Type: Organic Indonesia Gajah Aceh
Roaster: Stumptown Coffee Roasters
Varietals: Bourbon; Catimor; Jember; Typica
Preparation: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black
There is bucking norms, and there is bucking norms. You know what I mean. Some people are smashers, looking to destroy the order of things from within so that they can lie to the world and to themselves about the comparative worth of whatever it is that they have to bring to the table. Others seek not to tear down but to build up, to expand, to augment. Eager and sincere, they are careful not to destroy, at least not wantonly, but they have no qualms about forcing the status quo to engage in honest competition. This is, generally speaking, a good thing.
The folks at Stumptown Coffee Roasters are serious coffee people. They travel to all corners of the earth (literally) sourcing beans, roast them great, and have found much success doing so. What makes them different? They do not roast light, dark, or anywhere in between. It is a different approach entirely.
I was skeptical at first. "All our coffee is roasted for the coffee itself. It's not necessarily defined as light, medium, or dark," the gentleman in the store told me when I asked about what I was buying. It sounded like either new-age nonsense or he had no idea what he was talking about (or both). In actuality, he was being quite helpful: there, in a very neat nutshell, is Stumptown's approach.
It was described in more detail in an e-mail from Stumptown. "Our guide for roasting coffee is flavor," they explained. "Each coffee is roasted to bring out the aspects inherent in the bean which we would like to accentuate for the optimum drinking pleasure. We don't like to impart a fingerprint or a roast signature on the coffee. Instead, we prefer to highlight what makes that particular varietal or farm exciting."
I still did not quite get it. So they have different criteria than others when roasting the coffee. Surely once the bean is roasted it still fits into one or another roast profile - perhaps not the usual one, but one nonetheless? Indeed it does, in this case a medium-light. But to fixate on that is to miss the whole point in the first place. Yes, when the beans emerge from the machine they are roasted at a certain level. But that is a post-hoc observation only. Many roasters - most, I daresay - decide on a level of light, medium, or dark, set the roaster, and send the beans through. Stumptown does not care what hue of brown the beans end up. How long should this bean, of this variety, from this origin, be roasted? What flavors does it have? How can we maximize the good ones, marginalize the bad ones, and coax out some new ones? How long before some of them are lost? Can we adjust to make sure that the texture is just right? And so on and so forth.
So yes, the beans end up ochre or burnt-sienna or whatever. Big deal. They end up right. That is the point.
And indeed, the coffee is delightful. The organic Indonesia Gajah Aceh brews into a light brown liquid with a tinge of orange. It has a fruity, nutty aroma, but the palate is quite different: earthy, smoky, slightly bitter around the edges, and rather non-acidic. The coffee is on the thin side, but smooth and consistent, and it gets thicker on the finish as it goes down nice and easy.
It really does make the experience more special when I learn not just of a new coffee, but also a new thing about coffee. I suspect that the same is true for most coffee aficionados, so I encourage everyone to get a packet of Stumptown, and consider the unique mindset that went into roasting it while sipping the brew. It will not be a disappointment.