Sumatra Coffee: Does it Deserve the Fame?CLICK HERE to subscribe to our weekly emails on finding and brewing amazing coffee!
If you’ve been roaming around through premium coffee lately, you’ve probably come across some mention of Sumatra Coffee. With it’s distinct, complex earthy flavor and unique processing, this variety of coffee is a love-it-or-hate-it one. So whether you’re here to learn more about how it tastes, how it’s make, or what brand you should buy, we have you covered in this guide.
Additionally, we’ll even give you a quick run down on the most expensive and most satirized coffee in the world, Kopi Luwak. In that section, we’ll be covering what it is and why people concerned with the ethics of the coffee industry aren’t too jazzed about it. Enjoy!
The Birthplace of Coffee?
Firstly, Sumatra is the 6th largest island in the world and is one of the three main islands of Indonesia. The Dutch introduced coffee to the region in 1699, and large-scale coffee production began around 1884. Before this, coffee plants simply grew in the wild in Ethiopia.
Once the plants met the fertile soil surround the volcanic Lake Toba, they flourished and created what many consider the first inkling of the coffee industry we have today. Now, Sumatra is the l largest producer of coffee in Indonesia.
Varieties of Sumatran Coffee
Like we mentioned before, Sumatran coffee comes from a specific region of Indonesia. However, you should note that the coffees from this region aren’t the only Indonesian coffees. In fact, Java coffee is so well known that the word “Java” has become synonymous with coffee itself.
Nevertheless, here we will be discussing the varieties of Sumatran coffee specifically. Most high-quality Sumatran coffees are grown between 2500 and 5000 feet of elevation.
Thus, they often As for taste, in general, they tend to be low in acidity, with a full body. Most have overall complex, earthy flavors with woody aromas. Brands typically sell these beans as dark or medium roasts. But there has recently been a push for also producing more light roasts, which would result in lighter, brighter brews.
Mandheling coffee is named after a specific tribe in Sumatra. It is grown in the west-central region near Padang. The acidity is very subtle but still lends some complexity to the brew. It typically has a spice-based profile including notes such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom. Additionally, people often detect chocolate and licorice flavors as well.
Many consider Mandheling coffee to be the best Sumatran coffee out there. However, others consider the label to be largely over-hyped. Either way, if you’d like to decide for yourself, check out the buying guide below.
Ankola is grown near the port of Padang between 2500 and 5000 feet above sea level. Unlike most other Sumatran coffee, Ankola coffee is actually dry processed (as opposed to the traditional wet processing). In addition to producing a slightly different profile, dry processing creates a more uniform appearance in the batches themselves. This variety is characterized by its mellow acidity.
The Lintong variety is from the north-central, Lintongnihuta region near Lake Toba. They tend to produce more medium bodied brews. But they still sport the signature earthiness of Sumatran coffee with notes of cedar and spice. These brews are best known for balancing the characteristically rich flavor of this region with a clean aftertaste.
Resting at about 4200 to 5200 feet above sea level, the Gayo region is named for the nearby Gayo Mountain and is also bordered by Lake Tawar. The Gayo/Aceh region is notable for its offering of aged-coffee. This rather unique type of coffee is usually stored for months or even years.
The aging allows for the development of a different flavor profile than is typical to other Sumatran coffee. Though not notably “better” for any definable reason, a high value is placed enthuse beans for their relative rarity and complexity. On the down side, there is an extra cost associated with aged coffee due to the need for storage and the additional spoilage.
Best 5 Sumatra Coffees
Sumatran Mandheling by Volcanica
This is one of the most recommended Sumatran coffees across the board. These beans have great, earthy base notes complemented by complex flavor profile including wine, dried fruit, and brown sugar. Plus, it has a thick, almost syrup-like aftertaste and a pleasant aroma of cocoa and brown spice.
Overall, the cup is super smooth and has a rich, full body to it. The beans themselves are semi-washed and sun-dried then medium roasted. As for the brand, Volcanica offers these beans and. many others with Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, Shade Grown, and organic certifications.
Starbucks Sumatra Dark Roast
Believe it or not, Starbucks is actually one of the biggest buyers of Sumatran coffee, so we figured we should mention them here. This dark roast is strong, earthy and herbal, recalling the classic flavor. profile Sumatra Coffee is known for. It pairs well with sweeter or strongly flavorful breakfast foods such as cinnamon rolls.
It is also worth keeping an eye out for their Sumatra offering in their Starbucks Reserve line. These single-origin coffees are generally the more premium options of Starbuck’s brand and are a step above their regular pre-ground offerings.
Sumatra Mutu Batak by Klatch Coffee
If you’re in the mood for a medium roast with a delightfully complex flavor profile, this is the one for you. With notes of raisin, plum, cocoa, and cedar with hints of sweet herbs and fresh green peppers, Klatch Coffee does not disappoint. Also, you may even detect a hint of lavender.
Klatch Coffee claims that every bean in their bags is graded and hand sorted before arriving there. Furthermore, the company has managed to expertly balance pushing their coffee into a “new generation of Sumatra” while still preserving the elements of. zest, syrup, freshness, and earthiness that are associated with Sumatra Coffee.
Sumatra Gayo Peaberry by Volcanica
Here’s another offering from Volcanica because we just couldn’t resist. While you will come across the Mandheling more frequently in recommendation lists for Sumatran coffee, we actually prefer these Volcanica peaberry beans. They’re wet-processed and have a decidedly sweet, crisp flavor that stands out in a Sumatran line-up.
Additionally, the underlying notes are clean, earthy, and spicy and have an impressively complex range of flavors including caramel, peach, wisteria, cacao nib, a hint of moist, fresh-fallen leaves in aroma and cup. The mouthfeel is lightly syrupy and the cup finishes with a slight hint of florals.
Also, like all Volcanica Coffee, this one is Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance certified.
Camano Island Coffee Organic Sumatra
This coffee also managed to make our list of Organic recommendations, thanks to their ethical, sustainable practices. But the profile of the coffee itself is far from underwhelming. It’s a medium-dark roast that makes a robust brew.
The primary flavor is of dried fruit, and it is complemented by slightly smoky notes and hints of caramel.
What makes it so special?
Even though coffee isn’t native to Indonesia, Sumatra is basically a coffee growing oasis when it comes to growing Arabica. Its equatorial positioning creates a unique sparse of tropical climactic spaces. Additionally the balanced, volcanic soil is great for promoting plant growth.
Additionally, while the weather conditions vary, the combination of sunny and wet days create an enviable growing environment. Also, the availability of high altitudes is also favorable for growing premium Arabica coffee.
As you may know, there are a TON of factors that. affect how your coffee ultimately tastes. While soil composition, altitude, climate, and roast are all important, many people don’t realize that the processing before roasting also plays an important role.
For Sumatran coffee, this is actually a point of contention among coffee aficionados and is what typically creates the love it or hate it divide surrounding this varietal. The thing that distinguishes a more “authentic” or classic Sumatran coffee from the newer generation is the processing. Traditionally, Sumatran coffee’s are processed using wet hulling.
Wet hulling, also known as “Giling Basah” is responsible for bringing out the cornerstone herbal and earthy flavors of Sumatra. Wet hulling typically involves the following steps:
- Homemade machines remove the cherry’s skin from the coffee beans immediately following harvesting, leaving the remaining fruit in tact.
- The skinned beans are placed in woven bags and left to ferment overnight.
- Farmers hand-wash away the remaining mucilage (fruit) from the beans the following morning.
- The beans are dried in their parchment (crumbly layer surrounding inner bean) before being shipped to a warehouse where the parchment is removed for further drying.
- Lastly, the beans are dried once more once in the port city immediately before exportation.
In contrast, many other beans are dried much earlier after being picked, usually by the farmers themselves. This process keeps the beans moist for much longer, creating a unique and complex flavor profile.
The selection of this process over dry processing is likely due to the wet, Indonesian climate making it difficult to fully dry beans using other methods. Wet processed coffees are generally known for being delicate-bodied with a clean, balanced, and complex brew.
Kopi Luwak or Civet coffee is famous…or infamous, depending on who you ask. You may have heard it referred to as the most expensive coffee in the world or simply a joke to put coffee snobs at the end of. But since we’re talking about Sumatra Coffee, we’d be doing the coffee world an injustice by failing to mention it.
What is it?
Kopi Luwak identifies more to how the beans are processed than anything about the beans themselves. It is closely connected to the Indonesian coffee industry and often Sumatra specifically. The coffee is produced from partially digested coffee beans that have been excreted by the Indonesian palm civet. Harvesters remove the remaining outer skin and thoroughly clean the beans before eventually roasting and selling them.
This unusual process is what accounts for the generally outrageous price of these coffees. Corporations often aggressively tout these beans as the most premium quality because the animals that select them are supposedly only eating the best, ripest cherries. However, there is no specific, identifiable flavor profile that people are raving about as the bean origins vary.
Why it’s Problematic
We cannot stress this enough. You probably should not buy Kopi Luwak coffee for a plethora of reasons. Firstly, chances are what you are ordering is fake or, at the very least, pretty diluted by beans processed using a less tedious method. For example, we’re talking about 80+% of the coffee marketed as Kopi Luwak being completely fake.
Secondly, if what you are ordering is 100% real Kopi Luwak, the animals behind the scenes are typically treated rather horrifically. Because Palm Civets are small, nocturnal creatures, producing Civet coffee free-range style has a very small pay-off for the amount of labor involved. Cue industrialization, caged, force-fed animals and you have modern Kopi Luwak coffee.
So even if you couldn’t care less about how animals are treated to obtain your foodstuffs, you should at least care about the quality of your coffee. The force feeding turns the idea of uniformly ripe, hand-picked beans into a bold-faced lie. Thus, you’re basically buying mediocre, overpriced, non-cruelty-free coffee for funsies… definitely not cool.
In this article we’ve included several, top-notch Sumatra coffees that we think are actually worth your time and money. So we’d like to encourage you to seek out these if you’re in the mood to adventure into premium Indonesia coffee, rather than buying into the hype (and scam) of Kopi Luwak.
Plus, a single kilogram (~2 lb) bag of authentic Civet coffee can run you from $650 to $3000+. So, you’d be better off splurging on an espresso machine.
If you’re curious to see where your taste buds stand on one of the oldest varietals of coffee available, you should definitely give Sumatra Coffee a try. If you’re into a clean cup with an earthy, spicy flavor profile, this might even be your new favorite.
Also, if you aren’t interested in buying straight Sumatran, this coffee tends to work really well in high-quality blends as it offers an interestingly complex base-note for other flavors.
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