Sumatra Coffee: A Complete Guide

Sumatran coffee is some of the most well-known in the world. It’s also some of the most divisive. Mention it at any third-wave coffee shop and you’re sure to start up a heated discussion between those who swear by it and those who don’t.

In short: Sumatran coffee is a love it or hate it kind of bean. Its low acidity and unique, complex, nutty flavor profile are revered by some in the coffee world and abhorred by others.

But just because it may have a somewhat polarizing reputation doesn’t mean you should judge it off the bat. In this guide we’re going to set the record straight by delving deep into what makes Sumatran coffee special and how it rates against other varieties.

Caffeine Fiend’s Sumatran Coffee Recommendation

Dark Sumatra Mandheling
$49.95

7 Quick Facts About Sumatra Coffee

  1. Starbucks purchases prodigious amounts of Sumatran coffee and offers the beans in two varieties: regular and aged.
  2. Unlike other regions which rely on commercial farming for production, 90% of Sumatran coffee is mostly grown on smallholdings by local farmers.
  3. The unique processing method used gives the beans a very particular flavor not found in other coffee varieties.
  4. Sumatran coffee is often processed using a method known as ‘Giling Basah’ or wet hulling.
  5. Sumatra has some very famous subregions and microclimates including the Lintong region close to Lake Toba, and Gayo in the Northern Aceh region.
  6. Sumarta has some of the best growing conditions in the world owing to its climate and volcanic fertile soil.
  7. The beans have a famously low acidity and so are often combined with South and Central American beans of higher acidity to create a balanced brew.

What is Sumatra Coffee?

Sumatran coffee is coffee grown on the island of Sumatra – that much is pretty self explanatory. Sumatra itself is a large island governed by Indonesia. It is the largest island within Indonesia and the 6th largest in the world with a population of over 50 million.

The temperature climate of the island provides some of the best growing conditions for coffee in the world. Warm weather and near constant rainfall, however, mean that farmers aren’t able to completely dry out the beans. Because of this they have developed a processing method called wet hulling which gives the beans a very particular flavor.

The combination of these conditions are what make Sumatran coffee beans some of the most revered and sought-after in the world.

The History of Sumatra Coffee

Coffee production has been of huge importance to Indonesia for hundreds of years. The crop was first introduced by the Dutch in 1699 when they found that the conditions in the country were excellent for growing coffee.

You’ve no doubt heard of coffee being referred to as a cup of Java. This has to do with the fact that Java was one of the principal islands that was used to grow coffee by the Dutch. After discovering how well coffee took to the Java production quickly ramped up and spread to other islands in the region, including Sumatra.

The Dutch then exported all of the processed coffee back to Europe, fetching a high price and beginning the coffee trading routes between Europe and Indonesia. The first coffee to reach Europe occured in 1711, sent by the Dutch East India Trading Company. Over 2000 pounds of coffee would be exported by 1717. 

Outside of Arabia and Ethiopia, Indonesia was the first place where coffee was widely cultivated. Europeans took very quickly to the delicious and complex flavors of Indonesian coffee and Sumatran coffee in particular. This put Indonesia on the map as a powerhouse of global coffee production.

Fast forward a few hundred years and today Indonesia is the fourth-largest producer of coffee in the world. Coffee production plays a major role in the economy of the country, with over 2 million smallholders responsible for coffee production. Around 25% of the coffee exported is Arabica, with major export markets being the United States, western Europe and Japan.


Why is Sumatran Coffee So Popular?

Sumatra is the western-most island of Indonesia, and is known for producing uniquely flavored coffee, as well as most of Indonesia’s coffee as a whole. The island accounts for around 50% of Indonesia’s national coffee production and around 75% of Robusta production.

But coffee production aside, it’s the actual flavor and the cup profile of Sumatran coffee which has garnered so much attention. With a heavy body and low acidity, these beans are in stark contrast to those grown in South America or Africa.

When people refer to Sumatran coffee they’re generally talking about Arabica coffee produced in the regions of Gayo, Lington and Sidikalang. The soil in these low lying areas is low in iron, and the climate is mercilessly wet. Because of these conditions, coffee has to be processed using the wet hulling method, and this is what gives Sumatran coffee its famous flavor.

Let’s take a look at these points in more detail.

Sumatra Has Some of the World’s Best Growing Conditions

Sumatra sits very close to the Earth’s equator. This means that the island enjoys almost year-round warmth, but with very temperamental weather. It’s not uncommon to experience sunshine one moment and torrential downpour the next.

Indonesia also enjoys a vast variety of tropics and regions, meaning each crop of coffee is slightly different from the last. Coffee grown on Java tastes different from coffee grown on Sumatra. These environments, conditions and weather systems make Sumatra ideal for coffee production.

It’s also worth pointing out that Sumatra is positively brimming with volcanoes. These volcanoes periodically dust the soil with mineral-rich volcanic ash, further adding to the pristine growing conditions for Sumatran coffee.

It Has a Very Unique Production Process

We’ve mentioned the Sumantran method for processing coffee numerous times above, so let’s delve into it. As we know Sumatran coffee is famously low in acid compared to many other beans around the world. This is mostly attributed to a method of processing the coffee called wet hulling, or ‘Giling Basah’ as it’s known in the local language.

Translated from Indonesia, Giling Basah means “wet grinding” and describes the method by which coffee processors remove the hulls of Coffee Arabica beans. After the coffee cherries are harvested, farmers use locally-made pulping machines to mechanically remove the outer skin of the bean. The beans are then stored for a day during which time fermentation helps to break down the residual mucilage.

After a day the coffee beans are washed down off and left to dry. Once the beans reach a moisture content of between 30% and 35% they’re hulled (the tough endocarp layer is removed). Most coffee is only hulled when its moisture content reaches around 12%, but the Giling Bash process hulls the beans when they’re still semi-wet.

Only after hulling are the beans dried further in a warehouse until they reach around 12% moisture content. This process gives the beans a unique bluish-green sheen, and is responsible for the full-body and low acidity the bean is known for. Only once the beans reach this final moisture content are they ready to be exported and distributed.

This whole process takes between two to three months to produce and export a wet coffee. Due to Sumatra’s extremely rainy and humid climate, this quick method of wet hulling is a necessity.


What Does Sumatran Coffee Taste Like?

The growing conditions in Sumatra greatly affect the cup profile of the coffee, as does the wet hulling process used to produce it. Because of the great number of regions on Sumatra, it’s difficult to generalize when it comes to describing the overall flavor of coffee from the island.

Common flavor notes include cocoa, tobacco, smoke or cedar wood. And while low acidity is a hallmark of most Sumantran coffee, beans can sometimes show greater acidity depending on the region they’re grown in. This acidity can lend fruity notes to the bean such as grapefruit or lime, and generally helps to balance the full bodiness most Sumatran coffee possesses.

Sumatran coffees tend to have less brightness to them, and are roasted more darkly in order to tease out floral flavors as well as sweetness and richness.

It’s important emphasise the effect that processing has on the flavor of the bean. A Sumatran coffee bean processed using the wet hull method will taste markedly different from one that had ample days to dry. Likewise, the way and extent to which beans are roasted will greatly influence the final flavors.

Coffees produced in African countries such as Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia, for example, are dry processed. This means that their moisture content has been significantly reduced before hulling. These beans have a sweeter flavor profile tempered with notes of exotic fruits and varied acid profiles.


Sumatra Coffee: A Buyer’s Guide

Best Sumatran Coffee Regions

There are three main types of beans that Sumatra is famous for growing. They are:

  • Mandheling
  • Lintong
  • Gayo

Mandheling is considered by many to be the best coffee that Sumatra produces. It is grown in the north of the island in an area called Luat Mandailing. It gets its name from the Mandheling people who have inhabited the region for many years.

Mandheling coffee is known for its low acidity and bitness, complex body and earthy and someone chocolate flavor. You’ll also find certain fruity notes present in the cup.

Lintong beans are produced on a high plateau that overlooks Lake Toba. Lake Toba is one of the deepest lakes in the world, as well as being the largest volcanic lake in the world. Its proximity to a volcano means its soil is nutrient-rich and fertile, resulting in an intensely-flavored coffee bean with a clean aftertaste.

Gayo beans are grown at an altitude of between 4500 and 6000 feet on the most northern tip of Sumatra in the Ache province. Specifically the beans are grown on the land surrounding Lake Laut Tawar. The beans are sweet, crisp and complex, with hints of caramel, peach, cardamon, cacao mixed together with a flowery finish.

Best Sumatran Coffee Brands

Like most things in the world, not all coffee is made equally. When it comes to producing any type of coffee, some brands are better than others. Below are a few of our favorites:

Volcanica Coffee

Volcanica Coffee has their hands in all major coffee producing nations. They import beans from South and Central America, Ethiopia, Kenya and of course Indonesia. They work with sustainable farms and ensure that all of their beans are ethically sourced.

If you’re looking for some stella Sumatran coffee you can’t go wrong if you come across some under the Volcanica Coffee brand. Here are some of our favorites:

Starbucks

Anyone who has ever picked up a latte or Americano from Starbucks will have probably tasted their Sumatran coffee even if they weren’t aware of it. Sumantra coffee makes up the foundation of many of their blends. They utilize skilled roasting techniques in order to bring out the bold, complex flavors which the coffee is known for.

Aroma Ridge

With over 30 years in the business, Aroma Ridge is adept at finding the best beans on the planet and roasting them into something beautiful. They pride themselves on being a family business and sourcing only the finest mountain-grown coffee beans. Check out our favorite:

Sumatra Gayo Peaberry Coffee – $16.95

Red Flags

Just as with any coffee there are a few things you should look out for when buying Sumatran coffee to ensure that you’re buying ethically.

For starters, make sure that the coffee you’re buying is properly labelled and states exactly where the beans were sourced from.

You’ll also want to ensure that the coffee is fair trade and that no one was exploited during its production.

Sumatran Coffee ProductPriceBuy Now
Volcanica Coffee Sumatra Mandheling Coffee
$17.99Click Here
Starbucks Sumatra Whole Bean Coffee
$37.62Click here
Coffee Bean Direct Sumatra Mandheling
$34.75Click here
AmazonFresh Organic Fair Trade Sumatra
$23.69Click here
Fresh Roasted Coffee LLC Sumatra Mandheling
$49.95Click here
Copper Moon Whole Bean Sumatra Coffee
$12.38Click here

The Best Brewing Methods for Sumatran Coffee

Now that you’ve got your hands on some quality Sumatran coffee, you might be wondering exactly what the best way to brew it is. After all, these beans are known for this distinctive and full-bodied cup profile, and putting that potential to waste is a massive disservice to whoever grew the beans.

The low acidic and full-bodied nature of Sumatran coffee are perfectly brought out when brewed as an espresso. Since espresso favors dark roasts and most Sumatran coffee tends to be darkly roasted this also makes sense.

The only problem with this method is that you need a bulky and somewhat expensive machine if you’d like to make it at home. If you don’t have the time or space for one, consider using an AeroPress or Moka pot instead. Both methods are excellent for teasing out dark, intense flavors even if they’re not strictly authentic espresso.

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