Chances are, if you've dabbled in tasting coffee from different regions around the world, you may have tasted the unique coffee flavor that the Indonesian Sulawesi region brings about.
How Toraja (Sulawesi coffee beans, also called Celebes Kalossi coffee) became such an integral part of Sulawesi life, it's still quite the enigma. There may even be more to the story of this unique Arabica coffee than you might have guessed.
Grab a coffee cup, because this leaves us with two stories to tell on this page. It goes like this...
How Coffee Came to Sulawesi: A Tale of Two Origins
1. The Dutch East India Company
Before 1690, anyone would have found it hard to find coffee, a Yemeni monopoly, growing outside of there. But as it sometimes happened when the Dutch East India Company was involved, a bit of smuggling moved the waters.
The moment the Dutch smuggled the coffee seedlings out of Mocha's port, it broke the Yemeni hold on the trade.
Now in the Dutch's hands, within a few years, the Dutch Governor of Malabar sent them to Jakarta in 1696.
From there, the coffee tree cuttings made it to Enrekang.
2. A Sacred Religious Pilgrimage
By the time the year 1500 hits, Islam was already the dominant religion in Indonesia. The local population had long adopted the five pillars of faith, one of which is Hajj.
Hajj is the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca. Islam dictates that the faithful should perform such a trip once in his life if he can.
It's not likely that many in Indonesia could attempt the journey without help, being a group of islands, but it was certainly possible.
Legend has it that in 1920, a Dutch planter found three hundred year old coffee trees in Sulawesi.
The first indication of coffee tree cuttings planted by the Dutch was in 1690, a full 70 years after this supposed origin.
And there's more: coffee in Torajan dialect language is called "kaa," which sort of sounds like "qahwa," the Arabic word for coffee, doesn't it?
Some linguists think so too.
This connection may mean that locals planted the coffee bean back in the early to mid 1600s. And this means that the coffee Toraja tradition predates the Dutch.
A Stunning Island and the Perfect Coffee Climate
In any case, the saplings that made it to Sulawesi (known as Celebes, back then) thrived. Sulawesi's tropical climate, never straying from the 73°F-88°F range, met every need for this new crop.
Volcanic ashes supplied a soil bursting with nutrients, and altitude helped sugars in the coffee bean develop.
In what would become Sulawesi's coffee belt, the green beans ripened to creamy, rich, and earthy flavors: in the 1800 Sulawesi Toraja coffee met favor beyond most of the competition.
Celebes, Kalossi, and Toraja - What's in a Name?
More than a few misconceptions come into play with labels, so let's dispel them. Toraja coffee is often known as Celebes Kalossi, Sulawesi Kalossi, or even just Kalossi, regardless of origin. Where do the labels originate?
Celebes: The colonial name for the island of Sulawesi. Sometimes you can see Celebes on coffee labels alone.
Kalossi: Kalossi coffee takes the name from a small trading center. The town goes back to colonial times, and it's located halfway between Enrekang and Toraja.
Toraja: The northern area of Southern Sulawesi. It's part of the Suwalesi's coffee belt, where the island highlands peak the highest above sea level (up to 6,000 feet/1,800 meters). Green coffee grows best: full of flavor and with less acidity.
A Most Coveted Coffee: Single Origin Sulawesi Toraja
Sure, Sulawesi coffee is delicious. It's smooth, full-bodied. The best Toraja coffees are incredibly rich in taste. But what sets them apart from all the high-quality coffee grown in Indonesia?
Sumatra also makes excellent coffees full of flavor, with deep notes and a great body. So why pick Sulawesi coffee beans over those from Sumatra?
You see, it's all about the altitudes. Sulawesi coffee grown in the Torajan highlands ripens at altitudes between 3,900 and 6,000 feet. It develops a brighter taste.
Sulawesi coffee beans also achieve lighter notes, a pleasant tartness, and a hint of sweetness compared to Sumatra. Beans grow at 2,600 feet above sea level only.
And this coffee shows much more balance.
The beans' low acidity and deep flavor make them perfect for the Moka pot and espresso.
High quality, High Demand, Low Production
However ideal the environment, Sulawesi produces only small quantities of high-quality beans. The reason for this is the lack of economic planning.
Some foreign investors tried to fill this void with mixed results since intensive agriculture farming and unsustainable practices worsened environmental issues.
Most of the involvement with foreign investors centers around seven coffee estates representing only a small part of Sulawesi coffee production.
Sulawesi green coffee otherwise comes from small-scale farms in the highlands, where about 75,000 of them hide far from the roads, and their yearly output sits around 400 pounds per farm.
Five Main Coffee Growing Regions
Indonesia produces over 8% of the coffee in the world (95% of that is Robusta coffee). Still, Sulawesi produces most of Indonesia's Arabica output.
For such a small region, the Sulawesi coffee industry sees significant differences from area to area.
Let's take a look at how many differences there are in Sulawesi coffee regions:
- Tana Toraja: The best coffees come from here, and 95% of them belong to the Arabica variety. Small-scale farming, traditional agricultural practice, and low use of fungicides make the Torajan coffee bean the best in quality. It's also the one place to go to for heirloom coffee trees. The so-called Sulawesi Kalossi comes from here.
- Mamas: This region's highlands are the lowest in Sulawesi, and share soil erosion issues with Enrekang. Growing coffee there is becoming hard, and there's no infrastructure either, so products from this area get sent elsewhere.
Mamasa villages are remote enough that this is also a problem. Transport often causes defects to the products, as travel to the trading towns can take days, either by foot or by truck. Through there, beans make it to mills and shipping nodes.
- Enrekang: Enrekang is the oldest region to produce Sulawesi coffee. The port sets it apart in importance from the other coffee regions. Because of that, it's the location of choice for foreign investors.
That's also the reason the infrastructure here is more developed than anywhere else on the island. Alas, the coffee plots in this region suffer soil erosion because of the intensive agricultural practices and lack of sustainability initiatives.
- Gowa & Sinjal: The immense coffee bean volume comes from this region, but the quality isn't comparable to the northern areas.
The Search for the Best Quality Coffee
All of Sulawesi coffees taste lovely when processed the correct way. However, any customer should consider that the vast majority of these coffees undergo the wet hull process.
This process makes for a very different flavor profile than other premium coffees. Incorrect processing can give a strong, musty smell.
When you search for the best bags of coffee to order, keep that in mind.
Another important step: be careful and contact only the well-known coffee roasters. Traceability is an issue with Sulawesi coffees, as the processing chain lacks resources for it.
You can order Sulawesi coffee from Amazon and other commercial retailers too, but any roasted coffee held in stock for too long will lose complexity, flavor, and might as well taste terrible.
Coffee Culture and Sulawesi Coffees
Two coffee varietals are grown on the island of Sulawesi. There are Robusta and Arabica coffee (which subdivides into subspecies such as Bourbon, Sulawesi Toraja Kalossi, Pacas, Pacamara varieties), and a couple of hybrids grown in the coffee belt.
Arabica is the variety most appreciated by connoisseurs and the international coffee market. Machines measured aromatic compounds in this varietal coffees in far greater numbers than those found in tea or wine.
Robusta is a commercial varietal used for blends in some European countries and a sole beverage in Sulawesi.
The flavor profile is bitter and pungent in tannins. In Sulawesi, it's drunk with lots of sugar to counter this. Robusta trees are incredibly resistant to diseases and fungi, and the crops cost half of Arabica.
As much love as there can be for Arabica coffee in Sulawesi, it stops at the value as an export. Still, it would be wrong to say there's no coffee culture in Sulawesi.
Local farmworkers consume significant quantities of Robusta, and coffee belongs to many rituals from Torajan village life. At funerals, the ma'papangan rite consists of the symbolic offering of coffee and a betel nut to guests.
Growing and Harvesting Coffee in the Highlands
From May to August, it's harvest season on the island. Farmworkers need to do the heavy lifting: the coffee Sulawesi grows needs to be handpicked time and time again.
Ripe cherries alone will sell for a premium, as picking unripe green beans causes defects in the final product.
Farmers go back for them once they reach maturity: the rejection of inferior beans is a real risk. Save anything changing, lack of investing in the industry hits them the hardest.
Northern Torajan coffee trees grow on stone terraces, usually located below the houses, in plots close to the village. Growing side to side with coffee, there are other staples of their diet and commercial crops such as rice, cassava, and vanilla orchids—even cocoa. Shading trees are also a traditional presence in these setups.
Thoroughly Washed Toraja Coffee - The Best for Single Origin?
Washed Sulawesi coffee isn't as standardized as washed coffee from other countries. Not many on the island want to experiment with it or search for Sulawesi coffee's original taste.
As with anything these days, the markets direct what the beans Sulawesi, should produce, and people expect Indonesian coffees to have dark earthy tones, low acidity, and fuller body.
Giling Basah: What is Wet Hulling?
Giling basah (or the wet hull method) is a processing method used all across Indonesia. It's halfway between the thoroughly washed and the natural process. See, as it happens with the washed process, machinery strips pulps from the coffee beans (in some areas, locals still do this with hand-crank depulpers).
After that, they leave the beans in bags to ferment overnight.
The difference comes into play after this phase: once washed, instead of sun-drying the beans for a week, drying takes up a couple of days.
The dried bean moisture content gets to 20-25%, a whole 10-15% higher in content than washed coffee.
While with this method, there's a higher chance of damage to the beans. It also highlights the unique aroma: the smoky, earthy notes from Sulawesi grown coffees come from this technique.
Through this method, the coffee beans gain a heavy body, low acidity, and a smoother finish.
The Difficult Life of a Coffee Farmer
This process is still a necessity in the highlands, as there's no wet mill to take the crops to. Lack of infrastructure means no roads either, and days of travel from trading centers.
Many farmers would lose their crops unless they processed the coffee beans themselves.
The high moisture and the warm climate that make these coffees so high grade also increases the chances of mold and fermentation.
In such conditions, it's impossible to keep the beans dry. The less time the villagers keep them around, the best chances of the product to preserve the unique, smooth, and rich taste.
Issues in the Coffee Industry
Everywhere in Sulawesi, coffee production falls behind with the times. In the case of Torajan, the traditional outlook in farming means that the processing phase causes coffees the most damage. Lack of infrastructure plays a part too.
However, overall, Tana Toraja is a source of high-quality coffee beans.
In Enrekang, coffee quality is negatively affected by intensive farming practices. Soil erosion (no stone terraces or alternative approaches) reduced many available plots to grow coffee.
In the Mamasa region, this very same issue worsened by a complete lack of infrastructure, making quality in their products unreliable.
Roasting and Brewing - Get the Most from your Cup
So, you're all ready to give Sulawesi coffee a try at home, but you wonder what roast will highlight this hard-to-find green coffee the best, right?
That depends, in part, by your favorite brewing method. A traditional Moka requires coffee roasted darker than what a French press would ideally produce, or flavors in the brew will fall flat.
Medium roasted will do. If you love a good espresso, you might want the coffee roasted a little darker. A dark roast will bring out Sulawesi coffee's heavy body, the dark chocolate flavor, and great taste.
Brewing with a light roast doesn't suit any of the Indonesian beans, due to the aforementioned heavy body, but, you could certainly try it in a cool brew drip tower.
When a Coffee Bean is Roasted Too Dark
Roasting this bean is not without its challenges. Dark-roasting might express the bean's aromas better, but you should roast Sulawesi beans with care.
Contrary to most other green beans, the coffee Sulawesi beans make is lighter in color, while staying light in color for longer during the roast, which can be tricky.
Keep an ear open for the second crack, and stop right away. Many people with little experience would not expect a Sulawesi coffee to react this way to roasting.
Sulawesi coffee, once roasted, should release a full-bodied mouthfeel. Like I mentioned, if you've been careful and didn't let the dark roast process go on too long, you'll be rewarded by a smooth cup full of almond and fruit notes, with a hint of smokiness.
Enjoy your coffee! Roasting brings out the flavor notes of these coffees. Chocolate, fruit, and light almond flavors are a sign you did right by these high-quality beans.
But never stop experimenting with your coffee to find out what you like. Good judgment comes from experience.