Sulawesi coffee is among the best coffee beans you can buy, but only if you know how to find the highest quality beans possible, and what to look for.
For many Americans who aren’t accustomed to the wide variety of specialty coffees available to them, it’s likely that Sulawesi coffee will need an introduction. It recently made headlines not for the coffee itself, for its growing region, which is an Indonesia island known for its tropical flora, rich culture, and propensity for natural disasters. And it’s also known for its signature coffee, that the most avid coffee lovers purchase around the world.
We’ve put together a comprehensive guide so you can learn everything there is to know about Sulawesi coffee, where to find it, what to look for, how to make sure you purchase the best coffee possible.
This list of questions will help you understand if it’s the best coffee for you, and also educate you on the common and more special characteristics of coffee from this region. Answering these questions is the key to finding the best Sulawesi coffee available, and ensures that you aren’t purchasing something that either is not truly Sulawesi coffee or is subpar.
Where does Sulawesi Coffee come from? And why should I care about its origin?
Sulawesi coffee derives its name directly from its growing region of Sulawesi, a large tropical island of nearly 19 million nestled by tropical reefs and covered in jungle and tropical forests. Rare species, such as nocturnal tarsiers, one hundred and fourteen varieties of birds, and quixotic mammals like the warty pig and the booted macaque thrive here.
In spite of the tropical setting, Sulawesi is also very mountainous and lies on a system of tectonic plates which can spell disaster for the region, as it did this fall, when both a tsunami and earthquake shook Palu this fall, a city of 350,000. The 7.5 magnitudes of the earthquake, already destructive, may have triggered the subsequent tsunami. At least 384 people died, and the damages were immense.
Despite the danger, Sulawesi also happens to have a rich and fertile climate for growing some of the world’s best coffee. As a whole, Indonesia is fourth of the type five coffee producers in the world on its various islands, behind only by Colombia, Vietnam, and Brazil. While much of this is a cheaper robusta crop, Indonesia is best known for its specialty coffees, like those of Sulawesi.
Coffee is a thriving industry, to say the least, especially in Indonesia: including Sulawesi, coffee plantations cover nearly 480 square miles. Currently, there is concrete plans to expand that growing region, even more, paving the way for increasing coffee production.
Knowing the origin of your coffee is very important, especially if you’re investing in specialty coffee and want to make sure you’re getting the best coffee possible. Coffee origin tells you not only where the coffee is from, but gives an indication as to what qualities to expect, and a general sense of the chain of coffee production.
In the case of Sulawesi coffee, in order for it to be truly authentic, we are in search of single origin coffee: that is, coffee that is grown and produced in that specific region. Single origin is important in terms of traceability–that is, the ability to identify coffee as being unique to a specific source or region. Single source coffee tends to be higher in quality, both in flavor and in ethical standards.
Where exactly does the best Sulawesi coffee come from? Of course, to say that coffee is from Sulawesi is not exactly precise. If we want to get even more precise about the source of our coffee beans–and we should–the best Sulawesi coffee is grown near the Sesean Mountains.
In fact, all Sulawesi coffee used to be grown in mountainous regions, with Kalossi, a small town, as the main collection center. While Kalossi is still considered a coffee bean district, as demand has grown, the regions for growth and production have changed. Southern regions started growing their own coffee, where growing conditions are not as optimal. Theft and vandalization of coffee plants have also been a problem in these regions. Finally, there is less discretion in terms of ripe and unripe coffee beans.
Thus, it’s important to select Sulawesi coffee that very clearly identifies where it was grown and cultivated. Celebres is the most common high altitude growing location for high-quality Sulawesi coffee.
How are Sulawesi coffee beans grown, and why does it matter?
The first step to the best possible coffee is selecting coffee that has been grown, and then harvested, and optimal roasted and processed, in the most optimal conditions possible.
Coffee cherries, where coffee pods are extracted from, must be grown during certain seasons of the year and mature over a series of several months. The best practice is then to select coffee cherries that are not only ripe but of the best quality, which can be deduced by the color of the external shell.
While different coffee grows different, it is crucial that this, among other conditions, are respected. While many coffee beans are grown on large plantations, some high-quality Sulawesi coffee beans are instead grown on small plots for more individual attention. Small plot growing is also more likely to result in unique, specialized, and signature flavors.
Organic growing also makes for a cleaner flavor, and there are Sulawesi varieties that are grown with minimal to no pesticides and fertilizers–though these tend to be those grown on smaller plants.
How would you describe the flavor of Sulawesi coffee?
Sulawesi coffee is distinct in flavor, and the main reason it’s in demand around the world. Deep flavor and an almost maple syrup like note in the beans upon roasting makes it stand apart from another specialty single origin coffee beans.
Main flavor and aroma notes include:
- Complex and earthy
- Ranges from pungent to light and multidimensional
- Mellow and long lasting aftertaste
- Vibrant, lively and distinct
- Low in acidity, making it also easier to digest than high acidity coffee
- Creamy texture
Taken together, the aroma and flavor notes of Sulawesi coffee comprises a distinct, delectable and exotic coffee taste, making for a unique experience for those who have never tasted it before. Both dark and with a sweet lift to it, Sulawesi coffee is also versatile and can be used as a stand alone drink, or to make popular coffee specialty drinks–though the complexity of the flavors should urge most consumers to drink it fairly plain, or with just a splash of creamer.
There are, of course, variations. Sulawesi Toraja coffee, for instance, shares characteristics of low acidity, mellow aftertaste, and possess a full body. But in addition they also are:
- Nutty and chocolate
- Have a smooth finish
- May also have warmer undertones, such as cardamom, cinnamon, and other spices
What does Sulawesi coffee look like? And how is it roasted?
Green beans, or Sulawesi coffee beans that have not yet been roasted, are generally about the same in physical appearance despite how they have been grown, with the exception, of course, of major defects. The unroasted coffee beans look more or less like coffee beans do very roasting, and are hard to distinguish from others. A crooked seam and a mostly flat but slightly rounded bean make them resemble lima beans. Since green coffee does not have the aroma or color that it will have when it’s roasted, it’s hard to find the best coffee when you buy it green, unless you’re an expert, though Sulawesi green coffee is said to have a distinctly dark hue.
Easier to recognize is the characteristics and quality is after the Sulawesi coffee has been roasted. The best Sulawesi coffee is processed through a wet process; dry processing leads to lower quality for these coffee beans and to uneven roasting.
After roasting, Sulawesi coffee beans:
- Are medium in color and hue, usually due to a medium roast, with caramel notes
- Have a distinct aroma like cedar wood
- Exude notes of sweet and spices
The earthy and sweet notes can be smelled before, but especially after roasting. The aromas should be complex and multifaceted; cheaper or poorer quality Sulawesi coffee beans may not have the same level of complexity.
What is a normal price point for Sulawesi coffee?
Sulawesi coffee varies in price, but the price has less to do with varieties and specific brands and more to do with quality and the growing region it comes from, as well as how it was produced.
As we mentioned, now not all Sulawesi coffee is equal. The coffee that is grown in Southern regions in less ideal conditions and with less oversight runs much cheaper than higher quality Sulawesi coffee that originates from mountainous regions.
Higher quality Sulawesi coffee can run upwards of over fifty cents to nearly a dollar and fifty cents per ounce. The lower end is about as low as you should go. Keep in mind that a good deal is not always a good deal–especially true in the case of Sulawesi coffee.
How can I detect if my coffee is defective?
Ideally, with these tips, you’ll only receive high-quality Sulawesi coffee. However, there is a way to tell if the coffee you purchased is defective, especially if you were to purchase green beans or unroasted beans. It can even just be helpful to know whether or not your coffee is fresh.
For Unroasted Coffee Beans:
A method popular among professionals is called cupping. Cupping actually is most commonly used during the roasting process, to make sure the roast is as optimal as possible, but when beans are still green, it can also be used to determine defects. Minor or even serious flaws to the coffee cherry can result in anything from a loss of flavor to more serious issues, like mold. Cupping is simply examining the coffee on a very close level and can be done if you roast the beans yourself. Sniffing the coffee, and test tasting reveal basic aroma and flavor profiles. At this early stage, it is easy to tell if there are major defects, but it’s hard unless you’re an expert. The best coffee has gone through a process like this to protect against Quaker coffee beans, sour beans, or even moldy beans.
However, most likely you’ll won’t be roasting yourself, and even if you do, it might be difficult to detect these variations. What you can do more easily is examine the coffee bean appearance. Defects during the processing of the bean are common, especially if the place where the coffee beans are being processed is not properly maintained, but also due to error and natural flaws.
The very best Sulawesi coffee should be free of the following common defects:
- Fragmented beans, which indicate a damaged bean whose aroma may be impacted
- Brownish-red interior color, when you split the coffee bean, which could mean it is sour.
- A medicinal smell when cut means it was grown in poor soil
- Any visible mold, which is likely due to not drying completely after wet processing
- Yellowish brown or faded beans indicate either overheating and or improper storage
If you see any of these defects mentioned above, you should contact the company, and if it’s widespread, plan not to purchase again. Luckily, the best Sulawesi coffee goes through a rigorous process of inspection that should safeguard against major defects. Wet processing protects against some defects, but it also makes coffee more susceptible to mold. A good rule of thumb is to inspect your coffee before drinking, especially if it’s coffee you are ordering online and have never purchased before.
Why the Roast Date is Important:
Our final piece of advice admittedly applies to any coffee beans you purchase, but we must stress the importance of roast dates. Think of roast dates as you would a best by a sticker on food or beverages. While it won’t harm you to drink coffee past the roast date, you won’t be getting the freshest coffee possible. But this is especially important after you open the package. One the package is exposed to air, the degassing process begins, where the coffee beans release carbon dioxide. If not sealed properly, it only takes about a week for those coffee beans to go stale. If you make every effort to research and then purchase the best Sulawesi coffee beans possible but neglect to mind the roast date and proper storage methods than you will likely be disappointed with the results.
What is some of the best Sulawesi Coffee that I can purchase online?
While it’s ideal to be able to inspect coffee beans in person, it’s also often not realistic, especially if you’re looking for something a bit less usual than what is normally offered in stores in the United States. Here are a few of our picks for some of the best Sulawesi coffee you can purchase online:
The origin of this coffee is right in the name, as is the preparation. Coffee is directly packaged upon roasting, and the company uses a slow roast method for fuller and more even flavor. They come from Celebres, the ideal coffee growing region, and feature a rich, dark roast. The flavor and aroma profile is described as earthy, with a heavy body, sweet and spicy notes, with a chocolatey aroma.
These unroasted beans are also from Coffee Bean Direct and offer the more seasoned the chance to roast their own coffee beans. Like our pick mentioned above, these coffee beans also hail from the ideal growing region and are tightly sealed for optimal freshness.
This coffee, produced by Volcanico Coffee, features Celebes Kalossi whole beans with a medium roast if you want a slightly lighter take. It also has a heavy body and creamy texture but is lighter and less pungent than other varieties. Volcanico Coffee as a whole focuses on third wave coffee, where attention is paid to single origin coffee, but also to transparency around the entire processing and production process.
This is a nice option if you’re looking for a smaller bag, which can be hard to find. The two-pound bag features single-origin Toraja coffee, which is slightly different, but still mountainous growing region. It also has a slightly different aroma and flavor profile, described as light in acidity, full-bodied and smooth, with notes of ripe fruit, cinnamon, dark chocolate, and a pleasant aftertaste.
This second green coffee option rounds out of a list and also is a direct trade coffee, which might be appealing to many invested in third wave coffee. It is grown in the Toraja region, but it is manufactured in the United States, though customer reviews are mostly positive. It also holds the classification of Grade 1 coffee, or the highest grade coffee available.