Sumatra Mandheling
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“Sumatra Mandheling” is a trade name, used for arabica coffee from northern Sumatra. It was derived from the name of the Mandailing people, who produce coffee in the Tapanuli region of Sumatra. Mandheling coffee comes from Northern Sumatra, as well as Aceh.

Sumatra coffees are a grand exception in many ways. We would not accept the earthy tones, the low acidity, or other exotic and rustic flavors from other origins, especially in wet-processed coffees. But in Sumatran coffee, flavors seen as defects in other origins can be positive attributes! The unique flavors are due to the influence of the coffee varieties, the climate, and the processing method we call wet-hull (or “Giling Basah” to locals).

Here’s an overview of the processing difference: Traditional Sumatras are from small-holder farms, where they process the coffee by pulping off the skin in a hand-crank machine, then ferment the coffee in buckets of water or small concrete tanks to break down the fruity mucilage layer. This is not so different from wet-processing, but by the time they leave it to ferment may or may not be enough to remove all the fruit, and they don’t wait for the coffee to dry. Basically it is traded to collectors, middlemen, while the coffee has high humidity. When sold to the mill, it might be dried a little more, but it is hulled out of the parchment skin wet; hence the term “wet-hulled.” The fact that the green coffee is then laid out to dry on patios is quite different than wet-processing, where the coffee is dried in the parchment.

It’s also where a lot of Sumatra coffee is ruined, since it can absorb taints from the environment.

Welcome to my Table, here in the corner of this cafe. Today we’re sipping a cup of Sumatra Mandheling Gayo, from Mariposa Coffee Roastery in Norman, Oklahoma. Feel free to pull up a chair.

the basics:

region: Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia
farm: N/A
producer: smallholder farmers
association: N/A
elevation: 1900 meters above sea level
cultivars: Ateng, Bergendal, Djember
process: wet-hulled, patio dried
certifications: standard

the coffee:

The aroma coming off of the Sumatra Mandheling Gayo matches the prototypical Sumatran aroma. It has scents of roasted nuts, earth, cedar, spices, and just a hint of fruitiness.

Diving into the first few sips of the coffee, again, my senses are greeted by a very typical Sumatran coffee profile. The coffee is roasty, spicy, earthy, musty, woody, and pretty funky too. However, while these attributes often coalesce into an indecipherable hodgepodge of imperfections due to roaster error, in this cup, I can actually taste each note—black pepper, burnt caramel, ginger, cedar, roasted peanuts, maple, and soily earth.

As it cools, most of these abrasive flavors break up a little bit, revealing fruit pomme, melon, and berry flavors. Try as they might, though, they just can’t break through the wall of roasty smokiness, so instead of flooding the palate with flavor, my taste buds are only getting brief glimpses of what could be. Gala apple, Asian pear, cantaloupe, plum, raisin, and blackberry are all very casually making appearances on the palate, and I would really love for them to break through that wall and exclaim “Oh yeah!” like the Kool-Aid guy… Alas.

Full body; juicy mouthfeel; melon acidity; dry finish.

the bottom line:

Okay, so here’s the thing—the Sumatra Mandheling Gayo, from Mariposa Coffee Roastery, is not a great coffee; however, I will say that the roasters at Mariposa did their very best with it, so the end result is a mediocre coffee that has some really obvious flaws, but is still drinkable and even moderately enjoyable.

First, the flaws: this coffee is musty, roasty, smoky, and funky. Sumatra is the most hit-or-miss coffee producing region in the entire world; for every one really great coffee that comes out of there, I can find you a dozen or more coffees that are really terrible. And, no matter how amazing a company’s roasting abilities are, they’re not going to make an inherently bad coffee good. That’s the paradox of coffee roasting—a roaster can make an amazing coffee taste really bad, but even the best roaster in the world can’t make a terrible coffee taste good. And that’s what happened with this selection.

However, there were some spots of redemption in the cup. For one thing, those melon/berry/apple flavors in the second half of the cup were very promising—they were just too shackled by the roast profile to really shine on the palate. Another highlight of this coffee was the roast profile, honestly—it was roasty, yes, but it wasn’t crazy over-roasted. The beans were taken to City+ or Full City, there weren’t any surface oils, and the coffee didn’t taste like an ashtray.

There are consumers out there that will really like this coffee, and I could recommend it as a sort of “gateway coffee” for consumers who think they prefer dark roasts—it possesses some of the traits they’ll appreciate, and it possesses some of the traits that specialty coffee appreciators will enjoy.

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