will look terrific in a frame above their fireplace someday. We stopped by a Torajan funeral for a little bit. These funerals last several days, and sometimes take place years after the person has died if there wasn’t enough money to have a proper celebration. The part of the funeral we ended up seeing involved the slaughter of four water buffaloes, an important symbol in Torajan culture. Traditional homes in Toraja are built in the shape of the horns, and painted with ornate images of the water buffalo as well. At this funeral, eleven would be sacrificed, and the parts of the buffalo would be shared among the family and the village for food. We stood on a small covered platform above a muddy courtyard and watched a man in a hard hat raise his arm, then bring it down with swift force, slashing the throat of the water buffalo with a machete. Foaming blood poured out of the throat of the animal, who was silent until he swayed and collapsed. After four more repeats of this, and the courtyard mud was a deep orange with blood, we moved on. It’s a weird experience for me to watch things like this, not because of the blood, but because I feel like I’m putting myself in a place where I’m witnessing something that’s private to a culture. Something that I am not fully going to understand, and maybe I’m not supposed to. It’s not as if they aren’t welcoming to tourists, or that it’s difficult to get to see these things, I think I just feel so distant sometimes. Every time I meet someone new in a different part of the “industry”, I’m reminded that we’re just a part of it, and how parts of our lives are very similar, but so much of it is different.
I really like this coffee and I'm happy I got to see the the place where it comes from. Even when it's not possible for us to really work on small, specific projects in a place that we buy from, I believe that traveling to that place really does pull things together. Travel strengthens our understanding of a core part of what we do, the mainspring of our livelihood and that of millions of others.
You can buy this tasty number here online, as well as at our uptown coffee bar, and many other places that retail Dogwood Coffee.
Torajan grave site.