In the Mountains with Permata Gayo: Part Two
Sumatran coffee has the reputation for being unlike any other coffee with a big body, distinctive fruity notes, and a unique earthiness. The coffee in the Gayo Mountains grows like no coffee I have ever seen. It is insanely abundant with dense green coffee bushes covering almost every hillside. The conditions here are pretty much perfect for growing arabica coffee. The topsoil is volcanic, rich, and deep. The rainfall has been– until very recently– like clockwork coming at the right times. The climate is tropical and mild. And because of its position on the equator harvests come twice a year with red cherries and new flowers often existing on the same plant at the same time.
The “semi-wet” processing of Sumatran coffee is what can give it its rich, big bodied, fruity flavor or what can send it over the edge to an over-fermented, sour, hot mess. At Permata Gayo there is a three part drying process instead of the normal one/two part process practiced by farmers elsewhere using the “wet process”. The beans are depulped at the farm with the cherry skin being stripped away by a mechanical depulper. The beans are then taken to the village collector who ferments them in a waterless tank for anywhere from overnight to a couple of days. After this the collector washes the beans to flush off most of the remaining fruit. The lack of uniformity in the fermentation process here in a key control point adds to the unpredictable nature of Sumatran coffee. The time in the fermentation tanks can add the unique fruity notes or turn the coffee sour and undrinkable. Each village collector seemed to have slightly different ideas about what the optimal process is at this point
When the coffee reaches a moisture content of around 40% it is washed briefly in a container with holes for the water to escape. It is then gathered and de-hulled removing any left over mucilage as well as the “shell” and then spread again until it reaches about an 18% moisture content. At this point it is bagged and taken to the warehouse for final drying, grading, sorting, and blending.
At the warehouse the coffee is spread again on a massive patio and dried to around 13% moisture content. At this point is is ready to start the final processes. Local women hand-sort the coffee siting on the concrete floor of the warehouse in a group as they pick through the coffee taking out beans that are discolored, broken, insect-damaged, lacking density, etc. They make around $5-$6 per day– which is at or above the local minimum wage– and are not members of Permata Gayo Co-op. They fought for and received a raise last year and were pretty pleased about that. They take the good beans and place them in a big pile which is then re-bagged and made ready for export. The beans are then blended according to recommendations from the quality control and cupping folks of Permata. The beans are tracked according to what truck they came in on and each truck is grouped according to the village where the coffee was grown. This hypothetically allows Permata to understand the characteristics of the coffee better and to make decisions about how it is blended according to what each buyer is looking for.
While at the Permata warehouse we cupped 4 samples– 2 destined for Just Coffee and other Co-op Coffees roasters, 1 for our European counterparts of Roasters United, and 1 for a conventional commercial importer. The coffees were generally good to great and I am happy to say that the two lots coming to Co-op Coffees were the best ones. The coffees this year have a higher acidity level and a little less of the earthiness that Permata coffees often have. They had decent body and were very balanced– a little bit of a rarity for Sumatran coffee!
Overall Permata’s process was interesting to see. The lack of real control over the collectors in their co-op leave open the possibility for “freelancing” when it comes to process. That kind of variability can lead to unexpected results– sometimes good and sometimes less than desirable– that give this coffee its reputation for unruliness. The collector system seems embedded in the culture and different co-ops integrate them in different ways. Some, like Permata, treat them in in fairly hands-off way independent contractors that are a node between the co-op and its members. Other co-ops have absorbed them more into the co-op and pay them for their services as members. Without judgement I can say that they are a wildcard and quite different than the average primary co-op processor in Latin America.