Thanks for visiting! In this section, we share our experiences in the places where coffee is grown. Traveling to origin and learning about the environment and culture of coffee growing countries are vital parts of what we do. We value coffee as a medium for cultural exchange, and we hope you enjoy these accounts of what we have experienced and learned.
A Tale of Two Sumatras
There are perhaps no coffees more misunderstood than the coffees from the island of Sumatra. The western-most major island of the Indonesian Archipelago, Sumatra is a vast, exotic island known to ancient mariners as the sentry to the straits of Malacca – the pirate-infested gateway to the legendary spice islands. The island was home to exotic animals like the famous Sumatran Tiger and Orangutan (meaning "forest man" in the local language), and ancient and fierce civilizations that amazed European explorers.
After Dutch spice traders established trade with and colonized these remote islands, they founded tropical plantations on the islands of Java and Sumatra. Coffee was among the first crops they cultivated on these plantations, and before long these islands were the largest producers of coffee in the world. Soon, coffee cultivation shifted away from the colonists and towards the indigenous people of Sumatra.
It was then that Sumatran coffees began their rise to fame. And, since Sumatra is a gigantic island rich with cultural and geographic diversity, the coffees from the island were similarly diverse in their flavor and appearance. By the 1920s, coffee was being traded with indigenous names like Ankola and Mandailing, two ethnic groups of western Sumatra who traded particularly good coffee. Some coffee was grown in the lowlands of western Sumatra, but the best came overland from the mountains of Northern Sumatra. These mountains, deep in the dark interior of Sumatra, were mysterious to explorers and Sumatrans alike. And the coffees that came out of these highlands were richly diverse and wildly different from each other.
Now, the miracle of modern travel has allowed us to discover and explore the true sources of these amazing coffees. It has been astounding for us to experience the beautiful diversity of Sumatran coffee, Sumatran culture, and the Sumatran environment by traveling the long road to coffee's origins in the mountains of that dark island.
The best coffees in Sumatra come from two distinct places: the mountains in Central Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra and the mountains surrounding Lake Toba farther south. These coffees can still be classified according to the ethnic groups that grow the respective coffees; the Gayo and Toba Batak respectively. As part of our mission to uncover the secrets of the most amazing coffees of the world, we offer an example of each of these two very different coffees to our customers.
Our Gayo coffee, named after the ethnic group that grows the coffee in the mountains of Aceh, comes from a little valley called Jagong. Small Gayo farmers cultivate this coffee organically using the traditional varietals of Bergundal and Tim-Tim. The result is a syrupy-sweet dark-chocolate and fruit sensation, with a dollop of the deep earthy tones that make Gayo coffees famous. We pay tribute to the Gayo culture by featuring a hallmark of Gayo architecture on each bag, the ornately decorated triangle that fills the gable of each traditional Gayo house. The Gayo speak their own language and maintain their unique culture, including the tradition of coffee cultivation and trade.
Hundreds of miles south, in a completely different area of Sumatra, the magnificent Lake Toba sits as the centerpiece to the mountain homeland of the Toba Batak people. The Batak have cultivated coffee in these jungled mountains for generations and traded them in the towns of Siborongborong, Lintong Nihuta, and Dolok Sanggul.
Our favorite coffees come from Dolok Sanggul, and we buy coffees exclusively from this community. Our icon for this coffee features the silhouette of most ubiquitous symbols of Batak life, the unique, curved-roof "boat houses" that are the traditional dwelling of the Batak people. Dolok Sanggul coffees are spicy and resinous, complex and fragrant, bringing to mind the reality that Sumatra was known to the ancients as a spice island, home to pepper and cloves. The coffee is extraordinarily well prepared and clean as a whistle, a rarity in an island which is unfortunately notorious for dirty, moldy coffees.
These two coffees could not be more different than each other, and we think it's a shame that many still lump them together using the generic "Sumatran" descriptor. Both are amazing examples of an authentic tradition, and we couldn't imagine choosing between them. So try them both, and experience the diverse land of Sumatra from two unique perspectives.
News from the Road: Slow Food Nation in San Francisco!
I just returned from San Francisco, where I attended Slow Food Nation, the first-ever conference/meeting/food fair dedicated to the slow food movement. Basically, the idea was this: bring together a bunch of folks who were active in crafted, traditional, and delicious foods, and present their work to the general public on a large scale. We've known about this for a while, and were thrilled when we were approached to participate in the event. Here was the idea: bring together coffee people who are most active in the farm to cup coffee movement, and give those attending Slow Food Nation an unforgettable coffee experience, with a special focus on the coffee producer.
The coffee portion of the event was "curated" by the coffee team of Eilee Hassi, of Ritual Coffee Roasters, Tony Konecny, known to the coffee world as Tonx, and Andrew Barnett of Ecco Caffe. These folks organized an incredible team of coffee people, too long to list, who brought wonderful coffees and amazing expertise to the table. I arrived in San Francisco on Friday morning, not entirely knowing what to expect. I was a little early, so I was able to spend time visiting such bay area coffee landmarks as Ritual in the mission district, Four Barrel coffee roasters just down the street, and Blue Bottle coffee. All had incredible coffee and were wonderful folks, but that is another story entirely.
I finally made my way over to the "Taste Pavilion," where we were to do our coffee presentations. I was astounded by the space: a large warehouse on a dock at San Francisco's Fort Mason was filled with whimsically designed structures dedicated to the foodstuffs to be featured at the event: bread, native American foods, fish, pickles, honey and preserves, charcuterie, cheese, chocolate, ice cream, wine, olive oil, tea, and of course coffee (fresh produce and prepared foods were featured at the "victory garden" locale, in the plaza facing San Francisco City Hall.) Anyway, I went straight to the amazing coffee pavilion, which was designed by architect Douglas Burnham. The more than 2,000 square foot space was designed as an intimate place for thousands of people to taste coffee. Two hallways with wooden tables would serve as coffee tasting areas, where guests would be guided through a tasting of three different coffees out of small, beautiful, ceramic cups (by Heath Ceramics). The coffee was brewed by a platoon of 6 Clovers. In front, another hallway housed 4 La Marzocco GB5 3 groups, where 8 baristas could simultaneously pull espressos and macchiatos into Nuova Point brown bettys (espresso equipment provided by Espresso Parts NW). To get to the coffee tasting halls, adventurers needed to make their way down a passage lined with words and photographs related to the long journey coffee makes from seed to beverage. My breath was taken away by this amazing space.
The first thing I saw upon entering the space were boxes of Counter Culture coffee. Mark Overbay and Tim Hill had perfectly orchestrated the roasting and shipping of coffee to arrive at the perfect time for the event. Thanks! We soon began our preparations: getting everything squared away, machines dialed in, and getting all the "taste captains," our word for tasting leaders, well informed on the coffees we would be serving. We had a wide array of coffees at our disposal; all producer-specific lots from roasters like Ritual, Terroir, Intelligentsia, Ecco Caffe, Verve, Stumptown, Barefoot, and Counter Culture Coffee.
Making a long tale short, over the next three days, we exposed thousands of people to amazing coffees. Attendees got a flight of three coffees to taste against each other, and as many single-farm espressos or macchiatos as they could choke down. I spent all three days engaging with all sorts of folks, talking so much coffee I got hoarse. It was incredible. Deepening the experience were some very special guests: producers from Ethiopia, Mr. Abdullah Bagersh; Guatemala, Mr. Edwin Martinez; and Colombia, Mr. Camilo Merizalde. It was great to have producers there to represent their own coffees. Speaking of representing, I even got the chance to work two shifts on the espresso machine, pulling shots and macchiatos of Finca Mauritania Pulp Natural for the people. Like a dream come true. Meanwhile, I also did a speech on coffee at the Victory Garden Soapbox, led a panel discussion of the visiting coffee producers at the Long Now Foundation's museum space, and touched base with what seemed like the entire food movement.
One thing we coffee people kept saying about the event was how awesome it was to work so collaboratively with great coffee people. There was a large contingent of great baristas, roasters, and producers from all over the place including New York, Portland, L.A., and of course the Bay Area. Every one of these people was incredibly skilled, passionate, and filled with the desire to impress upon the foodie world the importance and value of great coffee. I was so proud to work with these folks, they did us all proud. It is impossible to list everyone, but if you watch this little movie you get a taste of how the experience was for the attendees. [Click here to watch now.]
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that it was an amazing and exhausting experience. Word on the street is that there will be another Slow Food Nation next year, I'll keep you posted ….