MoreCoffee! in Sumatra - 2007, Part 1

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Casey arrives - exhausted but ready to cup some coffees

Getting to Sumatra was a bit of a challenge, but nothing I couldn't handle. You can't get to Medan in Northern Sumatra directly from San Francisco, so I flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and had a 6 hour layover in the airport. I was beat from the flight over (I can never sleep on airplanes) and needed some rest. Getting a hotel would have required going into Kuala Lumpur proper and that would have taken close to an hour each way...not including the time needed to find a place. So I instead opted to set up camp on the terminal floor.

Hey - that's what iPods are for!

Five hours later I was refreshed and anxious to catch my connecting flight to Medan, the "capital" of Sumatra. A short flight later (Medan is less than 40 minutes from Kuala Lumpur) I was in Sumatra. I walked off the plane and was smashed by a wall of humidity and heat. Let the sweating begin!

After sorting out my Indonesian Visa (the application process entails forking over $50 and getting a full page sticker in your passport with your name on it), I was greeting outside the airport by my host, a really easy going Polish guy by the name of Dariusz from Volkopi. He helped me get booked in my hotel and shortly thereafter took me to his office/coffee warehouse in the city.

What an awesome facility! His operation includes a huge house/mansion with rooms for his office staff, a full sized coffee warehouse for storing his coffee, drying patios for drying newly arrived coffees, a really nice garden, a fully equipped cupping lab, and housing for the coffee sorters and warehouse employees. The whole place functioned like a well oiled machine and was its own self contained unit. So cool!

How coffee people bond

One thing you need to understand about coffee people: we are all keenly aware that we are where we are because of the humble coffee bean. We don't spend much time talking when we first meet. That comes later. The first thing we do is sample coffee together (called "cupping" in the industry). Conversation comes later.

This particular day was no exception. Upon my arrival, coffees were roasted, ground, samples measured out into small glass cups and steaming hot water was dumped over top. We waited around and made small talk while the coffee steeped.

Then we dug in. If you have never cupped coffee or don't know entirely what it entails, I'd suggest taking reviewing a tutorial to get familiar with the process: . The coffee was spectacular and we spent several hours talking about it.

Dariusz, the manager of Volkopi Indonesia is a man with a vision. He wants to export only the highest quality coffee Sumatra has to offer.

This is actually quite a challenge in practice: Many farmers and producers simply don't understand proper processing techniques. He must educate them. He is having an educational facility built in the Lintong / Lake Toba coffee region to educate farmers and teach them about quality coffee and how to produce it.

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He is also very strict with quality control. Every lot/batch of coffee is cupped and approved. He will only accept the highest quality from his producers - and must reject lots of coffee that don't stand up to his standards. Volkopi goes the extra mile with its Producers, however. If they reject a Producer's coffee with whom they have a relationship, they will work with that person to help them get their quality up to spec. This may entail instruction, consulting, interest free loans, or other forms of assistance. Volkopi most definitely wants a win-win for everyone, including the eventual consumer.

*Little known fact* Sumatra as a coffee producing region simply can't supply enough coffee to meet the world's demand for the stuff. Prices are going up and nearly everything ends up getting sold...even the low quality stuff. Scary, huh?

Yet Volkopi insists that the only way forward is to focus on the high end stuff and teach farmers how to consistently produce high quality coffee - even if it means Volkopi won't export as much as competitors. They rest assured, however, that their Sumatra exports are the best in the world.

And they are. I've found this through cupping their samples I've received in the US and I've also found it by cupping a much larger sampling of their offers at their facility in Medan. The great thing about their coffee is the consistent complexity and brightness of it. If I were to sum up some of the descriptors I've used for Volkopi's Sumatra in the past into one description, I'd say something along the lines of:

"Spicy, complex, sweet, with woody / fresh and mild tobacco leaf and extremely floral in aroma. In flavor, everything that's there in the aroma is present and a whole lot more. The wood notes take on hints of redwood, cedar and pine. There is a subtle shadow of earthiness but not quite. More "earthen" than anything else - lots of chocolate and macadamia nuts. There isn't a leather taste, but there is a flavor of how fresh Corinthian leather smells (if that makes sense). There is a light fruit dimension, like not-yet ripe strawberry; just a hint of tartness. Light+ / medium- acid lends nice balance to the medium body and livens up the cup. Some blueberry, papaya and mango hidden in there too. VERY complex!"

The coffee is simply fantastic and I'm confident that I could pick out Dariusz's coffee in a flash in a blind cupping from the aroma alone!

Intro - Sumatra Travelogue

Part 1 - Sumatra Travelogue

Part 2 - Sumatra Travelogue

Part 3 - Sumatra Travelogue

Sumatra Trip Pictures