Educate the Curious: Sumatra

Educate the Curious: Sumatra


This week, we're going to be learning about the 3rd and final coffee growing region... Asia-Pacific, specifically Sumatra (Indonesia). 

Indonesia has 17,000 islands, more than 300 volcanoes and lots of different communities that speak more than 350 different languages with Ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples as well as Muslim mosques throughout the country. Its islands abound with bamboo groves, rice paddies, spices filling the air, homes on stilts, dense jungles, and tigers. 

Sumatra is one of the three main islands of Indonesia, the 6th largest island in the world, and home to more than 50 million people. It’s also the only place on Earth where tigers, rhinos, orangutans, and elephants live together. Coffee grown here is super unique and we’re excited to share more about it with you! 


  1. Coffee production on the island of Sumatra is thought to have begun around 1884, near Lake Toba, which is the largest volcanic lake in the world.
  2. Almost all of the coffee grown in this region is processed using the wet-hulled (or semi-washed) method. 
  3. The flavor profile of the beans are quite different from those grown anywhere else (think ​​herbaceous, spicy, wild, mushroomy, funky, earthy). 

Learn more about the wet-hulled/semi-washed process in this video about Sumatra

Sorting - Picked coffee cherries are sorted by size and density using water

Depulping - Machines remove the outer skin and pulp of the coffee cherry, but the mucilage remains on the seed.

Fermentation - The seeds get stored in tanks that retain moisture. The mucilage creates a thick husk that encapsulates the seeds.

Hulling - Machines remove the dried mucilage as well as the thin, flaky parchment from the coffee seed.

Drying - The coffee seeds are dried in the sun on drying beds.

Compared to coffee that is washed at a station and dried more carefully, this leads to a more earthy and less acidic taste. The body and mouthfeel are enhanced, but the subtle notes of stone fruit and berry are muted. This leads to many "specialty" coffee roasters being less interested in coffee from Sumatra. However, many old-school coffee drinkers appreciate the dark, creamy, and chocolatey character. 

Note from Ben…When we at Mad Priest are cupping coffees, we must remember that our offerings need to be so much more than just my and Michael's preferences. Of course, we're never going to contract a coffee that tastes old or "baggy," but just because we might not swoon over the earthy and robust flavors of Indonesian coffee doesn't mean there's not a demand for it among our customer base.

If there's a coffee offering out there that is unique and supports coffee farmers by sustainable means, why wouldn't we want to support that? Specialty coffee is so much more than natural anaerobic processed with mandarins and peach cobbler! 



Indonesia was the first place, outside of Arabia and Ethiopia, where coffee was widely cultivated. The Dutch governor in Malabar (India) sent coffee seedlings from Yemen to the Dutch governor of Batavia (now Jakarta) in 1696, and it was cultivated on a few different islands. By the mid-1870s the Dutch East Indies expanded arabica coffee-growing areas in Sumatra, Bali, Sulawesi and Timor. 

The coffee trade was very profitable for the Dutch East Indies government but was less so for the Indonesian farmers who were forced to grow it. The colonial government from 1830 to around 1870 had the “Cultuurstelsel” or Cultivation System – production of export crops were delivered to government warehouses instead of taxes. Coffee, along with sugar and indigo, was one of the main crops produced under this highly exploitative colonial system. 

This crazy unfair system, which diverted labor from rice production and caused great hardship for farmers, was described in the influential novel by Eduard Douwes Dekker in 1860, Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, “one of the most forceful indictments of colonialism ever written and a masterpiece of Dutch literature”. This book helped to change Dutch public opinion about the "Cultivation System" and colonialism in general.  

Nowadays, Indonesia is free from the colonial system, but deals with other challenges. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) reported that land was illegally cleared for coffee farming in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Sumatra. The protected park is home to endangered tigers, elephants and rhinos, and WWF predicts that these species will be extinct in a decade should the clearing and farming continue. Earthquakes and tsunamis also are a massive continuing crisis across Indonesia – please check out the work of Mercy Corps if you want to learn more or donate.


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