Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Peet's Coffee and Tea: review of Sumatran coffees

Greetings, coffee enthusiasts, and welcome to the third edition of Drew's Reviews.

In this week's volume, we'll be taking a look at our three Sumatra coffees, plus a special sneak peek at our current special offering, Sumatra Blue Batak, which will be available Thursday, February 3. To celebrate this popular coffee's highly anticipated return, the Evanston Peetniks staged a comparative cupping to find the similarities and differences between the four different coffees. After a similar cupping last week, where we compared and contrasted all four of our African coffees, we all knew that there would be some noticeable differences between the four Sumatras; however, I don't think any of us realized just how vastly different from each other they actually are.

The appropriately titled Sumatra coffee is an Indonesian coffee that hails from the island of Sumatra (go figure). On this island, coffee is grown by small landholders who may only have but a few trees on their property. The coffee cherries are plucked from the vine and pulped by hand and spread in the sun to dry rather than being rinsed in water overnight. This manual dry-process yields coffees with very heavy body and very full flavor. This is particularly true of Sumatran coffees, which come from a region known for its full-bodied and flavors coffees to begin with.

The three Sumatran coffees that Peet's Coffee and Tea consistently offer are the Sumatra, Decaf Sumatra, and Aged Sumatra; annually, Peet's rolls out its Sumatra Blue Batak for a limited time. Not to be cheeky, but the main difference between these four is obvious (the hints are in their titles)—the Sumatra is our very basic bean from the Sumatra island; the Decaf Sumatra is simply the decaffeinated version of the Sumatra; the Aged Sumatra is, to put it simply, the basic Sumatra bean that has been left on the vine to age a bit longer than its “ripe point;” and the Sumatra Blue Batak, which takes its name from the ethnic Batak farmers that grow it, is a coffee that is grown and harvested in the Lintong Nihuta region of North Sumatra.

Besides their obvious title differences, the four Sumatran coffees have very obvious differences in texture and flavor as well:
Sumatra: We started the cupping with our standard Sumatra, figuring we would be more able to single out the nuances of the specialty Sumatras if we could first single out the nuances of the standard Sumatra. Peet's Sumatra has a fairly complex taste that takes a couple samplings to fully recognize. A lot like the Kenyan coffee that we tasted last week, after each sip of the Sumatra, most of us would place the cup back on the counter and stare into it, deeply concentrating on the flavors our tongues were experiencing, digging in the annals of our coffee-tasting lexicons to find the right terms to describe the taste. All of us, and most of you as well, agreed that the Sumatra has a medium to full-body flavor with a astringent tartness that lingered on the palate long after each slurp. It has a hint of some spices that play on the front of the tongue for a while, then mellow into a smoother nutty, woody flavor. It doesn't have the same sort of earthiness that a lot of its Indo-Pacific counterparts share, nor does it coat the palate the way other Indo-Pacific coffees do, but it still has that formidable body that Indo-Pacific coffee lovers will rejoice in. 

Decaf Sumatra: Not surprisingly, the decaffeinated version of the Sumatra doesn't quite live up to the complexities that its caffeinated foundation has—the aroma isn't as present, it doesn't have the same intense sharpness, and it lacks the nuttiness found in the standard Sumatra. Don't hear me wrong—this isn't a complaint as much as it is an observation. In fact, this observation is to be expected from just about every decaffeinated version of any coffee one can think of. The way coffee becomes decaffeinated involves steaming the coffee beans while they are still green, then rinsing them with a solvent that extracts the caffeine while leaving other essential chemicals; the process is then repeated and repeated anywhere from eight to twelve times, until it meets the international caffeine removal standard of 97%. So, as one can imagine, this chemical process can do quite a bit to affect the amount of flavoring a coffee has. Ironically, however, Peet's Decaf Sumatra does taste more like a traditional Indo-Pacific with its more fully-bodied and darker complexion and its woody nuances. 

Aged Sumatra: As I mentioned earlier, the Aged Sumatra is the same as the standard Sumatra, but with a longer vine life. Much like whiskeys or fine wines, great aged coffees are very difficult to find, largely due to the lengthy aging process. Matter-of-factly speaking, most coffee exporters are prone to converting their coffee to cash as soon as possible, and don't particularly want to bother with waiting around on the aging process, even while knowing that a finely aged coffee is worth quite a bit more. According to Peet's:
      Aging must take place in a tropical environment, where beans take on moisture at the height of the monsoon season, and give it back during drier seasons, without every drying out completely. This process deepens the flavor and makes it mellower, while accentuating certain taste components over others. The result is a very rich coffee with a slight hint of a tropical wood flavor, a concentrated dried fruit sweetness, herbal notes, and ample body.
 I marveled at the faces of each participant in our cupping when we followed the Sumatra and Decaf Sumatra with the Aged Sumatra—they slurped the coffee, then their eyes widened and, as they pulled the cup away from their lips, their jaws dropped and each one of them exclaimed, “Wow! That is... Wow.” And, each time, I simply replied, “Right?” Peet's was bang-on in explaining that aged coffees accentuate certain taste components—the Aged Sumatra was noticeably more full-bodied upon first sip and it coated the entire palate with its heaviness. It had the same basic elements of the standard Sumatra, but far and away more pronounced—it was very nutty, very woody, and even took on a soily earthiness that the standard Sumatra lacked. 

Sumatra Blue Batak: Once a year, Peet's Coffee and Tea rolls out its famous Sumatra Blue Batak, and Peet's enthusiasts the country over await its arrival with breath abated. I wasn't an employee here the last time Blue Batak made its grand appearance, but since I started in the Fall, I have heard rave review after review of it from customers and fellow Peetniks; so, needless to say, even as a relative newbie, I was eagerly anticipating its return. When I finally got the opportunity to taste it, when that long wait was over, I can honestly admit that I have very seldom been more satisfied. A real customer even went so far as to state (and I quote directly), “This is unquestionably the finest coffee I have ever had.” Before we even tasted the coffee, all of the participants of the cupping knew the Batak was something special just by smelling the aroma of the beans when I opened the bag—there was something almost undefinable in the aroma, but could only be compared to tobacco leaves or, like Tyler said, “au jus.” The Sumatra Blue Batak is such a smooth coffee with a clean, crisp finish. It has a medium body, but is certainly lighter than the standard Sumatra, so it doesn't have the same bitter, lingering aftertaste. The taste, like the aroma, was so formidable and so incredibly unique—unlike anything any of the participants had ever come across. It had the richness of a dessert wine, like a Merlot, and the same sweet, cured tobacco that was in the aroma made an appearance in the taste.

I suppose, to sum all of this up, if I have but one piece of advice for those of you who are thinking “a Sumatra is a Sumatra is a Sumatra,” is don't for a minute, not even a second, assume that. This writer is still amazed at the remarkable differences between each of the four Sumatra coffees Peet's has to offer, and I know you will be too.  

If I have but two pieces of advice to offer, it's what I just said, and, also, take every opportunity to explore each of Peet's unique coffees. If there's one thing that last week's African Safari and this week's tour of Sumatra has taught me, it's that no two of our coffees are similar enough to each other to bypass or take for granted. If there's any bean at all that you want to try, ignore whatever we have on tap and request us to make a custom French press for you—this is a tremendous way to explore what we have to offer.

And, finally, if I have but three pieces of advices to offer, it's all the stuff I just wrote, and, also, stop by and pick up some Sumatra Blue Batak while you can! This coffee is a special offer from Peet's Coffee and Tea and, much like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, April 15th, and the day Drew doesn't fantasize about being the fifth Ghostbuster, only comes but once a year. I promise you that you will never taste a more rewarding, more unique coffee than this one.

Until next time, cheers.

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