Back in mid-December, we cupped a pre-shipment sample of Sumatra and were blown away -completely clean with syrup, toffee and milk chocolate notes and a touch of lemongrass (which really threw it over the top!) So seeing a January lull in my busy schedule, I inquired about a visit to the Takengon area of Sumatra (where we have been buying coffee for almost 20 years).
Three weeks ago, after a 32-hour journey, I deplaned in Medan, Sumatra and greeted with beautiful Southeast Asian heat and humidity. The sights of scooters and tropical forests, the sounds of horns, bustle, and Bahasa, and the smells of clove, durian fruit, and diesel all add to this mystical land.
First stop was the exporter who does the final preparation of coffee and also handles quality control, organic paperwork, and logistics. The company has a full-time Agronomist (Wendy) who is extremely knowledgeable about organic practices and is eager to share this with the farmers she works with. We cupped a table of all types of Sumatran coffee and I wowed their head cupper by pointing out which one ones were best and which one was the worst (sour). They agreed with my findings.We then visited their warehouse to see the organic separation, a new sorter they had installed and coffee being prepared for shipment.
Then it was back to the offices where we cupped the famous Kopi Luwak coffee – produced when the red cherries are eaten by a mammal called a Civet, digested, and ‘pooped’ as coffee. It is then milled and roasted. This coffee is known for being expensive. While interesting (and I’m always willing to try any coffee!) it is really a novelty; especially at around $100/pound.
From Medan we flew to Banda Aceh for solemn sightseeing. Banda Aceh is the area that was devastated by the Tsunami eight years ago. The strong community carries on with their daily lives of fishing and rice farming among other things, yet will always remember and be affected by the loss of property and life.
After a ‘no big deal’ 6.5 earthquake, we set off on an eight hour drive to the coffee areas. On the way up, we passed palm oil plantations and saw cocoa, rice, and tropical forest. Interesting to note: palm oil is being planted in great numbers to meet demand for cooking oil. Unfortunately, forest is being clear cut to make room for these plantations and, in order to rapidly increase yields, these trees are using up lots of fertilizer. A shame.
The first farm visit was in Bener Meriah, Central Aceh, in the outskirts of Takengon. Here we met with Muhti, Samson, and Gazadi. Gazadi has lived on the farm for forever and took over running it in 1992 (same year I started in organic coffee!). Gazadi’s farm is both organic and rainforest alliance certified. It is a small lot (1-2 hectares) that binds together either with other farmers in the region or who collectively sell to the local mill. The local mill partners with the farmers by assisting them in quality improvements, financing, organic certification, and organic practices. In fact their mill manager (Samson) knows each farmer and is very knowledgeable about what it takes to improve quality and yields. All of this has resulted in higher prices being paid for Sumatra coffee and for the farmers to receive direct benefit from these prices.
As always, being on a coffee farm and sharing thanks and gratitude with the growers is a powerful experience – pictures just do not do it justice. We then sat and shared coffee in Samson’s living room, barefoot and cross legged on the floor discussing organic, fair trade, and quality. (Reminded me of college!)
The next day we were in Takengon proper surrounding Lake Tawar. First stop was to a local mill where we once again tasted coffee. This one (that I originally loved in our pre-shipment!) had caramel/toffee notes. The gentleman there, Warzukna, was particularly proud of this coffee and we will be sure to seek it out.
Then we were off to meet with the co-op where we are currently getting our supply. As we drove slightly north of Takengon and entered the coffee areas, we could see the houses improve; a sure sign that these areas are benefiting from organic premiums.
The co-op, Anggota, is in the specific area of Blang Gele. Each of its 651 members have about one hectare of coffee. One hectare produces about 4 tons of cherry, 2 tons of parchment, 800 lbs of green and 600 pounds of roasted coffee. The cherry is used as mulch and organic fertilizer.
We thanked the co-op for their devotion to organic and to producing high quality which our customers truly appreciate. They responded kindly and were proud that they could provide healthy coffee to our consumers. The co-op has benefited from their premiums by being able to send their children to school, to build and improve their homes, and by living a better yet simple, clean, and organic lifestyle – which they all recognize as a better practice.
After the office visit, we spent time at a few of their farms. Simply stated, they were very powerful. It was so amazing to see all the little things that I talk about and know go on, but so often am removed from, in the day-to-day of running a business. Shade trees abounded filled with oranges, jackfruit, mango, banana, lamtoro, avocado, dadab. Beautifully enormous butterflies and dragonflies buzzed along. And down below the soil was a volcanic dark brown and littered with the fauna from the ‘shade trees’ ground cover that improve the moisture retention. Again, powerful.
We shared some laughs and enjoyed a few delicious oranges picked by Syarwan, the semi-retired farmer/owner. We said our goodbyes and watched Syarwan speed away on his Vespa. Man, that guy’s got style!
During another 8-hour drive down we were able to stop for some excellent breaks for food and coffee prepared in traditional manners. In one method, water is poured onto a powdery fine grind with sugar and the grinds settle into a mud on the bottom. In another, coffee is siphoned through a sock filter similar to a butterfly net, over and over. This is done with great fanfare & skill and must be seen to be believed!
After a long journey back to America we are ready for 2013!
Edit 4/28/2016: Here are links to our special Indonesian coffees: