I was recently asked to name my top three favorite coffees. Sumatra coffee is number one on my list. I have been a fan of Sumatra coffee for years. It is best serve as a dark roast but is also delicious as a medium-dark roast. I find this coffee to be elegant, fierce, and very complex. It is a difficult coffee to explain and there is a debate on the exact taste profile of this coffee. That’s because this coffee varies wildly in taste. It all depends on which region the bean is from and how it was processed. Adding to the complexity is the fact that this coffee is an Arabica bean but some varieties have been cross bred with Robusta. In short, Sumatra coffee is complicated to explain but crazy good.
Sumatra is an island in Western Indonesia. It is tropical, humid, and has high elevation on the northwestern part of the island making it a perfect location for growing coffee. Sumatra has a rich history having been visited by Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. There are many ethnic groups, languages, customs, cultures, and religions on the island. It is truly an anthropological paradise. Important to the island’s history is the introduction of Coffee by the Dutch.
Fun Fact: Indonesia is the 4th largest coffee producing country in the world.
In case you didn’t know, Indonesia was once a Dutch Colony. The Dutch smuggled coffee plants out of India in the 1600s and started to cultivate them on the island of Java. The cultivation and trade of coffee was so successful that the Dutch held a large share of the world’s coffee market. So much coffee came from Java that the word “Java” became an idiom for coffee. The Dutch began to cultivate Arabica coffee in northern Sumatra in the late 1800s. So now you know.
Fun Fact: Mocha is another idiom for coffee. Yemen was once a large coffee producing country and held a coffee trading hegemony for centuries. Yemeni coffee was exported from the port of Mocha. Hence the term “Mocha.”
What’s the deal with this complicated coffee? It has been described as Earthy, spicy, mushroomy, vanilla notes, cedar notes, smoky, herbal, heavy-bodies, low-acidity, and/or “funky.” This eclectic taste profile all depends on a variety of factors. These factors include the processing method and the region where the coffee is from.
Sumatran coffee is usually processed via the wet-hulled method. This type of processing is a popular in Indonesia. The locals call this method giling basah and it calls for removing the coffee fruit first and then to let the coffee ferment overnight to break down the mucilage. Next, the mucilage is washed off. The final product is a coffee bean that still has the parchment on it. This parchment will hold some moisture. It is sold like this to the mills where it is further processed to remove the parchment. However, the bean will still have a moisture content between 10 and 14 percent even after the drying process.
Another method applied is called the true wet-process. This name is misleading because what is actually being done is the dry-hulled process. This is when the coffee is dried out in the sun while still in the cherry. Once dried, the cherry fruit is removed from the bean. This process takes weeks to accomplish.
There are three main coffee regions in Sumatra. Commonly known is the Aceh region located on the northern part of the island. There are smaller areas in Aceh that also produce coffee. They are Takengon, Gayo, Bener Meriah, and Atu Lintang. Another renowned coffee growing region is the Lake Toba region, which is south of Aceh but still part of northern Sumatra. Within the Lake Toba region are the coffee producing areas of Sidikalang and Seribu Dolok. The third region is the Mangkuraja region in the southern part of the island. Each of these coffee-growing regions will produce different notes in your cup.
Sumatra coffee can be complicated. There are so many variables that can alter the taste profiles and the notes in your cup. Because of this, people debate the merits of a good cup of Sumatran coffee. Besides the taste profile, there are other factors that cause confusion, chiefly the misleading names that come with Sumatra coffee. Take the following as examples:
- Sumatra coffee is commonly sold as Sumatra Mandheling referring to the Mandheling region. But there is no Mandheling region. Mandheling is actually an ethnic group.
- Most of the beans origins are from Yemeni Arabica seeds called Djember Typica. But Djember is also the name of a completely different bean from Sulawesi.
Of course, I bought my own Sumatra coffee beans from my local roaster, Quartermaine Coffee. I grinded the dark roast beans and brewed them in my Chemex. Like I said, this is my favorite coffee. I try to keep some in the house at all times. The cup that I brewed was fantastic! The acidity level was low. There was definitely an Earthiness to it. There was an extremely subtle sweetness in the aftertaste but I only noticed this after my third cup. It had a predominately oak flavor reminiscent of high-end tobacco. The coffee was both regal and rugged, which made it a truly paradoxical cup of coffee.
Frankly, the paradoxical nature of Sumatra coffee is why I love it so much. I also enjoy the Earthy notes and the complexity in the taste profile spectrum. You never really know what you are going to get. You will certainly get a coffee that is delightful to drink and is somehow both intense and elegant. I recommend this coffee for espresso or for an afternoon “jump-start.” Try it! You won’t regret it!
If interested, check out my post about another amazing coffee – Ethiopian Coffee.
Clayton, Liz. What you Taste When you Taste Sumatran Coffee. Serious Eats. http://drinks.seriouseats.com/2014/04/sumatran-coffee-why-processing-matters-wet-hulling.html.
Hoffmann, James. The World Atlas of Coffee. 2014.
Luttinger, Nina and Dicum, Gregory. The Coffee Book. 2006. (Check out my review of this fun book).
Stephenson, Tristan. The Curious Barista’s Guide to Coffee. 2015. (Check out my review of this interesting book).
Sumatra. Sweet Maria’s Coffee Library.https://legacy.sweetmarias.com/library/content/sumatra-0.
Wet-Hulled Process. Coffee Shrub. http://www.coffeeshrub.com/shrub/glossary/term/732.