When I worked at Peet’s Coffee and Tea, there was one coffee that was almost like Santa Claus – managers, baristas, and devoted customers alike waited patiently, in anticipation of the arrival of Peet’s famous Sumatra Blue Batak. Oh, it was just like Christmas! Hanging up all of the signage that shouted “Blue Batak is on its way!” and “Blue Batak is almost here!” and “Get your Blue Batak while supplies last!” Customers eagerly asking me when they could expect it to be in, if they could pre-order a pound, if they could reserve several pounds for themselves and their friends… Then came the that day I ripped open the boxes that contained the five pound pouches of Blue Batak – my manager and coworkers huddled around me, trying to get the first few whiffs of its aroma.
I was a relatively new Peetnik at the time, so I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I didn’t know that coffees from Lintong Nihuta were anything to shout about.
I do now, though.
Welcome to my table, here in the corner of this cafe. Today we are going to review Sumatra Tano Batak, from Kuma Coffee in Seattle. Feel free to pull up a chair.
Sumatra Tano Batak is named after the ethnic Batak peoples of northern Sumatra, from where this coffee hails. The Batak ethnic farmers utilize a “wet-hulling” process to separate the beans from the coffee cherries – this process gives this coffee an unmistakable blue coloring. This process also imparts some distinct berry flavors from the lush rain forest surrounding Lake Toba, the defining feature of this region of Sumatra. Wet-hulling enables the farmers to dry the coffee quickly, which is essential given the many torrential rain storms the island endures.
The specialty coffee industry sort of has a love/hate relationship with Sumatra. Sumatra really didn’t even have much representation before the 1960’s, when Alfred Peet popularized the region on the menu of his famous Vine Street store. The reason for this, as Kenneth Davids points out in his article “Mysterious No More: Sumatra Coffees,” is that most Western World palates simply aren’t accustomed to the flavors and textures that Sumatran coffees have.
After years of trying to understand this (what Davids calls) “mysterious” coffee and improving the quality of the cups, of course, the coffee of Sumatra, and Indonesia as a whole, has suffered greatly because of environmental factors and neglect. A lot of specialty coffee roasters won’t even carry Sumatran beans anymore because the quality really has gotten that bad.
That’s how Kuma Coffee felt, too. Mark Barany, the owner and roastmaster at Kuma, writes on their website, “We haven’t carried a Sumatra coffee for over a year simply because we couldn’t find one that we’d be happy to serve.” The Tano Batak, though, was a “breath of fresh air.”
origin: Lintong Nihuta, Sumatra, Indonesia
farm: Small Holder Farmers
elevation: 1300-1500 meters above sea level
cultivars: Ateng, Typica
process: wet-hulled, patio dried
When I tore open the packaging of Peet’s Sumatra Blue Batak, I was immediately struck by its massive aroma. It was the most formidable scent I’ve ever encountered from a coffee. It was so… beefy. It had the aroma of roast beef and tobacco.
The Sumatra Tano Batak from Kuma also has a formidable scent – but one that is totally unlike Peet’s version. This coffee’s aroma is more like a wreath, with prominent notes of fresh pine needles. It also has a tremendous and lively fruitiness, with scents of crisp, fresh melon and juicy dark berries.
While it’s still hot, this coffee makes me feel like a giant drinking a liquefied version of an entire deciduous forest. (Yep – I went there). It has a big earthy texture with flavors of oak and pine needles. As it cools off, a dark berry flavor begins to emerge – marionberry, perhaps. As the cup cools even more, I’m getting flavors of honeydew melon and strawberry. The earthy texture is getting “muddied” now – it still has that earthy taste, but it’s sweetening the cooler the cup gets and becoming more and more of a syrupy mouthfeel.
What I’m really struck by is this minty taste that accompanies each sip, swoops in over the top of all the other flavors, and stings the back of the roof of the mouth. It’s kind of spicy, kind of herby, kind of cooling and refreshing.
Now we’re at room temperature and this cup has become quite different as a huge grapefruit acidity comes out of the woodwork. It’s like I was digging a hole in the middle of the woods and came upon an artesian well of grapefruit juice, flowing underneath the surface. However, the coffee doesn’t become bitter and undrinkable (which is how I feel about grapefruit juice), because there’s also a sweet, sweet cherry tobacco flavor that pushes its way in behind each sip.
Full body; grapefruit acidity; “muddy” mouthfeel; clean, crisp finish.
the bottom line:
At the end of the year, some of my fellow coffee bloggers post Top Ten Coffees of the Year lists. If I were to do that for 2012, Sumatra Tano Batak from Kuma Coffee would definitely be near the top of that list.
Wow, what a coffee! Named for the ethnic Batak peoples of northern Sumatra, where this coffee hails from, Sumatra Tano Batak exemplifies what a fine Sumatran coffee should be – hell, what a fine Indonesian coffee should be; this is particularly poignant when you consider that Sumatra really hasn’t had a banner year for coffee in some time.
I’ll be honest – I was not at all expecting this coffee to be what it is. Sure, I figured it was going to be massively flavor, but not like this. This coffee was a blast of cool and refreshing on my tongue and left my mouth feeling clean and sparkling, from its winter melon and mint beginning to its grapefruit and tobacco finish. Perfect for a hot Chicago summer afternoon.
I’m not sure how much more I could sell this one other than proclaiming, “BUY IT!” It’s very honestly one of the best coffees I’ve had in 2012 so far.
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Andrew is a husband, father, dog lover, craft beverage enthusiast, content creator, and niche market Internet celebrity. Formerly of A Table in the Corner of the Cafe and The Pulitzer Project and contributor to Barista Magazine and Mental Floss, he’s been writing on the Internet for years.