Johnson Brothers Coffee Roasters // Tano Batak Sumatra

Johnson Brothers Coffee Roasters // Tano Batak Sumatra
Tano Batak Sumatra
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Greetings, Dear Reader; it is time, once again, for The Table’s new monthly feature, MistoBox Week.

Yes, my collaboration with MistoBox last month was such a rollicking success, we decided to make this a monthly rendezvous. What can I say? MistoBox and I are, well… Lovers….of coffee! Lovers of coffee. That’s what I meant to say. And it is our mutual love of coffee which is binding us together.

This week we’ll be looking at the contents of the February MistoBox and, let me tell you—if you are a lover of coffee, this Box is going to flip your lid.  But don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves—every thousand mile journey starts with one step and that first step comes now!

Welcome to my Table, here in the corner of this cafe. Today we’re sipping a cup of Tano Batak Sumatra, from Johnson Brothers Coffee Roasters in Madison, Wisconsin. Feel free to pull up a chair.

Sumatra Tano Batak is named after the ethnic Batak peoples of northern Sumatra, from where this coffee hails. The Batak ethnic farmers utilize a “wet-hulling” process to separate the beans from the coffee cherries – this process gives this coffee an unmistakable blue coloring. This process also imparts some distinct berry flavors from the lush rain forest surrounding Lake Toba, the defining feature of this region of Sumatra. Wet-hulling enables the farmers to dry the coffee quickly, which is essential given the many torrential rain storms the island endures.

The specialty coffee industry sort of has a love/hate relationship with Sumatra. Sumatra really didn’t even have much representation before the 1960′s, when Alfred Peet popularized the region on the menu of his famous Vine Street store. The reason for this, as Kenneth Davids points out in his article “Mysterious No More: Sumatra Coffees”, is that most Western World palates simply aren’t accustomed to the flavors and textures that Sumatran coffees have.

After years of trying to understand this (what Davids calls) “mysterious” coffee and improving the quality of the cups, of course, the coffee of Sumatra, and Indonesia as a whole, has suffered greatly because of environmental factors and neglect. A lot of specialty coffee roasters won’t even carry Sumatran beans anymore because the quality really has gotten that bad.

the basics:

origin: Lintong Nihuta, Sumatra, Indonesia
farm: Small Holder Farmers
elevation: 1300-1500 meters above sea level
cultivars: Ateng, Typica
process: wet-hulled, patio dried
certifications: standard

the coffee:

The aroma of the Tano Batak Sumatra doesn’t come booming out of the cup so much as it clumsily bubbles over it. By that I mean that even though this coffee has a massive aroma with a lot of scents that make it up, it doesn’t explode at me all at once. Instead, while I’m brewing it I pick out some jasmine and cedar; there’s some cherry tobacco; oh, now I’m getting whiffs of fig; annnnd, blackberry; currants; wet leaves; maple syrup; cocoa powder.

These scents don’t gracefully transition from one to the next and they don’t complement one another; rather, they seem to be replacing each other. I don’t think I’m describing this to the best of my ability, but I can’t think of any other way to put it. Buy a bag and see for yourself—you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Immediately post brew, my palate is first greeted by a pungent, spicy cedar, bits of pine needles, and musty earthiness. There are also some fruity elements up front; particularly a tart blackberry and boysenberry sweetness that lazily gushes in at the tail end of each sip like a fruity pancake syrup.

As the cup starts to cool off, I really just want it to stay at this temperature forever, because the flavor is incredible. The spiciness up front has dissipated, allowing the coffee to smooth over and mellow out and other action prepositional phrases. Its syrupy texture has taken over the cup and the coffee has introduced a produce stand’s worth of flavors. The blackberry/boysenberry flavors that were present up front are still here, but they’ve brought along their friend, raspberry; meanwhile, it’s almost as if a submarine detonated a blueberry bomb a few miles beneath the ocean’s surface, because not only am I getting faint tastes of blueberries, blueberry aromas are also filling my nostrils sip after sip.

I’m also picking out notes of pipe tobacco, pine needle, a cool peppermint, winter melon, plum, juniper, fig, spiced rum, cloves, caramel, raw cocoa, and Granny Smith apple. It’s sweet, it’s tart, it’s savory, it’s herbal, it’s refreshing, it’s satisfying. Furthermore, this cup has a long, rewarding finish that is equal parts sweet berry lingering in the aftertaste and a cool, zesty lemon acidity that bites the tip of the tongue before zipping to the back of the throat.

Full body; syrupy mouthfeel; lemon acidity; clean finish.

the bottom line:

The Tano Batak Sumatra, from Johnson Brothers Coffee Roasters, simply sings swoons bellows. With a lot of the coffees that I’ve reviewed so far in 2013, I’ve used frilly, poetic language about grace and delicacy in my reviews.

Not today.

This coffee is a mouthful—a big-bodied, big-personality, big-flavored, Big Friendly Giant of a coffee. It doesn’t want to impress you—it really wants to impress you. It goes way out of its way with unique and distinct aroma and flavor, and it doesn’t pull any punches nor hold anything back. What’s more, it’s got a little bit whole lot of everything you could want in a coffee: you like spice?, it’s got that; you like sweet savories?, it’s got that; you like heavenly aromas, zesty acidity, sparkling clarity, and incredible definition?, it’s got that, that, that, that, and then some.

Look, it’s no secret that I love the Lake Toba region of Sumatra. But that love has led me to adopt some pretty rigid standards for what makes a good Lake Toba coffee. Dear Reader—the Johnson Brothers are currently offering a great Lake Toba coffee. This is one that I will remember, come end-of-the-year top coffees list-making time.

(No, there’s no better way that I could have possibly written that sentence.)

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  • PatrickLA

    Enjoyed the article so I ordered the coffee! You really know how to throw descriptive words around!

    • I appreciate the kind words! And you’ll definitely enjoy this coffee. I’ll be honest – I saw the name of the company, looked at the packaging, and immediately wrote them off; but I was very, very pleased with the cup.