Under the Guidance of the Dutch East India Trading Company, coffee was planted in Sumatra in the late 1600s. Between 1602 and 1796, they sent almost one million Europeans to work in Asia trade, netting them more than 2.5 million tons of Asian goods. Coffee played an important role due to Europe’s ever increasing thirst for coffee. It is still an important commodity for Indonesia today.
Following the early success in Java, coffee was then introduced to Sumatra. It was initially grown in the northern region of Aceh around Lake Tawar. Today, it is also grown in the Lake Toba region to the southwest of Medan.
Throughout its history, Aceh has seen much civil unrest, most recently due to guerilla activity by the Free Aceh Movement. As a result, migrating farmers abandoned their farms to escape the unrest. Things started to turn around as the devastation of the Boxing Day earthquake in 2004 along with the tsunami focused international attention on Banda Aceh. An influx of aid managed to bring relative peace to the region, and now farms are being revitalised with new planting and pruning.
The arabica varietals planted in Indonesia were initially typica and bourbon. Typica is still the most common varietal found in Sumatra although there are also a few others that have been planted over the years, including Linie-S, caturra, catimor and hybrids of Rue Rue 11. The first Linie-S plantings came about when the coffee research institute in Java began looking for strains that were both disease-resistant and consistent in production. In an attempt to alleviate the swing in production from crop-to-crop, Linie-S was planted, a variety prized for its heartiness and minimal dieback; Robusta is also widely grown across the island.
The average farm size in Sumatra is small – just one to five hectares across the country – and different varietals can often be found growing together. Over the last 50 to 100 years this has led to hybridisation; natural crossbreeding has produced a variety known locally as Berg en Daal.
Sumatran coffees are mainly produced by a unique semi-washed process which is sometimes described as “wet-hulled” and is known locally as Giling Basah. In this process the coffee is picked, machine pulped (usually on the individual small holding) and then partly sun dried. The parchment is then removed revealing a whitish coloured, swollen green bean. The drying is then completed on the patio where the seed quickly turns to a dark green colour unique to Sumatra. This method brings about more body and often more of the character that makes Indonesians so unique and recognizable, with flavours ranging from deep chocolate to tangerine funk