Coffee was planted in Sumatra by Dutch colonialists in the late 1600s under the guidance of the Dutch East India Trading Company – or Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC). Between 1602 and 1796 the VOC sent almost a million Europeans to work in the Asia trade on 4,785 ships, and netted for their efforts more than 2.5 million tonnes of Asian goods.
With Europe’s ever increasing thirst for coffee at that time, this commodity played an important role in the trade of Indonesia, as indeed it does today. Following early success in Java, coffee was then introduced to Sumatra, initially to the northern region of Aceh around Lake Tawar. Today coffee is still widely produced in these northern regions of Aceh (Takengon, Bener Mariah) as well as in the Lake Toba region (Lintong Nihuta, Dairi-Sidikalang, Siborongborong, Dolok Sanggul, and Seribu Dolok) to the southwest of Medan. Aceh has seen much civil unrest throughout its history but most recently due to guerrilla activity organized under the Free Aceh Movement; as a result many farms were abandoned as farmers migrated to escape the unrest. Incredibly, the devastation of the 2004 Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami did provide a silver lining, as it focused international attention on Banda Aceh. Subsequent aid spotlighted the region and served to bring relative peace to Aceh for a time; now farms are being revitalized via new planting and pruning and hope is returning.
The arabica varietals planted in Indonesia were initially typica and bourbon. Typica is still the most common varietal found in Sumatra although there are also a few others that have been planted over the years, including Linie-S, caturra, catimor and hybrids of Rue Rue 11. The first Linie-S plantings came about when the coffee research institute in Java began looking for strains that were both disease-resistant and consistent in production. In an attempt to alleviate the swing in production from crop-to-crop, Linie-S was planted, a variety prized for its heartiness and minimal dieback; Robusta is also widely grown across the island. The average farm size in Sumatra is small – just one to five hectares across the country – and different varietals can often be found growing together. Over the last 50 to 100 years this has led to hybridization; natural crossbreeding has produced a variety known locally as Berg en Daal.
Sumatran coffees are mainly produced by a unique semi-washed process which is sometimes described as “wet-hulled” and is known locally as Giling Basah. In this process the coffee is picked, machine pulped (usually on the individual small holding) and then partly sun dried. The parchment is then removed revealing a whitish coloured, swollen green bean. The drying is then completed on the patio where the seed quickly turns to a dark green colour unique to Sumatra. This method brings about more body and often more of the character that makes Indonesians so unique and recognizable, with flavours ranging from deep chocolate to tangerine funk