When we lived in northern California we bought our coffee beans from Peet's -- mostly Sulawesi-Kalosi. We like our coffee full-bodied, complex, and with a balanced acidity, which is why we've always gravitated to beans grown in the Pacific (as opposed to, say, the Americas). And we prefer a dark roast. Peet's certainly has its detractors (who feel that their coffee is 'burnt'), but for us a cuppa made with light-roasted beans is just too insipid to satisfy.
At that time (we left the San Francisco Bay Area for the first time in 1995, and for the last time in 2002) Sulawesi was just a place on a map. We knew it was in Indonesia and we knew that the island was once called 'Celebes', but at that point we'd never travelled further east in the country than Bali.
Back then we paid $13.95 a pound for our beans from Sulawesi (looks like it's gone up a buck in intervening years), so it was kind of a kick to find ourselves shelling out less than a third of that amount per pound last Saturday in Rantepao, Toraja's main tourist hub.
Toraja is in Sulawesi's relatively remote mountainous center (the drive from Makassar, on the islands southwestern coast, takes around 10 hours and Batutumonga, where we stayed for part of our trip, sits at 1,500 meters above sea level). And it's in Toraja that most -- and certainly the best -- of Sulawesi's coffee is grown. (Googled sources tell me that Kalosi, or Kalossi, is Toraja's coffee bean distribution hub. We didn't make it there.)
In Toraja coffee, like rice, is everywhere. There are proper coffee plantations but also scattered bunches of trees by the road, on the edge of rice paddies, clinging to slopes, in front yards and side gardens. Coffee is set out to dry on tarps on sidewalks, driveways, and harvested and burnt paddy fields.
One evening, in search of a perfect sunset view, we drove to the top of a mountain on the other, quiet side of the river that runs through Rantepao. After forty-five minutes of gut-clenching hairpin turns and washboard (or non-existent) tarmac we arrived in a sea of clouds. No view, no sunset. But plenty of freshly picked coffee beans, laid out to dry on a lonesome hillside (above).
At Rantepao's morning market coffee is literally in the air; you can hardly walk twenty paces without running into a vendor selling roasted beans -- whole, pre-ground, or ground to order. (You can buy green beans too). The comforting aroma of coffee envelops you as you wander its aisles and inhaling deeply delivers nearly as much of a kick as a sip of the black stuff.
For the caffeinated traveler Toraja is Paradise. A decent and often transcendent cup awaits on nearly every block. Deep in the heart of the market is a row of dark, down-at-the-heels shops serving breakfast. We stopped into one for a pick-me-up. It was delivered in the sort of big, heavy glass mugs that Westerners usually reserve for beer. It cost Rp 2,000 (about 20 US cents). And it was fantastic.
In Toraja, as in the rest of Indonesia, coffee is drunk unfiltered. The beans are ground to the finest talcum-like powder, which is spooned into a cup, a mug, or a pot. Boiling water is added, the mixture is stirred to release the coffee's flavor, and the grounds are allowed to settle before the coffee is poured or drunk.
This isn't at all problematic. We're not talking Turkish coffee here. The fine grounds, when mixed with water, form a heavy sludge that sticks to the bottom of the cup or the pot. As long as you don't knock your coffee back like a shot of whiskey (or upturn the pot when you pour a cup) you don't end up with a mouthful of grit.
And because this 'brewing' method exposes the coffee to hot water longer than it would be if it were suspended in a paper filter it produces a richer, stronger cup. It's the way we're drinking our Toraja brew now, at home.
Kopi susu (coffee with sweetened condensed milk) is ubiquitous in Indonesia but noticibly absent in Toraja, where coffee is usually drunk black or with sugar. For as long as I've been drinking coffee I've taken it with milk. But the flavor of the coffee grown in Toraja is so rounded, so rich and beautifully balanced that I'm drinking it with only a bit of sugar, even now that I'm home.
On our last day in Toraja, on the recommendation of friends in Batutumonga, we headed to a shop in Rantepao called Rezeki, to stock up.
Owner Saleh, who named the shop after one of his sons, has been in business for over twenty years. With the help of a son (not Rezeki) he roasts beans every day on the second floor of his shop, underneath a piece of corrugated metal with a square cut in it for ventilation.
When roasting is in process you can smell Rezeki long before you see the plumes of smoke wafting from its roof.
The beans, which Saleh buys from a middleman ((Palu Palu and Pangalla produce the best arabica and Rembon the best robusta, he says), are cooked in a huge, continually rotating metal drum set over an open flame.
Saleh is particularly proud of his roaster, which he built himself. He says that its unusually thick walls (5 mm instead of the usual 2) enable him to roast the beans for up to two hours without burning (other roasters limit the process to thirty minutes).
After they're roasted (actually goreng -- 'fried' -- is what coffee beans are in Indonesia) the drum is slid along a frame away from the fire and the beans poured into a shallow wooden bin. Saleh and his son rake the beans to cool them down as quickly as possible and then pick them over, discarding those not up to snuff.
Saleh isn't a coffee drinker; he prefers tea. But his product is pretty fantastic -- proving that, for this coffee maker (and as Rezeki's paper bags advertise), 'Quality is the most of everything'.
(The shop's logo, visible at the top of the circle, is a rocket. Interpret that however you like.)
Not everyone likes their coffee pitch black, so Rezeki sells arabica and robusta beans (and a mix of the two) in four roasts, from 'golden' (a milk-chocolate brown -- popular with foreign tourists, he says) to 'black'.
Unfortunately Saleh was sold out of arabica black roast on the day we dropped in, so we settled for a couple of bags of arabica Italian roast beans and two more of robusta black. (We drank quite a bit of robusta in Toraja. Despite its reputation as an inferior bean we found it to evince a pleasantly jagged-edged earthiness, with just a hint of cherry.)
We also walked away with 250 grams of arabica Italian roast, powdered to order in Rezeki's funky old coffee grinder (above).
We predicted that our hotel in Makassar, where we were to spend one night before heading back to Malaysia, wouldn't serve coffee anywhere as delicious as that which we'd drunk in Toraja. We were right. But thanks to our pre-ground from Rezeki and the water boiler in our room we slurped down many excellent cups on our last morning on Sulawesi.
Agri Industri Kopi Rezeki, Jalan Emmy Saelan No. 28, Rantepao. Tel. (0423) 21629. Open 7a-6pm everyday. Robusta Rp 50,000/kilo and Arabica Rp 50,000/kilo.
In Rantepao, enjoy a fine cup of coffee at Manalagi, just a block from Rezeki, on Jalan J.A. Mappanyuki steps from Jalan Emmy Saelan (Rp 6,000 for a pot big enough to share). Or head to Rumto Cafe on Jalan Bolo Rantepao, a block from the main market (7,000 for a cup of Arabica - the pisang goreng, or fried bananas, make an excellent accompaniment).