I was given a bag of Ritual’s Sumatra Sidikalang a few months ago. It was bran-spankin’-new. Not even a label on the bag, just a scrawl in ball point. “I have something you should try”, he said. “It’s a Sumatra but it’s a little different. Let me know what you think.” And so I did. I brewed it up two ways, wrote down what my palette said to me and sent it off to him as soon as I had the opportunity. But it never ended up here. The rest of my life got in the way. Time passed and soon it seemed pointless to put something up on this blog that would be of no benefit to anyone but myself and my own nostalgia. Enough time had passed, I thought, that Ritual was probably out of the Sidikalang or at least very close to it.
A funny thing happened on my way to a cupping
Fast-forward a few months. It was a friday. M’lady and myself were reveling in a new-found freedom that finally allowed us the opportunity to take part in Ritual’s weekly – and open to the public – cupping (and if you are at all confused about what a cupping is, I have a couple posts for you to read). There were six coffees lined up on the table: a Colombian, an African, three different coffees from Brazil and a Sumatran. But not just any Sumatran. The very same Sumatra Sidikalang I failed to write about a couple months earlier. Not only was there still more to be had, it was being given the honor of being a representative coffee in a cupping hosted by the lead roaster himself. “Well I’ll be damned”, I thought. “There’s still time after all”.
A different kind of Sumatra, indeed
Sumatra is an earthy coffee. If there is nothing else Indonesian coffees are known for, it is for that quality. Much of it is in the processing. That earthiness comes from…well…earth: beans dried on the ground, an errant stick or leaf in contact with the beans during the process. From what I understand, it’s a unique region marked, partially, by difficulty in getting coffee from the source i.e. at the level of the farmers themselves. Beans from all over a given area are brought together into large batches for processing. Quality control is difficult. Apparently, this Sumatra has a different story, one that is notable for better quality control, more specific sourcing and a somewhat cleaner processing method. And that has made all the difference.
I have always enjoyed the aroma of Sumatra more than the flavor. Chile peppers. That’s what has always been, for me, the most alluring quality of whole bean or ground Sumatra. But there has never been much in the way of follow-through in the cup. Wine-y, sometimes, earthy, full-bodied and smooth to be sure but always a bit of a disconnect between what I smelled and what I tasted. It was, at once, both a unique and disappointing experience. Not the case with this Sumatra, though. This one was surprising.
First, there was the aroma of the whole beans which were true to my experience of the origin in that signature chili-pepper aroma. The grinds had a sweet melon fragrance which carried over nicely into the brewed cup and the aftertaste of the batch I made in the french press. Additional notes on the french press preparation were a hint of vanilla and a bit of toasted bread with some sweet tobacco in the aftertaste. This was bright for a Sumatra and wonderfully so. In fact this, finally, is where this Sumatra became not just a surprisingly complex Indonesian but, in fact, fulfilled the enigmatically aromatic promise of every whole bean Sumatran whose aroma has ever wafted up into my nasal passages. Chilies. Roasted chilies. Ahhhhhh, what a sweet, sweet fragrance. And there it was in the cup in the form of a fine and balanced acidity. A first. A fine cup of press-pot coffee but what about other preparations?
I also use a Chemex and I have become a fan, of late, of how miraculously different a coffee can taste when funneled through its dense paper filter. Instead of the dulling of flavors I ordinarily associate with the pour-over paper cone method, the Chemex possesses the ability to magnify certain flavors or even uncover some unavailable in other preparations. The Chemex also has the wonderful habit of giving off an intense aroma from the very first pour over the grinds (which is not the case with the press-pot) and so chilies were present from the first drop of water in the filter cone. The Chemex seemed to bring out a nutty, earthy aroma that was not present in the cup when I used the press-pot. It was full-bodied and sweet with less of the chilies and more melon in the acidity.
A few more things
Notable in both preparations was the tenacity of the acidity. The Sidikalang’s acidity, in its tenacity, reminds me of the Costa Ricas I have had. Here, it is more pleasent, though and I enjoyed it’s presence all the way through the cup. Sweetness, as well. The sweetness is very rich and fairly concentrated.
One of the more surprising aspects of both cups is the absence of the aspect that I, and I am sure many people, expect out of a Sumatra — or for that matter almost any indonesion — that of a pronounced and overriding earthy character. In the Sidikalang the earthiness of the cup was more than balanced out by the other aspects of the coffee and it was interesting to see what a Sumatra could taste like when it was subjected to a different processing method. It goes to show you how much of what I have come to expect out of many coffees has as much to do with the processing method as with any inherent quality of the bean itself.
Where to get it…
There are three places I know of to get Ritual’s coffees, two of which are sure to net you some of the Sumatra Sidikalang. The best place to pick some up is at any one of their retail locations (hmmmm…I sound like and ad). The fresher the better and, especially in the case of Ritual who roasts in-house in their Mission neighborhood café, that is where you are going to get it the freshest. Second, Ritual has an online store. Both of those are probably your best way to be sure to get a bag of the Sidikalang. There have also been sightings of Ritual’s beans in my local Whole Foods here in Oakland.