Sumatra Coffee

coffee beans

Sumatra coffee is arguably one of the most well-known coffees worldwide. Many adore it for its richness and smooth body. Others may not be a fan of its earthiness. Either way, Sumatra coffee has made an appearance in any coffee lover’s life!

This coffee also has a pretty epic history. Sumatra remains one of the biggest coffee production hubs over the past century. Such production comes with a fascinating coffee history. 

We got all the info you need to become a Sumatra coffee expert. From history to preparation, you will know all about this favorite coffee in no time. If you are short on time, scroll to the bottom of this article for 5 quick facts on Sumatra coffee!

The Land

Located in the Indian Ocean, Sumatra is part of the country of Indonesia, which is part of the Greater Sunda Islands. It lies right on the equator, which best explains its tropical climate. The island is broken down into 7 provinces. There is North Sumatra, Jambi, Riau, West Sumatra, South Sumatra, Bengkulu, and Lampung. 

Sumatra is plentiful in natural splendor. The beautiful Bukit Barisan mountain range is the backbone of the island. It is known by many as the ‘Andes of Sumatra.’ This mountain range possesses peaks as high as 12000 feet. Sumatra also has multiple active volcanoes. This gives the island exceptionally fertile volcanic soil.

The Sumatran adventure doesn’t stop with the volcanoes. Sumatra is home to a huge rainforest that is the biggest in Southeast Asia. This rainforest is an exceptional representation of healthy biodiversity. It is home to thousands of unique species, from pine trees to orangutans. It is also where you will find the tallest volcano on the island.

Sumatra is not all mountains and rainforests. The rest of the island consists of swampy plains, natural lakes, and rivers. The lakes are impressive and many are ancient. Lake Toba is possibly the most famous for its old age. It formed nearly 75,000 years ago, following a major volcano eruption.

We cannot forget that Sumatra is an island. This means beaches! Its coastline is just as stunning as you would imagine – white sands and lean palm trees. 

The People

The diversity of Sumatrans reflects the island’s large trade and colonial history. The majority of people practice Islam. This is a direct result of Arab merchants arriving on the island around the 8th century. These merchants were responsible for introducing coffee beans to the island. The plant itself did not reach Indonesia until the 17th century. Nonetheless, many ancient ethnic groups remain, possessing vibrant cultures. These can be seen through common art forms, like sculpture and theatre. Sumatra is also the birthplace of a unique type of martial art known as Pencak Silat.

The Batak people comprise most of the population in the mountainous region of Sumatra. They are ancient people who still remain the largest ethnicity on the island. Yet, there are subgroups of these peoples, who diversified their customs over many centuries. Therefore, Batak people are neither homogenous looking nor homogeneous in all social customs.

The History

The history of Sumatran coffee is complex and fascinating. Coffee beans themselves arrived at the island through Arab tradesmen. Yet, it was not until the Dutch set foot in Sumatra did the coffee plant first set its seed.

The Dutch East Indies are historic. This Dutch colony is now modern-day Indonesia. Beginning in the 1600s, the Dutch occupation brought several new things to the island. Coffee was one of the most monumental introductions. Not long after its planting, coffee plants produced enough to commence trade between Jakarta, Indonesia, and Amsterdam. This inclined the Dutch to continue to plant across the island. One site that yielded amazing quality beans was around Lake Toba. The rich volcanic soil and moderate altitudes created an oasis for Arabic beans. All this agricultural investment resulted in Sumatra entering into large-scale production of coffee by 1884.

Quick fun fact:

Ever heard of Java? Well, the name java gained notoriety as the Dutch shipped most coffee beans in Indonesia from the island of Java!

Sadly, in 1876, a devastating disease wiped out a majority of the heirloom plant originally brought by the Dutch. This resulted in replantings of robusta, a more disease-resistant coffee species. This also led the way to more widespread coffee plantings since robusta thrives at lower altitudes than the Arabica species. 

Coffee plantations were and remain operated by small scale farmers. Unfortunately, during Dutch colonial occupation, these farmers were involved in an oppressive labor system. Rarely rewarded for their work, coffee farmers dealt with heavy taxes. This left many unsettled across Sumatra and the rest of Indonesia. This reflected the growing nationalism in all of Indonesia. Throughout the Great Wars, this island nation experienced a great shift for overall freedom. Following backlash and a heavy revolt across the islands, the Dutch eased and the Indonesian federation was recognized in 1949.

Sumatra Today

Since the recognition and unification of Indonesia, the Sumatran coffee industry continued to develop due to the prestige of Indonesian coffee. Prior to its unification, Indonesian farmers began growing coffee as a cash crop. This opened the market to Indonesian farmers, uplifted their spirits, and supplied better income. Also, a history of coffee plantings across several unique locations gave diversity to Indonesian coffee beans. In particular, Sumatra’s volcanic soils and crazy high altitudes shined.

Today, most of the Indonesian coffee farms are small scale. Usually, these farmers produce other crops, with coffee being the breadwinner. This reflects the reigning global demand for Sumatra coffee. This demand keeps farmers thriving and able to support themselves. Their size also makes for mostly organic production. Pesticides are not only expensive but also pollute soil and rivers on the island. The government protects the rainforest as it is located across three national forests. This means that there is a top priority to maintain healthy ecosystems on the island!

The Coffee

Sumatra coffee is delicious. It is a combination of rich coffee and pronounced herbal notes. Sumatran coffee’s low acidity makes it super easy to drink. It lends it a smooth velvety texture that shines in a dark roast.

But, how does Sumatran coffee have such a soothing flavor profile? This all comes from the clean soil and natural processing of the coffee cherry.

The rich volcanic soils and high altitudes of the Central and Northern Highlands in Sumatra lead to some exceptional quality beans. For example, coffee plantations can be found around Lake Toba, which possesses incredibly potent volcanic soils. Mostly smallholder farmers operate these plantations, which are mostly organic. This means no pesticides or inorganic chemicals come in contact with the plants.

Photo credit: James Gagen

The inherently natural aspect of Sumatran coffee continues with its processing method. ‘Giling Basah,’ also known as wet-hulling, is how the famous green coffee bean emerges from the coffee cherry. This process is nearly all manual. First, the farmer depulps the cherry by hand or with a small machine. The remaining beans rest in a handwoven or plastic sack to ferment overnight. The following day, whatever is left on the coffee bean is washed off. Then, a broker will come to collect the beans and bring them to a warehouse. There, the beans’ parchment skin is removed and the beans are left to dry completely. This results in the classic Sumatra green coffee beans ready to be exported to roasters!

This wet-hulling process ultimately defines the flavor profile of Sumatra coffee. It extends the moisture life of the bean through multiple drying processes. Instead of evolving fruit flavors, this process gives a bean with earthy funk to it. It also lowers its acidity, which contributes to the coffee’s lovely mouthfeel.

The Best Preparation

Finding the best Sumatra coffee, and the brew to pair with it is easy. Many believe the Sumatra coffee tastes best as a dark roast. These coffee beans can handle the extra toast, as their acid is low and more roasting allows for deeper flavors to develop. It also pairs well with beans from volcanic soils that often have subtle smokey notes.

Sumatra coffee works fabulously for your everyday drip coffee. The mellow flavors of Sumatra do well with the dilution of your right-hand coffee maker. And, dark roasts typically have less caffeine, making it easier to consume in larger volumes.

As we promised, here are 5 quick facts about Sumatran Coffee!
  • It is one of the oldest origins of coffee in the world.
  • It is often grown around Lake Toba, an ancient caldera of a supervolcano that is 75,000 years old!
  • Its production consists of only 25 percent Arabica coffee beans
  • Nearly all Sumatran coffee is naturally processed with a method called ‘Giling Basah,’ otherwise known as wet-hulling
  • The primary flavor profile of a quality Sumatran roast is mostly earthy, with notes of herbs and mushrooms. Its body is smooth, with low acidity.
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