Leo and his wife Lisa have been living and working in Sumatra for years. Their accomplishments in this coffee growing region have been important for both local farmers and for Five Senses. Leo was born and raised in Sumatra, before migrating to the US as a young boy. Several years ago, they returned as a couple to Leo’s home town to establish their own organic farm in Mariah Dolok, Simalungun. They have worked extensively throughout the agricultural coffee chain via the Simalungun mill, establishing mill procedures and overseeing the building and management of the facility. Making the transition from an established life in the USA to becoming organic farmers in Sumatra is no easy task and that they have managed it so well is testimony to their adventurous and hardworking spirit! Lisa and Leo show true passion for Sumatran coffee, the people and their own organic farm. Their coffee philosophy is closely aligned with that of Five Senses. This formed a network of trust in an otherwise shifting coffee producing region, enabling us to support this mill with the utmost confidence in both the quality of the product and the background ethical trading practices. This blog will introduce you to some specific Sumatran coffee history plus provide detailed information on the five most common varieties found in this growing region. I hope you enjoy Leo’s blog.
The highlands of Simalungun in the Lake Toba region of North Sumatra are both blessed and cursed by their exotic beauty, altitude, climate — and with having the perfect soil for Arabica coffee. We tend to count the blessings of growing coffee here, rather than the curse (about which I will elaborate later). The upper Simalungun highland lies between 1,200 to 1,700 m above sea level with the majority of Arabica coffee farms at 1,500 masl. Although it still lies within Indonesia, the province of North Sumatra is in the northern hemisphere, while the rest of the coffee-producing islands are in the southern hemisphere. A local micro-climate is created by Lake Toba, which means the region is classified as a ‘type A’ climate for agriculture in Indonesia. This means it receives at least 2,500-3,000 mm of rain per year, and has a ten month wet season and only two months of dry season — all of which is ideal for natural irrigation farming practices.
The soil here is dark and volcanic and both the ample top soil and a pH level of between 4.5-5.5 mean it is ideal for growing Arabica coffee. Nature provides plenty of organic material which when supplemented by organic fertilization (manure compost), creates ideal conditions for growing Arabica coffee. All of this means that this is a ‘perfect Arabica coffee growing region’ regardless of the varietal planted here. Yet these bonuses create another issue or ‘curse’. Coffee grows so well that it produces crops all year round. Despite the two distinct peak harvesting seasons of spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November), coffee trees here yield a harvest all year round. It is very common to see flowers, buds, green cherries and ripe cherries on the same tree, or even on the same branch! Farmers here therefore need to harvest all year round, which means there are increased overheads. The majority of farmers adhere to the agricultural practice of ‘planting and forgetting’ when it comes to growing coffee. Hey, if it grows on its own with no fertilizer or pruning and yields coffee cherries despite neglect, then all you have to do is harvest, right? All of these factors are directly responsible for affecting the sustainability of coffee in the region, including the impact made by pests and disease.
The first coffee Arabica seedlings in the region were transported by the Dutch government to Batavia (Jakarta) and planted in Java. It was not until 1888 that Coffea Arabica was grown near Lake Toba in North Sumatra.
At the start of the 20th century, all the Arabica coffee plants were devastated by the coffee leaf rust (CLR) disease. Coffea Canephora (Robusta) plants were then planted to replace the Arabica as they had a higher resistance to CLR. However this was not without issues, as the cupping results were somewhat unpalatable in comparison with the results from the Coffea Arabica. Most of the Typica varietal was lost to the CLR disease, however some of the Typica varietal (which was planted at high altitudes in North Sumatra) survived and can still be found growing there today. In the 1920’s, Hibrido De Timor (HdT), a natural cross between Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora (Arabica and Robusta) was found on the island of Timor. HdT has genes which are resistant to coffee leaf rust, nematodes and coffee berry disease (CBD). The discovery of HdT played a significant role in the development of modern day coffee varietals and coffee research. Although many varietals exist today, both the Typica varietal and Bourbon varietal (a natural mutation of Typica cultivated on the island of Bourbon/Reunion island) are believed to be the source of other Arabica varietals. Based on the historical origin of Coffea Arabica cultivars, the Typica and Bourbon varietals demonstrated important differences. The young sprout leaves of the Arabica plant are either bronze or light green; bronze for those cultivars with a Typica origin or dominant gene, and light green for the cultivars of Bourbon origin or with that dominant gene.
Most of the varietals which are planted in Simalungun (with the exception of the old Typica) were brought to Simalungun by farmers from the Gayo Highlands in the Central Aceh region or Aceh Tengah. Thus, when asked, farmers would refer to the varietal(s) simply as Ateng (A-ceh Teng-ah). The Indonesia Coffee and Cocoa Research Institute (ICCRI) also introduced a semi-dwarf varietal in the mid-90’s called Sigarar Utang which was aggressively planted in the Gayo Highlands (in Aceh Province.) This too made its way to the Simalungun region of North Sumatra and, back then, there was a famous dwarf comedian whose name was Ateng — so the name stuck.
This varietal blog is being written as a casual, informative guide to the varietals which are common in Simalungun, keeping in mind that there are many variables in character and appearance which could change based on environmental factors. For instance, the same varietal will have a noticeable difference in leaf size depending on the level of shade the plant receives. Plants which grow under a sufficient amount of shade from trees will have wider leaves in comparison to plants which grow under light or no shade. This also leads to significant differences in colour.
With that in mind, let us explore the varietals which are most common in the Simalungun region and thus those coffee plants which contribute directly to the wonderful sensorial characters in your cup today!
Local variety name: Jember
Variety lineage: a Kent varietal from India, crossed with Typica
Brief history: the Jember varietal (or S795) was introduced in 1955 to the Jember Research facility (ICCRI) as a selection cultivated by the India Coffee Research Station. This varietal was originally released in the 1940s in India and created by crossing the Kent varietal and the S288 selection varietal. The S288 is the first generation of S26, which is a natural hybrid between Coffea Arabica and Coffea Liberica from the Doobla Estate in India (other natural hybrids were also discovered in Kalimas and Kawisari in Java, Indonesia).
Distinguishing physical characteristics: the Jember varietal is a tall growing plant with quite wide, dense foliage and very active primary branches. The vigorous secondary growth makes it look as if it grows in a wild and disorganized fashion causing the main stem/trunk to be invisible from the outside. The young sprout/leaves are golden brown/bronze, and the leaves are rather narrow and pointy with a wavy edge. The plant starts flowering 15-24 months after being transplanted, and flowers start to appear at the beginning of rainy/wet season. The plant will flower all year round. Pinhead stage cherries start to appear 1-2 months after flowering, producing between 12-20 cherries per node on the primary branches and fewer on the secondary and tertiary branches. The young cherries are green and the ripe cherries are red. The disc of the cherry is flat and quite wide, while the cherry itself is round and ripens within 5-8 months, although not uniformly. The coffee beans are quite large in size (although not uniformly so), and growers can expect a yield of 15.7% of green beans from the weight of cherry.
Performance: the Jember varietal is known for good productivity and can yield between 1-1.5 tonnes of green beans per harvest season from a density of 1,600-2,000 plants per hectare. This varietal has good resistance towards CLR (coffee leaf rust).
Jember has an excellent cupping profile and does not exhibit any Liberica characteristics. In Indonesia, the Jember research facility have used this varietal for up to eight generations (even crossed back to Typica) because of its rust tolerance and cupping quality. It is an excellent variety in East Java, and even more so in Sumatra.
Local variety name: Usda.
Variety Lineage: original Arabica from Ethiopia, Typica.
Brief History: Usda was introduced to the Jember Research Facility in 1956 by the United States Department of Agriculture. 762 is short for 230762, which was the inventory number assigned by USDA for the plant. Under the Plant Inventory No. 163 dated July 28, 1964 and titled ‘Plant Material Introduced January 1 to December 31, 1955 (No’s 222846 to 230876)’ it was determined that USDA762 was part of a collection of seeds gathered by Jean B.H. Lejeune (Food & Agriculture Organization of the UN, Addis Ababa) from the Mizan Tafari region (elevation 1500masl) of Ethiopia. The seeds were received on December 20, 1955 at the Plant Industry Station in Beltsville, Maryland, USA. The interesting fact is that the Geisha varietal was discovered in Abyssinia (south western Ethiopia) in 1931 in the Mizan Tafari region. Thus there is a real possibility that the 10 plants of USDA762 which were received in Bogor (Buitenzorg), West Java and which were later planted in Kalisat, Ijen Plateau by the Jember research facility are actually the Geisha varietal. (The physical characteristics of both plants are similar). The Jember Research Facility did further testing (for example, on generation selection going as far back as to Typica) and the seeds made it to the Gayo Highlands in Aceh and North Sumatra.
Distinguishing physical characteristics: it is a tall plant which branches out sideways. The stem and branches grow fast and are brownish in colour, exhibiting a regular, orderly growth. The young sprout/leaves are golden brown/bronze and the leaves are wide with a narrow edge and rather distinct or conspicuous veins. The first flowers appear 32-34 months after the plants are transplanted to the farm and flowering starts at the beginning of the rainy season and follows a regular pattern. The pinhead stage cherries appear 1-2 months after flowering and there is a 6-10 cm distance between nodes, with 12-24 cherries forming per node. The young cherry is matte green and has a rather long, narrow disc with a distinct shape which is referred to as a ‘goatie’ feature when it’s green. However this disappears as the cherry matures into a burgundy, red colour and a round shape. The cherries ripen in uniform fashion within 6-9 months. The beans are also uniform in size and quite long, with one narrow end. They yield about 16.6% of green beans from the cherry.
Performance: this varietal is productive and can yield between 800kg-1.2 tonnes of green beans per harvest season if planted with a density of 1,600-2,000 plants per hectare. The plants are somewhat resistant towards CLR (coffee leaf rust). They are, however, susceptible to nematodes and need shade trees. This varietal has an excellent cupping profile.
Local variety name: Onan Ganjang
Variety lineage: natural cross of S795 with Bourbon*
(*The original heredity of the cultivar is not known. However, based on the young sprout/leaf colour, it is a hybrid of Bourbon or that is the dominant gene. Or it is a mutation of S795 based on the more dominant Bourbon gene, Kent varietal).
Brief history: in the late 80’s, coffee farmers in Lintong discovered a natural hybrid/mutation varietal in the Onan Ganjang village. The farmers then started planting this hybrid on their farms all over the Lintong Nihuta region. The varietal then made it as far as the Simalungun region.
Distinguishing physical characteristics: this is a tall growing plant and with wide, dense foliage and very active primary branches. The secondary branch growth makes it look as if it grows wild, causing the main stem/trunk to be invisible from the outside. The young sprout/leaves are light green and the leaves are rather narrow and pointy with a wavy edge. The plant starts flowering about 15-24 months after it has been transplanted to the farm and flowers appear at the beginning of rainy/wet season. The plant produces flowers all year round. Pinhead stage cherries appear 1-2 months after flowering, producing between 12-20 cherries per node on the primary branch and fewer on the secondary and tertiary branches. The young cherries are green while the ripe cherries are red. The disc of the cherry is flat and quite wide while the cherry itself is round and ripens within 5-8 months, but not uniformly. The beans are quite large in size, although not uniformly so, and the plants yield 15.7% of green beans from the weight of cherry.
Performance: this varietal is known for good productivity and can yield between 1-1.5 tonnes of green beans per harvest season if it is planted with a density of 1,600-2,000 plants per hectare. This varietal has good resistance towards CLR (coffee leaf rust).
Onan Ganjang has an excellent cupping profile with classic Sumatran flavours. It produces clean tones, but is not as herbal as Lintong coffee. However, Onan Ganjang is fruity and herbal with a nice complexity, brightness on the acidity and a syrupy body.
Local variety name: Sumatra Typica
Variety lineage: a Bergendal’related varietal which survived coffee leaf rust disease
Brief History: in the 17th century, coffee plants from Yemen were introduced to Indonesia by the Dutch. They were initially planted in Batavia (Jakarta) and Buitenzorg (Bogor) in West Java. Coffee plantations were established in East Java, Central Java, West Java, in parts of Sumatra (Aceh and North Sumatra) and also Sulawesi. This cultivar developed into three main Typica varietals: Bergendal/Sumatra Typica (for those varietals which were planted in Sumatra), Java Typica (which was planted in West Java and Central Java) and Blawan Pasumah (BLP, which was planted in the Blawan Pasumah village on the Ijen plateau in East Java). Disaster struck in the late 1800’s when the coffee leaf rust disease swept through Indonesia, wiping out most Typica varietals. However, some of the Typica varietals which were planted at high altitudes in North Sumatra survived and can still be found there today.
Distinguishing physical characteristics: Sumatra Typica is a tall growing plant reaching 3.5-4m in height. It has lateral branches which form 50-70° angles with the vertical stem forming a conical shape. The leaves are rather small and narrow and the young sprout/leaves are golden brown/bronze. During the rainy season, the plant has dense foliage. However, during the dry season most of the foliage falls off due to the coffee leaf rust disease. The plant starts flowering 48-52 months after transplantation. The pinhead stage cherries appear 1-2 months after flowering and the maturation of cherries is slow, taking 8-12 months, with one peak harvest season per year. The ripe cherry has a muted red colour and the beans are long with narrow ends. The expected yield is 15.4% of green beans from the weight of cherry.
Performance: Sumatra Typica has a low yield of 750kg-1 tonne of green beans per harvest season when it is planted with a density of 1,600-2,000 plants per hectare. This varietal has poor resistance towards coffee leaf rust disease and needs coffee shade trees. However, it has an excellent cupping profile being fruity and herbal with a long aftertaste, a very complex acidity and a big body.
Local variety name: Ateng, Ateng Jaluk, Sigarar Utang.
Variety lineage: Tim Tim (HdT hybrid), natural cross with Bourbon type varietal
Brief history: in 1980, the Agricultural Department created a coffee nursery at the Juli Angkup intersection in Aceh Tengah (Central Aceh). The plant(lets) were given to farmers in the Jaluk village, to be planted in farms which already had existing Typica and Bourbon varietals (e.g. those which originated from Burni Bius and Belang Gele, two of the original five Dutch Arabica Coffee Plantations). One farmer, Tengku Ibrahim Aman Samsir, noticed that one coffee plant was different to the others he had planted. It was a small plant, and had only been in the ground for two years, but it already produced lots of cherries and was high yielding. It was noticeably different to his other coffee plants which took three years to flower. Tengku Ibrahim started propagating this one plant, which he thought of as a ‘super varietal’, planting lots of this varietal in the same field. Farmers working around him started noticing the ‘super varietal’ and asked for seeds and plantlets. In 1987, the story of Ateng Jaluk’s high yielding coffee spread all over the Gayo Highlands region, and the name Ateng was given to the ‘super varietal’ by farmers when they asked for the seed. (This name was given because of a famous dwarf comedian called Ateng, and they drew parallels with the dwarf size of the plant). By 1988, the majority of coffee farmers in the Gayo Highlands of Aceh Tengah/Central Aceh, Takengon, Bener Meriah and Gayo Lues regions had planted this new varietal. Since the varietal yielded a crop after only one year in the ground, most farmers were able to repay their debts sooner. (Thus it is called the Sigarar Utang varietal — meaning you can repay debt sooner). The discovery of the Ateng Jaluk varietal has been pivotal for the Jember research facility in developing the Sigarar Utang varietal (which is also known as Ateng Jaluk Catimor selection). In 2005, the Ministry of Agriculture issued an official letter no: 205/Kpts/SR.120/4/2005 endorsing the Sigarar Utang varietal for coffee farmers in Indonesia. It is now being planted in Java, Bali, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Sumatra.
Distinguishing physical characteristics: Sigarar Utang is a semi-dwarf plant with dense foliage. The young sprout/leaves are golden brown/bronze and the leaves are rather narrow and pointy with a wavy edge. The plant starts flowering 12-18 months after being transplanted, flowers start to appear at the beginning of rainy/wet season and flower all year round. Pinhead stage cherries appear 1-2 months after flowering. It has a high coffee yield. There is only a short distance of 3.5-5cm between nodes and they produce between 16-24 cherries per node on the primary branch (but fewer on the secondary and tertiary branches.) The young cherries are green and the ripe cherries are red. The cherry disc is flat and quite wide, while the cherry itself is round and ripens within 5-8 months, but not uniformly. The beans are quite large in size, although not uniformly so, and this cultivar yields 15.2% of green beans from the weight of cherry. After 10 years, the beans become smaller in size and yield less, thus rejuvenation is necessary.
Performance: this cultivar is known for good productivity and can yield (on average) 1.5 tonnes of green beans per harvest season if planted with a density of 1,600 plants per hectare. It has good resistance towards CLR (coffee leaf rust).
Sigarar Utang has a good cupping profile with classic Sumatran flavours. Although it produces clean cups, it is not as herbal as Lintong coffee. However it is fruity and herbal with a nice complexity on the acidity and a syrupy body.