MoreCoffee! Goes to Sumatra


Sumatra is a large coffee producing region/island in the country of Indonesia - a country known for having some of the world's most exotic coffees. As you probably know, Sumatra was hit by the earthquake / tsunami in 2004 and it did take quite a bit out of Sumatra's production capabilities in the north, but the Lake Toba / Lintong region is still running at full blast (it's more inland) and is barely able to keep up with the world's voracious demand of Sumatran coffee.

In August of 2007, MoreCoffee!'s Casey Cobb took a week-long trip to visit an exporter/importer we buy from. He documents his trip in this travelogue.
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But before we get on with the story...

It might be helpful to understand how Indonesian coffee arrives to your coffee house before we get into what Casey was actually doing in Sumatra.

Coffee is grown by a farmer with a crop size of typically about 50-150 trees. Each tree can produce 1-2 lbs of coffee a year so we are talking about relatively small lots of coffee. When harvest comes and the coffee cherries are red and ready to pluck, the farmer enlists help to harvest his coffee. He takes his crop, removes the fruit using a rudimentary pulping machine (see pictures of the one we bought for our store!) and dries the coffee for a few hours in the sun on mats or patios in his yard.

He then sells it to people called "collectors". Collectors buy small lots of coffee directly from farmers and sell them at the local markets to people called "Producers". Small farmers typically don't have the money for processing machinery or drying patios so Producers fill this gap by investing in machinery and people to properly dry the coffee. They buy coffee they feel is quality by gauging moisture, color, weight and general appearance of the coffee the Collectors are hawking at the market.

After a purchase, the Collector returns to her facility, continues drying the coffee on large cement drying patios. It is important to note that if the coffee is dried on porous mats or plastic, it can oftentimes take on a dirty flavor or over-earthiness. Cement drying patios are most definitely the preferred method of drying specialty coffee.

The drying process is very important and labor intensive because the coffee must be quickly collected and covered if there is a sudden shower of rain (a very common occurrence in Sumatra). If the coffee is allowed to get wet, you can end up with musty or mildewy coffee.

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Up until this point, the coffee bean is not yet a raw coffee bean as we know it. It is still in its "parchment" - a thick outer "shell" that protects the green bean inside. However, when the coffee reaches a certain level of moisture (the Producer knows this point from experience), she will put the coffee through a machine that removes the parchment. The producer will then continue to dry the parchment-free green coffee for a few more days.

At this point, the coffee is bought by exporters who will warehouse, grade and sort the coffee, send samples to overseas buyers, and eventually load up a 40 foot container full of coffee bags for export.

This is a very broad overview, but it will help you understand what Casey is talking about in his travelogue below.

So on with the show!



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!

MoreCoffee! in Sumatra - 2007, Part 2

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Dinner Time

The problem with spending a day cupping coffee is that you get very little to eat. You don't want to destroy your palate / taste buds with food so you end up either only eating bread or (usually) nothing at all. Needless to say, I was starving by the end of the day!

Dariusz and his team treated me to dinner at a classy Indonesian restaurant and we spent the evening talking, drinking, laughing, eating (with our fingers - so cool!) and getting to know each other. This is my favorite part of my trips - spending time getting to know the characters that make the coffee world turn.

Road Trip!

Dariusz manages the Medan operation, but his main man Eko handles the relationships with the farmers out in the field (in Lintong). The next day, Eko went shopping and loaded his 4x4 with food, beer, sodas and a random assortment of junk food. The plan was to give me a tour of the Sumatran countryside so I could get a better feel for their operation and how things operate in Sumatra.

I was particularly excited because Eko seemed to be the most congenial road trip companion with whom one could ever want to travel. After getting to know him better, I've come to the conclusion that I've never seen anyone smile and laugh more than this guy. He is extraordinarily patient, excited to both teach and learn - and meet new people.

If there are three things I love in life, they are road trips, people who like to laugh, and Sumatran countrysides. I was most definitely excited to head out into the bush!

The trip to Lintong was about 5 hours and was absolutely beautiful. It rains a lot in Sumatra so everything is brilliantly green. Also, things you don't normally see on the side of the road back home are normal in Sumatra. By "things", I mean mainly herds of water buffalo and monkeys. Yep - monkeys everywhere, just hanging out on the road sides watching cars go by.

Sumatra produces a lot of rice, so there are lots of rice patties and terraces stepping up the mountainsides. The Lake Toba / Lintong region of Sumatra is home to the indigenous Batak people and their architecture is very unique: houses are built to look a lot like water buffalo...a sort of curved or arched roof with a protruding "horn" in the front and back. Check out pictures below!

160 miles, four Pepsi's, 3 bags of chips and two candy bars later, we arrived in Lintong!

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Lintong is a pretty out of the way place. 50cc motorbikes and tractors are the main form of transportation and most of the roads aren't paved. Small coffee farms line the roads just about everywhere you go. Coffee is certainly a big deal in Lintong.

Eko operates out of a small house he and his team built in the country side. He is in charge of visiting local farmers and producers, checking out coffee quality at the local coffee markets, and spearheading initiatives that educate farmers about sustainable and quality coffee farming. He is in the business of relationships - the backbone of the coffee industry.

Over the next several days, I visited several coffee farms, spoke with lots of farmers, visited Producers and saw how they dry and grade the coffee, headed to several local markets to see the goings-on there and even ended up at an elementary school to help the kids practice their English (which entailed me getting up in front of several classes and letting them ask me a ton of questions!).

Pictures tell a better story than I ever could so I suggest perusing some of my photos. In the near future, I'll put together a step-by-step tutorial on how Sumatra processes its coffee.

After four days of visits and traveling around via 4x4, motorbike and boat, we returned to Medan just in time for my flight back home.

MoreCoffee! in Sumatra - 2007, Part 3

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A typical local "parchment" market

You are a parchment coffee buyer. You arrive at the parchment market.

People and cars are everywhere -- multi-colored tent stalls line the road and sell just about anything you could ever want to buy. The smell of fried bananas, ground coffee, and pungent spices fills your nose and there is a frenzied energy in the air.

Women with their babies tied to their backs rush by hauling rickety wooden carts of vegetables, furniture and raw meat. Tiny trucks deliver shipments of the pungent Durian and other fruits to stalls on their route. As you walk by, people enthusiastically cajole and playfully beg for you to come buy trinkets or food by the kilo from their stands - small children in matching school uniforms look at you and giggle at the out of place foreigner.

You skillfully dodge a motorbike-with-sidecar taxi that nearly just ran you over. Horns honk. People laugh.

You arrive at a parchment coffee stand and a jolly woman with a brightly-colored head wrap whips out her calculator and tells you how great her coffee is. You dig your hands into a barrel of parchment coffee, lift as much as you can to your nose and inhale the aroma.

What's it smell like? Is it sour? Is it fruity? Grainy? Fermented? Sweet?

What color is it? Is the typically hay-colored parchment too green? Mildewy?

How much does it weigh? What's the moisture content? Is there insect damage?

You negotiate a fair price and liter jars worth of coffee parchment are poured into a sack that you will take back to your facility for processing.

Changes afoot

I mentioned that Volkopi only buys and exports the highest quality coffee available in Sumatra. Specialty coffee shouldn't be earthy or mildewy, but typically an exception is made for Sumatran coffee by most consumers. This has been much more a function of necessity than choice (you simply couldn't find clean Sumatra coffee in the past). Over the past 20 years though, people have become accustomed to an earthy / musty Sumatran cup. Many people, including myself, find it quite pleasant and desirable to a certain extent.

However, as better processing techniques arrive to Sumatra, the overall cup profile of Sumatran coffee is becoming cleaner and less muddy. Some people still prefer the old school flavors - but we've generally found cleaner Sumatran cups to be more pleasant. Sumatran coffee will always have "earthen" flavors: nutty, chocolate, woody and spice notes with shadows of earthiness in the background but not explicitly perceptible - and we love this. As time progresses, expect to see less and less earthiness in the specialty Sumatran cup. This is merely a function of better and cleaner processing.
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Summing things up...

My experience in Sumatra was incredible. I was blown away by the friendliness and openness of everyone. I loved eating with my hands at restaurants too (75% of Indonesians eat with their hands and don't use any silverware). I loved the excitement of dodging chickens and piglets while riding down dirt roads in disrepair on a motorbike with only a rear brake. I loved the beauty of the countryside - and the action and colors at the local markets. I loved not knowing what was going to happen next.

I learned quite a bit about Sumatra and the diversity of its coffee and the challenges the country faces in meeting demand and improving the quality of its coffee.

Traveling in developing countries always takes quite a bit out of me...but the experience is always worth it when I look back on it. I can't wait to go back!


Casey Cobb was the Brand Manager of MoreCoffee! from 2006 to 2009. He had extensive experience in developing countries (he's traveled, lived, and worked in 25+!). In addition to traveling for the company, he did the majority of green coffee buying and cupping for MoreCoffee!. His palate, judgment and experience were a valuable asset to the company. Casey left to start his own company Park Circa where we know he will be successful! 

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