When someone tastes a Sumatra coffee their response is usually either very positive or very negative. The taste of Sumatra coffee is complex and earthy; they’re some of the most sought-after beans for signature coffee blends and single-origin coffees. Despite, or maybe due to, the rapid growth of Sumatran coffee in the global coffee market, there seems to be very few without a definite opinion on Sumatran coffee beans.
Silver Bridge Coffee’s Sumatra coffee is single-origin, quality-sourced Sumatra coffee beans locally roasted per order. Our Sumatra coffee is one of our best-selling single-origin roasts. It seems worth taking a peek at the history and properties of Sumatran coffee – at the very least, it’s interesting. And who knows – perhaps as we explore the facts about this coffee you will fall more in with Sumatra, or at least want to try Silver Bridge Coffee’s Harimau Tiger Sumatra.
Where Does Sumatra Coffee Come From?
Sumatra is the 6th largest island in the world and one of three major islands that make up the country of Indonesia. The other two islands are Borneo and Java. Sumatra’s warm, humid climate, which is tempered by the high altitudes, coupled with the island’s super-fertile volcanic soils, creates an environment perfect for growing fruits – and that includes coffee.
For a long time, Indonesian coffee was shipped out of the capital, Jakarta, which sits in the Northwest region of Java. Indonesian coffee beans became so popular that the term “java” became shorthand for “coffee.” However, this name was a misnomer – secretly, Sumatran coffee crop was the source of all this great coffee; the bags all said “Java”, and so it was called java.
What Is The History Of Sumatra Coffee?
Dutch colonials brought wild coffee plants from Ethiopia at the turn of the 18th century, building massive plantations that allowed them to start exporting coffee just a decade or so later. Indonesia was the 3rd place to start cultivating coffee on a widespread level, often on the volcanic slopes of mountains at high altitudes.
Coffee thrived in Sumatra’s environment; it quickly became one of the world’s largest coffee producers, and remains so. To this day, most Sumatra coffee is grown near Lake Toba, which is the largest volcanic lake in the world, and sits about 1000ft above sea level.
The Dutch coffee plantations were hit with disease in the late 1860’s and 1870’s and the coffee markets were decimated, and they were eventually abandoned. Here’s why that wasn’t a bad thing: Dutch plantation owners were abusive to Sumatran farmers, who lived in poor conditions with unfair pay and harsh treatment. The Dutch exit from Indonesia allowed Sumatran coffee farmers to split plantations up into small plots, where they controlled their own crop and their own pay.
Gradually, farming coffee in Sumatra made a revival, and today more than 90% of coffee is grown on smallholder coffee farms, which average around 2.5 acres in size. Fair Trade, top-notch coffee small-batch grown in Sumatra and small-batch roasted in Ohio by Silver Bridge Coffee’s artisan roasters – it’s a perfect fit.
An interesting (and awesome) fact about Sumatra’s coffee crops: over ¾ of Sumatran coffee farmers are women!
What’s so Special about Sumatra Coffee?
Okay, so we’ve established why coffee is the lifeblood of Sumatra’s economy. But why is Sumatra coffee so sought after by the international coffee market? The answer to this question is two-pronged: the environment is perfect for growing beautifully-flavored coffee beans, and the traditional method of Giling Basah processing takes the acidity out of the coffee.
Sumatra has three things going for it in terms of coffee-growing: the geology, the ecology, and the growing methods of Sumatran farmers.
- Sumatra’s geology: Sumatra is part of a subduction zone (read: where one plate is getting pushed underneath another). This process created the island and all the volcanic activity that has built up the island. As a volcanic landform, all of its soils are volcanic, which has created nutrient-rich, stable soils optimal for growing equatorial crops.
- Sumatra’s ecology: The high altitude of the landform works with the soil to cause a longer coffee-growing season and a longer window for harvest, allowing coffee bean fruits to develop a more complex flavor.
- Growing methods: Sumatran coffee farmers don’t use chemicals, which slows down the harvesting process, but ensures only mature beans are collected. Immature coffee beans have less dynamic flavor and tend to make a bitter coffee… the bad kind of bitter.
But the real secret sauce to Sumatra coffee is how the farmers process the beans after they’re harvested, and in turn, how an artisan roaster decides to small-batch roast the beans, which brings out the flavors the Giling Basah process added to the coffee.
How is Sumatran Coffee Processed?
Since its introduction in the 70’s, coffees in Sumatra are processed using a method called Giling Basah, or wet-hulling. Previously, the traditional water-wash and sun-dry methods were canon on Sumatran coffee farms. Nowadays, coffee beans in other places, such as Latin America, are processed by machine, sometimes with the help of chemicals, which is why the flavor the wet-hulling process brings out is unique to Sumatran coffee.
Wet-hulling is where the coffee fruits are de-hulled immediately after being harvested, while they’re still filled with moisture (hence the “wet” part). The beans are then left overnight in a sealed bag, which serves to slightly ferment the coffee. The next day, they’re put out to dry for a few hours, sometimes on raised screen beds, sometimes in the coffee farmer’s backyard. When the coffee is dry enough (around 14% moisture left), coffee importers/exporters procure and then ship the coffee in jute sacks on the way to their final destination at wholesalers and retailers (like us!).
Sumatra coffee is processed this way mostly due to the volatile tropical weather in Sumatra. In places like South America and East Africa, there’s a lot of time in the day to sun dry coffee. But Sumatran coffee farmers typically get 4 hours or less each day to dry the coffee. This leads to a bean with nearly 5x the moisture content of coffee that’s water-processed and sun-dried.
The unique Giling Basah processing method creates a coffee that’s very low in acidity, and has a distinct earthy – some would say almost mushroomy – flavor. The aroma of Sumatra coffee is kind of a woodland vibe, and there’s just a hint of umami at the finish, which is probably why those who love coffee from Sumatra, love it.
Choosing the Right Sumatra: Silver Bridge Coffee Company’s Roasting Methods
Silver Bridge Coffee works with our importers to get a delicious, full bodied, clean, single-origin Sumatra. There are so many delicious choices today, and we enjoy sampling them all, but we use Sumatra coffee beans in many of our blends when we want a smooth, mellow, full-bodied Sumatra-esque coffee blend. We love the lingering flavor of a rich Sumatra.
How a Sumatran coffee is roasted also has a lot to do with how it tastes once it’s brewed. Part of Sumatra coffee’s recent meteoric rise is due to this lighter-roast trend, but we think Sumatra coffee beans are best appreciated when roasted a bit more. We roast our Sumatra coffee just dark enough to bring out the rich flavor but still give you the unique flavor of its country of origin. One of the reasons we small-batch roast all our coffees locally is to do delicious beans like these justice.