The Mighty Grade 1 Mandheling

By Rob Stewart

I am often asked how I became a coffee roaster and I tell them that it was pure opportunity; but, if I really think about it, my passion blossomed the day I wrapped my lips around a cup of Sumatran Mandheling.

I had started a new barista gig with a boutique coffee roaster, but I was really just working to pay the rent while I went to uni. I didn’t care much about coffee until the day I had to acquaint myself with the single origins the roaster sold. So, my boss and I racked up some espressos and BANG! My palate went into overdrive!

We tasted Brazilian, Costa Rican, a Mexican, Nicaraguan, a Sumatran…espresso after espresso…and then he handed me this honey-like syrup. I tipped the cup and a bludge of crema oozed forwards wafting a pungent musty fragrance – I had never seen this type of crema consistency before – was this a Robusta? And so after one sip I was throwing it back, then extracting another shot! The flavours were so rich and aggressive, earthy and chocolate, the acidity was low but it had a wild, unbalanced nature about it that was quite addictive. So, over the next few weeks I ploughed through kilos of the stuff. My boss, obvious to my excitement said, “well if you are going to drink it, you can learn how to roast it”, and so it began.

Coffee in Sumatra can be found growing in the far north highlands at Lake Laut Tawar and in the central north at Lake Toba, below Medan where the lions-share of coffee is produced. Yet, unlike other coffee-growing countries, most Sumatran coffee is named, not after the region in which it is grown, but by the ethnic tribe that produces it. Hence Mandheling is named after the Mandailing tribe (correct spelling of the tribe) and Batak after the Batak tribe, which both harvest coffee all around the Lake Toba region. Bucking this trend, however, is coffee from Lington and Lake Tawar.

Grade 1 Mandheling in its raw form is like the ‘Elephant Man’ – the green beans are one of the ugliest and most uneven you will ever see, but you need to look past that to find its inner beauty. Therefore, the grading system is done by cup flavour and not appearance. 

When I first started roasting Mandheling coffee, I was told to take it right in to the second crack aiming for a dark roast profile as this would tame some of the defective beans and create a more even appearance. But I found that the beans would oil up and turn rancid too quickly for my liking, so I eased off a little and found the coffee tasted a little cleaner without the roasting flavours associated with dark roasts and had a greater shelf life.

I find that after a week from roasting and letting it rest, the Mandheling really comes out to play – the flavours are settled and the body thick and rich. You will find Mandheling in a lot of coffee blends, roasters like to use it to provide body and depth, especially in 100% Arabica blends where there is no Robusta. You could use just about any coffee to blend with the Mandheling – I like the Colombians for a bit more of the deep choc notes or even the Ethiopians, particularly the Yigarcheffe, for a really exotic and wild citrus pop.

The Coffee

Name: Grade 1 Mandheling
Location: Sumatra
Region: Central Sumatra, Lake Toba
Plant Type: Typica, Catimor

Cup Profile

Fragrance/Aroma: rich musty
Flavour: dark chocolate, earthy and spicy
Aftertaste: strong and long
Acidity: low
Body: creamy, thick

Rob Stewart started in the coffee industry in Melbourne well over a decade ago.  Rob has partnered a specialty coffee roasting company, which roasted several award winning blends and is now working with Ducale Coffee in Melbourne, roasting and overseeing barista training. Rob is also a coffee judge for the coveted Sydney Royal Fine Food Show.

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