Today’s review is of Case Study Coffee Roasters’ Toarco Tana Toraja from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. This is a big coffee, both literally (I always chuckle a little when I see Toarco beans because they’re HUGE!) and figuratively in the cup. I know almost nothing about this specific coffee but it was included in a bag of samples I received from Case Study (thank you so much!!!) when I visited Portland early in 2015. You can always try calling Case Study Coffee on the phone to see if you can order it. They’ll ship any of their coffee anywhere in the USA, just call them!
I really enjoyed drinking this coffee but I don’t have a ton of descriptors for it. It’s one of those, “It’s coffee!” coffees! I think the story of Indonesian coffee is fascinating, so I’ll expand on that after I’m done talking about this cup. Given that the sample bag has the Toarco name in the title of the coffee, this coffee surely originated from P.T. Toarco Jaya, a Japanese/Indonesian joint venture company that has been operating in Sulawesi since 1976. Toarco is exceptional in this region for reasons I’ll discuss later, but for your purposes the most important aspect of Toarco coffee is that it is washed rather than wet-hulled, which is the traditional (and problematic) form of processing in Sulawesi.
I prepared my samples of this Tana Toraja (the region on the island of Sulawesi where this coffee comes from) from Case Study using my trusty Gino pourover, using 30g of coffee to 450g of water. The resulting cup had big body and mouthfeel, one of the hallmarks of Indo coffees, as well as a very long aftertaste. The acidity in this coffee, also true to the trend of Indonesian coffees, seemed quite low, although it became pronounced as my cup reached room temperature.
There was enough acidity to balance the sweetness of this coffee, but I couldn’t really say how the acidity “tasted” in this coffee. It was more of a sensation on my tongue and a little in my cheeks that alerted me to the presence of acidity than it was one of the traditional flavors associated with acids found in coffees (like citrus, apple, berries, etc). The sweet flavors and low perceived acidity is one of the elements that fans of Indonesian coffee usually go after.
I picked up some flashes of tropical fruits in the flavors as well as something melon-like, not unlike cantaloupe or honeydew. This is a very easy-drinking coffee and I can imagine it would be absolutely delicious with milk and/or sugar, too. Case Study did a beautiful roast on this coffee and the cup is a delight to drink. This would be an easy sell as a daily morning cup for any high sweetness/low acidity drinker. Another very nicely crafted coffee from my friends in Portland!
Let’s talk a little about why P.T. Toarco is so different from the rest of Sulawesi when it comes to coffee… Sweet Maria’s has an excellent article on this subject, which I’ll summarize with some other information I learned in my research below. Coffee made it to Sulawesi around 1750, brought there by the Dutch East India Company. Indonesia’s coffee trade is quite strange compared to South and Central America and Africa, for sure. Particularly on the island of Sulawesi, but also in other parts of Indonesia, coffee is traditionally processed as giling basah or using the “wet-hulled” method.
Wet-hulling of coffee starts with picking and initially pulping the coffee to remove the skins of the coffee cherry. The coffee, with its parchment and sticky mucilage intact will then be fermented to break down the mucilage. This is where the similarities with washed or wet-processed coffees end. Whereas in Africa and the Americas these fermented coffees would be carefully and slowly dried to 11% moisture (which makes the beans very small and the parchment layer easy to remove in the later milling stage), the clean(ish) wet parchment coffee in Indonesia is usually dried for just a few hours to get it to about 50% moisture. This still wet coffee is taken to market where coffee collectors buy it, sometimes keeping the coffees they’re buying separate, but usually tossing all the coffee they’re selecting into bags where it gets all mixed up.
Coffee collectors pay little, if any, attention to quality and the coffee is bought by volume. Farmers get paid the same whether the coffee has defects or is perfect, so you can imagine in a cash crop society that there is little quality control on the farmers’ end of things. This collected, mixed up coffee is taken to a mill which sends the still wet coffee (now at around 35% moisture) through a wet-huller machine. The wet huller has to use lots of friction (much more so than milling uses in the Americas for coffee that would be dried to 11% by this stage and that has a loose parchment layer thanks to the slow drying and shrinking of the seed) to remove the parchment, which creates lots of heat damage as well as mechanical crushing for the coffee seeds.
This coffee is then laid out, totally unprotected because the parchment is gone, to dry. Sometimes this happens on a clean patio, but just as often this unprotected, wet coffee is spread out on dirt or even on roads. Wherever! This is often where Indonesian wet-hulled coffee picks up its characteristic “earthy” character, because it’s absorbing flavors from dirt, roads and who-knows-what other contaminants! Why would they do this? Again, coffee is a cash crop and the faster they can sell it, the faster they can get paid, so drying without the parchment in the hot sun happens very quickly. In addition to picking up contaminants from the ground, though, this fast drying is unstable and it damages the coffee further. This process that takes several months in the Americas takes less than one month in Indonesia.
There are good quality wet-hulled coffees from Indonesia, but by and large, this whole process is a mess. There’s a reason Peet’s and Starbucks made their early name on their Indo blends… nuking these coffees in the roaster hides a lot of flaws.
Enter P.T. Toarco Jaya, which started business in the Tana Toraja region of Sulawesi in 1976. This Japanese and Indonesian company traditionally sold almost all of its coffee to the Japanese market, but over the years it has gotten to Europe and North America, too. Toarco buys Typica coffee only, and also gives training and support to the farmers it buys from. These farmers have to get certified by Toarco to sell their coffee to the company, so there is greater assurance that the coffee will be grown, picked and handled better on the farmer’s side of things. Toarco itself does not do the wet-hulling method, but rather uses Central and South American wet-processing/washing practices on the coffees they bring in from Sulawesi farmers.
The result is much better quality control across the board, a more stable coffee seed and skipping all of the practices done by traditional wet-hulling that can be so damaging to coffee. And that translates to delicious coffee in the cup!