Several weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to travel with a group of coffee industry folk from all around the world to Sumatra. The team consisted of coffee professionals from many different areas in the coffee industry — a great way to mix, gel and learn different perspectives pertaining to the coffee requirements of business owners, roasters, baristas and green buyers.
This was my second trip to Sumatra (my other visit was back in 2008.) There was still a lot to learn! Sumatra is a beautiful, diverse and complex country — exactly like the coffees from this region. As with many coffee growing regions, there are also many hurdles to jump when trying to buy directly. Here’s a brief description of coffee trading in Sumatra.
Sumatra is a small holder coffee producer. Small farms which produce 4-8 bags at a time sell them to markets or local co-ops, receiving around $3-$3.50 per kilo for their coffee. The coffee is then processed using the Giling Basah method; the cherries are hand pulped, tub fermented in mucilage, semi-washed and then sun dried in parchment to around 17% moisture (but also sometimes a much higher percentage). Typically, Sumatran coffees are hulled in a semi-wet state which is known to reduce acidity and increase body. This process also tends to give the beans a unique bluish-green appearance. The small holder nature of the country means that coffee quality is very hard to keep consistent. Every farmer struggles with the elements as they try to control the processing stages. High humidity, poor transport and excessive rain are all factors which can have a negative impact on quality and consistency in Sumatra.
Once the coffee has been purchased from the small holders, it is then hulled, further dried, sorted and graded ready for export. Exporters have free licence to cup, blend and mix what they like to make cup profiles according to what a typical Lintong, Mandheling or Lake Tawar cup profile may be. With 98 varietals grown in Sumatra, you can see how this becomes a nightmare for traceability and consistency. The screening process tends to sort varietals into groups according to similarities in physical characteristics — such an imperfect way to do it, right? Throw in a mix of farms which received above average rainfall or higher humidity and what you get is a melting pot of flavours which can never be guaranteed to be consistent.
Much of the marketing in Sumatra is misleading and you can never really be sure you know what you are getting. Many exporters blend and mix regionally collected coffees to suit typical flavour profiles — names like Mandheling (the name of an ethnic group, not a region), Lintong and others are used as they are popular and recognisable. This is something that happens in many countries with many small holders (PNG also comes to mind) and is a simpler way for exporters to fill containers and large volumes easily. In many respects, it is almost unavoidable. Having said that, there are many other options emerging from Sumatra, with larger producers and more detailed exporters who are willing to segregate and reward farmers for their detailed work.
On this latest trip, we cupped lots of coffee; regional blends, co-operatives, micro lots, single varietals and… Luwak! All of which tasted completely different. Some were good, some great, some exceptional and the latter, um interesting! Many can be chosen purely on a philosophical level as there are exceptional coffees available from all the different supply methods (excluding the method known as a ‘treasure hunt’ — a farmer’s description of collecting Luwak poo). Cupping these different methods on one table gives amazing insight into the potential here and emphasizes the difference between commercial export blends, single farm lots and pure varietal types.
We are looking to get busy in Sumatra. We are exploring contacts to source coffee from the Wahana growing cooperatives who are regional leaders in providing consistency and quality. Most of you will already be familiar with Wahana types as we have had several come through the Backroom programme (unique, small lots that rotate regularly) — and most would agree that they have been excellent. Many of these producers are practicing fully washed methods which produce lower bodied, complex, sweet and balanced types — still distinctly Sumatran, but with less heavy vegetal tones. On the world stage, these coffees have become highly prized and sourcing is very competitive. With an increased presence on the ground from Five Senses, you can be assured that you will see some exciting options from this region coming up.
I will be heading back again in a few weeks and I look forward to sharing more of this coffee journey as we seek greater quality and traceability in this amazing coffee producing region.