Indonesia is a huge coffee producer – the 4th biggest in the world behind Brazil, Colombia and Vietnam and ahead of Mexico and Ethiopia and exports some 7 million 60kg bags annually although only 10-15% of this production is Arabica.
For many years, the coffees form 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, Sumatra is commonly considered to be earthy and mushroomy. Yet the finest and freshest examples from these regions 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 coffees from Aceh Province (these coffees are loosely known in the commodity world as ‘Mandheling’) 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.
Most farms are small and range from around 1 hectare and rarely exceed 3 hectares, averaging around 1.44 hectares. On these small-holdings, coffee is rarely the sole crop but provides the main cash income for about 5 million people. There are very few estates or even growers’ co-ops.
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. The Batak people (a matriarchal society where many women are represented in the village markets with their produce) bargain hard and prices for semi-prepared coffee in the internal market are very high by equivalent Latin America and African standards. So, traceability is probably only possible (at least in North Sumatra and Aceh Province) to the village level.
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 familiar to the finest prepared lots and also the huge quality variance between best and worst as some coffee will surely be fermented if this process is too slow. Export grading preparation for the fine Arabicas is carried out by a legion of hand pickers who all receive at least the government minimum wage with many earning more than this with performance related bonuses.
As an importer of fine coffee from Indonesia, our choice of milling partner is absolutely crucial in order to safeguard the quality of the cherry from the various smallholders all the way to the quayside.
There are two crops a year in Sumatra and we ship a selection of coffees for arrival into the UK and US warehouses around December/January and June/July.