One of the stand out moments of 2010 for me was discovering the Sumatran Takengon whilst cupping at Market Lane Coffee. I then set out on a relentless campaign to convince Marwin and Tim to order a bag of green for us, ultimately succeeding and using it as the base of my blend in the Victorian Barista Championships. Between those times, however, an amazing opportunity was offered to me: a chance to go to origin, Sumatra, and see and understand this bean’s story.
For many Australians, Indonesia means Bali, and beaches. To me, Indonesia is now all about coffee and all those that have a hand in producing it. Fleur and I were lucky enough to meet some of those people from the very first day, arriving before everyone else and visiting the Sarimakmur processing plant and mill on the edge of Medan.
Most of these women are paid government mandated minimum wage to hand sort beans: in some cases, it’s one 60 kg bag of coffee, per woman, per day! This was also my introduction to some of the machinery used to sort coffee: for example, the colour sorter. It does exactly that: sorts coffee according to a pre-defined colour, within definable parameters, at an incredible speed. I also saw here the most coffee I have seen in my entire life (and this was only their robusta warehouse!).
Over the next few days, we visited farms and mills around the Lake Toba area on our way to Wahana Estate. One of the huge obstacles in gaining specialty grade coffee is traceability, and in an area such as this with most farms not exceeding half an acre, traceability starts at the mill which buys coffee from farmers and at markets, rather than at the farm level. Wahana Estate is an attempt to combat that, and was truly impressive: over 200 hectares of land they are experimenting with over ten different coffee varietals, to see which grows best in that environment, from Rasuna to Longberry to Catuai. They will soon obtain 300 hectares more to plant with those that succeed: growing what they believe will be Sumatra’s first true estate coffee. Wahana Estate is also home to a mill, and several civet cats. Whilst not meaning to offend our hosts, this was not an aspect of the industry I enjoyed seeing – luwaks kept in cages with coffee growing in with them, and coffee cherries being fed to them alongside other fruits.
It was then back to Medan in preparation for the 12 hour bus ride to Takengon, Aceh. In the day we spent there we visited many farms, slightly larger than those in the Lake Toba area, and small and large coffee ‘collectors’. A common sight in Sumatra was coffee from small farmers drying on the side of the road, in their front yards, on schoolyards, anywhere it would fit!
We were particularly impressed with the men at the Takengon warehouse managing to balance 60kg bags of coffee on their backs, loading it onto the truck destined for the Medan warehouse.
After that, it was back to Medan for a trip to Sarimakmur on our last full day (for those who missed out the first time) and a cupping at headquarters.
The Takengon was still my pick. This was an amazing trip for me, on which I learnt a huge amount. I’d like to thank our hosts, Mercanta for organising it, Fleur of MCM/Market Lane for offering a spot to Monk and being such good company, and to everyone at Monk for their support, and working extra hours to let me have the time off! I met and travelled with some inspiring people who have really reinforced my belief that the specialty coffee industry is truly an incredible industry to be a part of.
Part Two: What makes Sumatran coffees unique? And what is this processing, anyway?