Indonesia has been exporting coffee since 1711, when the Dutch East India Company sent its first shipment from Java to Europe. Nowadays it is a huge coffee producer – the fourth biggest in the world behind Brazil, Colombia and Vietnam, and ahead of Mexico and Ethiopia. It exports some seven million 60kg bags annually, although less than 25% of this production is Arabica.
We source the majority of our Indonesian coffees from the island of Sumatra, where we have been working with the same milling partner since 2004.
For many years, the coffees from this largest island in the Indonesian archipelago were known simply as either ‘Mandheling’ or ‘Lintong’. This told little of their provenance and even less of their rich and complex characteristics. Many buyers have become completely accustomed to an old, dull, musty character from their Sumatran coffees. Indeed, at their worst Sumatra’s coffees can be earthy, mushroomy and inconsistent. Yet, the finest and freshest examples can display complex herbal characteristics, a clean bright cup and a depth of flavour and weight of body that can rival a fine Colombian or Kenyan. And like Colombia and Kenya, Sumatra produces two crops a year. These are typically in May/June (fly crop) and Sept/Oct (main crop).
We source our Sumatran coffees from Aceh Province (these coffees are loosely known in the commodity world as ‘Mandheling’ for reasons few can recall or accurately explain); and from North Sumatra Province around Lake Toba (known as ‘Lintong’ after a small town to the south of the lake). Neither ‘Lintong’ nor ‘Mandheling’ should be considered anything close to an accurate name for these fine coffees any more than ‘Santos’ is a name for fine estate Brazils.
There are very few coffee estates or even co-ops in Sumatra. Instead, a huge number of smallholders - most farms average two hectares or less - sell small quantities of coffee at their local village market. On these small-holdings, coffee is rarely the sole crop but provides the main cash income for about 5 million people. These farmers - many of whom are women - bargain hard and prices for semi-prepared coffee in the domestic market are very high compared to Latin American or African standards.
Growers hand-pulp or (rarely) machine-pulp the coffee at their farm and may offer it for sale at the local village market or deliver it very wet (say, 80% humidity) to a collection station nearby. This is known locally as ‘Giling Basah’ (‘wet hulling’).
The mills have a network of local representatives in the growing areas that buy partially dried parchment, fully dried parchment, and part and fully dried green to varying degrees of preparation. Uniquely, Indonesia has developed hulling machinery to mill even 18% wet parchment – a very likely cause of the unique blue/green colour that can be found in some lots. It is also the likely cause of the huge quality variance between the best and worst lots - not least because some coffee will be fermented if the hulling process is too slow.
We have been working with the same milling partners for over six years to select only the pick of the crop Sumatran coffees. Our policy is simple - we have agreed that we will pay premium prices for first refusal on the very finest selections by cup and preparation. We have visited the mill in Medan several times now. It is clean, efficient, well-managed and staffed by a legion of hand pickers, all of whom receive at least the government minimum wage - with many earning more than this with performance related bonuses.
The island of Java – the name now almost synonymous with coffee – is also capable of producing some excellent specialty coffee. The island lies between Sumatra to the west and Bali to the east. Most of the island’s Arabica coffee is grown on five government owned estates, which together cover over 4000 hectares – Blawan (alt. Belawan, Blauan), Jampit (alt. Djampit), Kayumas, Tugosari and Pancoer.
These vast plantations are clustered on the volcanic Ijen Plateau in the east of the island, at around 1,370 metres (4,500 feet). They were established over 100 years ago by Dutch colonialists and then reactivated by the Indonesian government in the late 1950s, post independence. Arabica coffee has a long history on Java - it was first introduced on the island back in the late 17th century by the Dutch East India Company, which sent its first shipment from Java to Europe in 1711.
Javan coffees are usually fully washed, and known for their low acidity and heavy body. We select our Javans on the basis of their cup profile - we look for a hearty and rich cup, with a weighty mouthfeel, a full body, and some good flavour notes (often figs, dark molasses and clove..).