Savor a Cup of Satisfying Sumatra Coffee

By:  Jerry M Stein

Full of legends and mystery, the history of Sumatra coffees is as mysterious and exciting as a cup of its delicious hot brew can be. First planted by the Dutch in the early 19th Century, these beans are known for producing a coffee that has a unique taste with a variety of subtle flavors. Grown in the highlands of Sumatra, one of the thousands of tiny islands of Indonesia, its coffee beans have unique flavors, which are attributed to the manner in which the beans were processed.

The coffee beans are marketed under the regional names where they were grown. For instance, Sumatra Lintong or Sumatra Mandheling, some of the finest traditional coffees, come from a small region just west of Lake Toba in the district of Lintongnihuta. Small farmers grow coffee on tiny plots of clay soil, scattered over high, rolling plateaus, thick with ferns. This coffee grows without shade and no chemicals are used.

After they are picked, the farmers remove the skins from the coffee cherries. Their backyard methods of accomplishing this task are quite picturesque; using rickety machines made from scrap metal, wood and bicycle parts. Then the beans are stuffed into woven bags to ferment overnight. The following day, the beans are washed by hand to clean off the remaining fruit pulp. Next, they are dried in the farmer’s front yard before going to a middleman’s warehouse, where they undergo more drying. Finally, the beans are loaded on trucks and taken to the coffee exporter at the seaport of Medan, where they are dried for the third and last time.牋牋

Beans from the Sumatra Gayo Mountain, the Aceh area, are less well known than the Lintong and Mandheling ones. These coffee beans are grown in a small mountain valley which surrounds Lake Tawar and the town of Takengon. They are grown in the shade and without any chemicals. The processing methods used here vary widely and have an effect upon the flavors. Some beans are processed by small farmers who use the traditional Sumatran method of washing them in the backyard. The coffee brewed from these beans resembles the Lintong and Mandheling coffees and are often sold by Medan exporters in Indonesia.

However, the Aceh beans that you are most likely to encounter in US coffee shops and sales, come from a large mill which uses a meticulous wet method for processing them. It follows international standards and is certified organic by a Dutch agency. These Gayo Mountain Washed beans produce a brew that is similar in flavor to the Lintong/Mandheling.

This mill also processes beans using a semi-dry method in which the outer skin of the coffee cherry is removed, leaving the beans covered with a sticky material. Next, they are sundried. These beans, marketed as Gayo Mountain Unwashed produce an excellent, full-bodied coffee, after roasting.

Experts on coffee say that the unique processing methods, as well as the three steps in drying the beans, have an effect upon the complex flavors of Sumatra coffee. Some coffee enthusiasts view Sumatra as one of the world’s finest, ideal for dark roasting. Since almost all of the beans from Sumatra are produced by small farmers, most are certified Fair Trade as well as Organic. Don’t overlook this excellent coffee when purchasing either ground or whole beans.

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