by Cody Shwaiko
In her opening speech at the Ubud Food Festival gala, founder Janet DeNeefe extolled the “passion of the people” involved in the various events. Rodney Glick, owner of Seniman Coffee Studio, is certainly one of the most ardent of that breed.
I attended Rodney’s Festival workshop on coffee, and came away with a deep and lasting appreciation of coffee and its place on the planet. Rodney hoped that participants in the program would take away the three principles that explain humanity’s obsession with the “beverage”, as the Americans are so fond of calling it: coffee is a fruit; coffee is a drug; and coffee is political.
What we casually call the coffee bean is in fact the seed of a fruit, the coffee berry. The quality of coffee is dictated by the variety, the harvesting and the processing of the coffee berry. Unfortunately the quality of most coffee in Indonesia suffers from the shortcomings of the system of middlemen, the coffee traders. The commercial nature of the trade, and the harsh realities of its cultivation in remote and inaccessible areas, breeds an appropriately efficient method of collection in which the quality of the product is haphazard, and of a secondary consideration. Coffee traders “buy” the entire harvest before it has ripened to the desired red cherry color, and accept all the beans collected regardless. Beans are traditionally sun dried for 12 days, and in the course of that process the hull turns a nut brown, making both ripe and green berries indistinguishable in the end.
While there are four known varieties of coffee, only two are commercially grown – robusta and arabica. The prevalence of the variety is dictated by the geography of the region it is grown – robusta thrives up to an elevation of 800 meters while arabica fares best at altitudes of 1000 to 2000 meters. The commercial varieties are all believed to originate in Africa, robusta from Uganda and arabica from Ethiopia or Yemen; the former a wetter climate, the latter a more dry, arid one.
Seniman sources its coffee from throughout the archipelago, but Rodney’s talk focused on the growing and production of Bali coffee. While the two major coffee growing areas of Bali are found in Tabanan and Kintamani, traditional Bali coffee is the robusta variety grown in Tabanan. The major difference between the two types of coffee is the drug content – robusta has 50% more caffeine than Arabica. Further, robusta is both quicker growing and contains a bigger seed, hence ensuring its dominance in local production.
Coffee can be prepared in any number of ways. Traditional kopi Bali was not something savoured over a leisurely morning start, but a caffeine powered hit prepared from burnt, pounded beans, usually stretched with other additives such as corn, and doused with heaping teaspoons of sugar to make it palatable, and drunk quickly. Again, this suited the need of the hardships of an agrarian life.
Coffee is political in many ways. Two billion cups of coffee are drunk around the world every day and 25 million families rely on growing coffee for a living. In the past 15 years of the 21st century, consumption of the drink has risen by 43 percent. Coffee is the number two traded commodity world-wide, second in importance only to oil. Almost all coffee is grown in the band between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, and primarily in “developing” countries. Up until recently, almost all of that production has been exported.
With the advent of this huge world demand and resultant increase in trade, there was a need to standardize the vocabulary of coffee and establish a lexicon of quality. This occurred in the US (where else) in the 1980’s under the tutelage of Ted Lingle and the Coffee Quality Institute. Ted developed started with the simple but novel question, what doesn’t taste good, and reverse engineered a system to define what those qualities were. The result was a system based on flavour, aroma and taste that encompassed over fifty different elements. Now, coffee dealers could trade across time zones, lines of latitude, and language barriers using a single, clearly defined vocabulary. They might not know what the smell of apricot or peaches were, but if they attended the institute’s accredited courses, their noses could do the talking. Finally the coffee trade could deal with seasonal inconsistencies and haphazard processing in a clearly defined way.
Rodney sees the export trend reversing itself in what he calls the fourth wave of coffee appreciation. The first wave spans the period from the late 19th century to the 1960’s when coffee was cheap, the Europeans invented the espresso, and had the leisure time to relish the drink over a cakes or pastry. Meanwhile, the Americans converted coffee into a diluted “beverage” that was drunk out of a “bottomless cup” of unlimited re-fills. The second wave occurred in the thirty something years between the 1970’s and 1990’s with the birth of the American espresso bar and the rise of Starbucks The third wave began in the mid-1990’s until present with the happy marriage of slow food culture meeting coffee and the resultant specialty coffee, single-origin coffee bean, artisanal roasting, manual brewing, etc. Rodney’s fourth wave is the adoption of coffee culture by the newly minted middle classes of developing countries such as Brazil and Indonesia. The fourth wave will introduce regional styles to coffee that suit the indigenous cultures who actually cultivate coffee. This is already evident in Brazil, the world’s largest producer of coffee, where domestic demand now exceeds export volumes.
The workshop came full circle to addressing coffee as a drink. Rodney does his own roasting at Seniman Studio, and artisanal roasting allows him full control over his product. There are fifteen degrees of roasting starting with the green, unroasted bean through all shades of brown up until the final three possible stages of Full French Roast, Fully Carbonized and Immanent Fire. Rodney assured us that Immanent Fire was totally appropriate as fires do occasionally occur in cases of lapsed attention. Roasting enhances flavour, and the artisanal ability provides a wide range of palates to be tickled.
The roughly ten methods of preparation emphasize different aspects of “a good cuppa”: acidity, which is often a misunderstood concept, as coffee lacking acidity tends to taste bland and lifeless; body is a sensation of heaviness in the mouth, and increases with degrees of roast; aroma reaches a peak in medium to medium-dark roasts; complexity, or range of sensations, peaks from medium to moderately dark roasts; sweetness develops with the development of sugars and partial volatizing of some bitter flavours; and pungency which is the distinctive twist that dark roasting brings to the taste.
Photos by Cody Shwaiko.
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