Sumatra, January 2012: 1

SATURDAY

Medan is hot and humid, not my favourite type of weather but if you’re into it I guess it’s nice to get a free steam bath every time you walk outside! I haven’t done as much research into Indonesian coffees as I would have liked to before coming out here, so opting for the hotel aircon and internet access while it’s available seems the ideal option. We’re heading to the Wahana Estate in Sidikalang west of Lake Toba, but taking the route east of the lake on the way south from Medan, stopping in Parapat and Lintong Nihuta on the way around. It’ll be a couple of days of travel before I get to any coffee and almost a week to cup anything, so for now I’m just looking forward to getting out of the city and start climbing into cooler altitudes, seeing what the landscape has to offer on the way. Sumatra is an incredibly green and fertile place, the plants, trees and wildlife here are unique, but it’s also lost about half of its tropical rainforest since the 80’s and many animal species are endangered. Only around 922 of the 17-18.000 islands that form Indonesia are inhabited,  with 45-50 million people (about 21-22% of the total population) living on Sumatra which is the largest fully Indonesian island of them all. Coffee wise Indonesia is roughly the 4th largest coffee producer in the world with about 7 million bags per year, but only 15-18% of the coffee is Arabica. More than 90% of the coffee is produced by smallholders with plots averaging 1-2 hectare, and are often just a part of the crops produced on a farmers land. As with any producing country you can of course get great, clean and fresh coffees out of here, but it’s not entirely unwarranted that Indonesian coffees don’t have the best reputation in the specialty sector. You have to know where to look and be patient in your search for the best lots, accept that traceability is not easy to define and be willing to pay a lot for the best selections. I’m curious as to what I’ll see here, as I’m visiting a farm that I tentatively bought just two bags from last year, but upon roasting them I never found a way to get them suited for release and so they never made it onto the offer list.

     
SUNDAY

The road out of Medan was bursting with colour and life today, the city gearing up for Chinese New Years and being the weekend it seems there were weddings being celebrated on every block. Lovely billboards spelling out the happy couples’ names in flowers were positioned on the sidewalks announcing the grand occasion, and people walking to and fro were sporting their Sunday best. Roadside food stalls selling every type of snack and treat you could wish for, and tuk tuks ferrying passengers, goods and food down the streets, weaving in and out of the chaotic traffic with considerable skill. Motorcycles seems to be the transport of choice for a cross section of people; lone riders, young couples as well as entire families with small kids all scooting along the loosely defined ‘lanes’ with impressively confident and casual maneuvers.

The Sunday pace slowed down as we reached the edges of town, and entered the flat, lush land towards Pancurbatu. Endless irrigated fields stretched for miles, neatly dug out into square plots of differing crops, people stood to their knees in water harvesting, replanting and repairing mudbanks. Geese and chicken traipsed around on the intermittent squares set aside for homes and front yards, people picking fruits and berries for their breakfast. After a couple of hours it felt like we started to climb a bit, the water soaked plains giving way to little rivers and waterfalls where children swam while their mothers did the laundry. Around Saribudolok fields of farmed palm trees started unfolding on either side of the road, an abandoned train track just visible past the neat rows. All along the way, beautifully built and adorned family grave sites stood as small monuments to lost loved ones, often built as mini traditional batak style houses with paintings of the deceased on the front. The fields of palm trees gave way to endless stretches of rubber trees, the bark stripped off in sections and a plug draining the latex into a little collection cup tied to the trunk. 4 hours into the drive and we climbed still higher, the road starting to wind and the vegetation changing to taller, slimmer trees whose leaves shone like glitter as they tumbled to the ground in the sun. Passing through a protected habitat for monkeys and being watched by them perched by the roadside, we finally caught the first glimpses of Lake Toba and started the small descent into Parapat on the Uluan penninsula where we’re staying the night.

     

In town we had the opportunity to go for a small wander, stumbling across parchment and green coffee drying in front yards and on sidewalks, even on the docks in the small Parapat harbour. From this village you can take the ferry to Samosir Island in the middle of the lake, both formed after a supervolcano erupted 75000 years ago. There used to be a narrow strip of land connecting the island to the side of the caldera, but they dug a canal through it so boats could freely circle Samosir. With only a bridge connecting Panguruan on the island with Tele on the main land, Samosir is now the largest island within an island in the world. Some coffee grows there and I’d love to one day be able to taste Samosir beans on their own, hopefully the industry will move towards lot separation down to such specifics, it’s be a better selling point than Kopi Luwak for sure.

            

MONDAY

Today we drove from Parapat on the east side of Lake Toba to Lintong on the south side, stopping in at the Sarimakmur dry mill that was built here a year ago. Driving up from the lake I finally got the first Sumatran coffee tree sightings, with several garden coffee plots planted right up to the sides of peoples homes, many front yards housing small nurseries of healthy looking seedlings. Hitting another long stretch of flat plains, more traditional Batak houses could be seen spread out in the water soaked fields where people tended their crops while their oxen grazed and tried not to get stuck in the mud. Again the road got steeper and we began another slow climb, until we started seeing coffee again and arrived at the Lintong Nihuta mill. Most people when thinking of Sumatran coffee will know the words Lintong and Mandheling but Lintong is the only one that actually bears some specific relation to a growing area. I believe it was just due to a misunderstanding with early traders, but Mandheling is loosely and named after the Mandailing people who grow a small amount of coffee in the Mandailing and Tapanuli regencies south of Lintong and Lake Toba, but is often given as a name to coffee from all over Northern Sumatra.

This mill receives wet parchment from the local growers, who pulp on their own farms using basic hand cranked pulping machines called luwaks. Instead of drying immediately they’ll usually keep the parchment in bags for a day or so until delivering it to the mill, and I was told they’re currently receiving IDR 29.000-30.000 per bambu (approx 1kg)- the cup used to measure volume of coffee delivered. It seems very high to me when I look at the numbers of other transactions, but perhaps something got lost in translation. The GBP equivalent is currently about £2.05-£2.10 This is quite an increase from 5 years ago when they might have received about IDR 13-15.000 (£0.92-£1.05) per kg of wet parchment. However, no differentiation is made for delivering more or less ripe or well picked coffee. When we arrived there were sacks of wet parchment sat on the warehouse floor that had been picked yesterday and delivered this morning. This coffee was to be processed by the traditional Giling Basah (wet grinding) method, which is quite unique for Indonesia and responsible for the coffees deep blue-green colour and particular taste profile. Giling Basah is also referred to as semi-washed, wet hulled or local process, and compared to other producing countries, the bulk of the drying period is spent without the parchment on the green. The chain goes a bit like this; farmers pulp on their farms and deliver the wet parchment to the mills the next day, the coffee is then spread out onto patios to dry for a day. Once down to about 30-40% moisture and still very soft (you see a lot of goat hooves in the coffee when the soft wet  greens are squished in the huller), the coffee is milled to remove the parchment, and becomes what’s referred to as ‘labu’- green but wet. The green coffee then goes back on patios to dry down to ‘asalan’, nearly dry at 16-18% but still unsorted, till finally it reaches 12% moisture and can be sent to the dry mill in Medan for final sorting, removal of foreign matter and grading. 3-400 tons of green comes out of this Lintong mill in a season.

I think before moving on I’m going to clarify a bit the various stages that coffee is traded at and how they relate to eachother, as talking about prices per kg when there are 4 different kg’s in opertaion can get a bit confusing. The numbers you’ll have to give and take a bit on, but roughly: 1 kg of cherry = 0.4kg wet parchment = 0.21 kg dry parchment = 0.18kg green, and 5kg cherry= 2kg wet parchment = 1 kg dry parchment = 0.9 kg green. I think. I’m going to confuse myself several times over this on this trip I’m sure!

The weather has been a bit unstable recently with light showers spread out during the day, which gave us a chance to see and smell first hand some of the particular challenges around processing coffee in Sumatra. If the weather doesn’t get sunnier, the bagged up parchment in the warehouse that arrived this morning will perhaps not be going onto the patios to dry for days yet. I stuck my hand into the bags and the coffee was already really hot and smelling of boozy fruit, essentially fermenting away and cooking in it’s own heat. I was told the coffee would stay in the bags for a maximum of three days, but there was no explanation for what would happen if it rained for weeks. Even after one day I thought the coffee must surely already be adversely affected by the wait. I remembered passing through a local village market seeing women sat on top of huge tarp bags of parchment with bambus, ready to sell to collectors, and I shudder to think of the chemistry going on inside that mass of coffee. Some finished green Rasuna in bags nearby smelled and looked ok, so perhaps the parchment offers some protection against the fermentation, I don’t know. On the patios some labu was spread out to dry, and as it started drizzling while we were there they quickly covered the greens with tarps- however I don’t think there was anything protecting the coffee from getting wet as rainwater soaked the patios and surely must have seeped in underneath. Blacks the dog kept me company as we peered out of the warehouse doors onto the wet patios. I’d love to see some polytunneled drying beds here in the future.

     

Moving on we headed to visit one of the local growers, Mrs Sihombing who has 3 hectares of Rasuna and Aceh varieties growing on her land. We walked around a plot of healthy looking trees while a couple of ladies picked the a few ripe cherries off the branches, being between the main (Oct-Nov) and fly (Mar-May) crop there wasn’t much cherry to see but a few flower buds and green cherries heralded the harvests to come. We had a demonstration of her luwak in action and the way she dries some parchment on tarps in her field, bundling them up for the rain. We also got to walk around her vegetable patch and pig pens accompanied by her little son Toto, who took little convincing to get stuck into my trusty kid ice-breaking balloons.

                 

After a quick lunch break at a Lake Toba lookout point we finally made out way to the lovely Wahana Grana Makmur Estate in Sidikalang, an impressive farm and facility built by exporters PT Sari Makmur Tunggal Mandiri. They are a huge exporter with mills in Lintong, Medan, Surabaya and Lampung as well as the facilities in Takengon and Sidikalang. They represent a fair chunk of all Indonesian coffee exports, and have built Wahana as an experimental farm where varietals will be planted, growers educated and visitors hosted in order to move the industry forward.

We’re spending three nights here and I’m already making friends with the Wahana inhabitants. There are about 10 big, bouncing, slobbering St Bernard dogs and puppies romping around in a kennel by the main house, super excited to get fussings and almost getting their heads stuck in the fence trying to get closer to the lady feeding them toast she brought from the hotel in Parapat. Around the back of the staff quarters a pen full of rabbits hop up to the fence as I approach, and have a go at eating my skirt and shoes while I pick up one of the babies to get a cuddle in. Two small luwaks live in cages on the terrace, they look to be healthy and calm and I’m told they’re kept as pets and when awake at night can be picked up and held, but I don’t get the chance to for now. Going for a quick walk before it got too dark to see anything, it seems a very well organized place, trees look bushy and healthy and the ground is soft and spungy, shade trees tower over all the fields and the vegetable and fruit gardens are full of interesting, delicious looking produce.

         
TUESDAY

Cornel, one of the Wahana agronomist on site gave us a tour of the nursery, showing the stages of the plant from soldier to seedling and ready-for-the-field plants. They choose the best cherries they can get off the healthiest most productive trees, pulp them and wash the mucilage off the parchment, then sow them into neat rows under shade cover. After 3 months they germinate and at 7 months and 8-9 set of leaves they get planted into their permanent plots. They have about an 80% germination rate on the Rasuna plants they’re currently rolling out, but also have another 11 varietals planted across various experimental plots. For example they’ve brought the high yielding Jantung Aceh down from the north to see how it does here in Sidikalang, and if it’s successful they will roll it out to local growers as well. They’re also working on Longberry from Ethiopia to see how that fares, and have other plots of Andong Sari, Villa Sarchi, Toraja, Indian S795/Jember, Hibrido de Timor/Tim Tim, Caturra, Catuai, USDA and Tipica. They are currently focusing on planting new Rasuna, Toraja and Longberry, those being the three that are showing the best results taste wise. This year they are adding 20 hectares of Rasuna to the existing 190 hectares across 7 plots that they already have. The trees we’re seeing are only 1-5 years old, and have a lifespan of 25 years before the yield gets too low to be viable.

       

I’m not an expert on coffee growing what so ever and these trees are all planted in the last 5 years, but I was wondering if with all the shade trees on Wahana if the varieties of coffee that had very dense growth would struggle to get enough sun to produce well, and a lengthy discussion on pruning ensued. The custom here is to prune only from the top to keep picking hight at a sensible level, but with some of the compact varietals I’m thinking a bit of pruning throughout would be beneficial too. There seems to be little flowers and green cherry going on, and even in young trees I’d expect a little more this time of year. It’ll be interesting to see how it develops in the next 10 years, when I asked if they’d ever stump trees here it seemed a foreign concept- I think you prune from the top and replace the tree when it stops yielding well and that’s it. Hopefully Wahana will be the perfect place to experiment a bit!

Walking from the nursery up to the mill we passed workers cutting the undergrowth around the trees, something they do here twice per year to keep the nutrients going to the coffee roots, increase air circulation and water uptake, and providing natural compost. This mill differs from the one in Lintong by the fact that it receives cherry and not wet parchment, providing some increased control over the process and final result. It’s a novel approach and it took some convincing to get the local growers to part with cherry instead of pulping it themselves, and I still have to work on the maths a bit to find out if the prices they get paid for the two products compare. We were greeted by manager Frenmin, who took us through the process starting with cherries being dumped into a well in the floor and transported up to the first sorting machine. The cherries they were working on today were picked yesterday and brought in this morning, and are destined for local consumption. During peak harvest they have the growers pick in the mornings, truck the cherry in in the evening and pulp through the night. At the moment the farmers get paid 8-9000 rupiah per kg of cherry, compared to 4000 only two years ago. This has to do with the yield being low in the last few years, pushing prices up. Frenmin told me that they can move anything from 40-80 tons of cherry through here in a harvest season, and that of the 15% green coffee that leaves him with, only 8-10% will be of export quality.

          

The first stage for the cherry entering the processing machines at this mill is the pre-rinse that sorts out the sticks, stones, leaves and other foreign objects. The second stage is the wash and float, where the good, heavy cherries continue on while the bad, floating and green cherry gets channeled into a separate tank for internal consumption. The good cherry then gets pulped and gets floated again, sinking parchment on to the fermentation tanks and the floaters off for local drinking. Another channel separates the pulp and sends it off to composting, while any unpulped cherries; those that were too small for the machines and typically the peaberries, also head off destined for local consumption. (I’d quite like to see more peaberry from Indonesia, btw. It’s a shame they rarely see the value of it, but I was quite fond of our Toarco PB last year) The good parchment that made the grade is kept in fermentation tanks for 12 hours if it’s going to be semi-washed, and 16-18 hours if it’s going to be washed- weather dependent. I asked if they’d ever tried preparing pulped naturals, not fermenting but placing the mucilage covered seeds onto patios until 12% dry, but Frenmin had done this experiment and found the coffee to dry badly and ferment, so no luck on that. I hope at some point they’ll re-visit the idea with new techniques and equipment, but one project at a time I suppose! The fact that they do fully washeds here and not just Giling Basah is quite exciting in itself.

Still, whether semi or fully dried, it’s not quite what I know from other countries, semi dry only goes on the patio for a day before being hulled and returned outside to dry, while the washed dries on patios for a day, gets hulled, and then finished off in large mechanical driers. These tumble the cofee around in 35C heat, 12 hours a day for about a week, then the coffee is bagged up and sent to Medan for final grading. The driers hold about 15000 litres each, or 24 tons parchment/10-12 tons cherry. They do in fact also produce full naturals here by mechanical drying, same process as for the washed but spending up to 10 days in the drier before it reaches export levels of humidity. Mechanically dried naturals look quite different from sun dried naturals, and I hope I get to cup some later on in the week!
I asked if there was a local cascara or hoja, but it seems all pulp and husk gets composted or used as fuel. Since logging for fuel is illegal they have to burn the waste as well as buy in candlenut shells and palm kernel shells to heat the water that acts like radiator heating for the driers.

Finishing up our tour we continued on to visit another, smaller farm that has it’s own mill on site, processing for itself and neighbouring growers. We were greeted by Mr. Saragi who took us through some huge robusta trees that frames his coffee plot of 4 year old Ateng trees, where I found his rather wonderful mother Mrs Juliana Tarigen picking cherries and peering at us with curious eyes. I have to admit to my surprise she spoke English really well, having gone to school in Medan as a young girl and studied Dutch and English there. In spite of not having spoken the language for 60 years, we chatted away about her coffee, the chilies she was planting between the rows, her 8 (!) kids and the history of the farm. She bought it with her husband in the 60’s, ripped out all the old trees that were there and planted new stock, and 4 years ago her son added the mill to the farm, creating another income stream. She invited us into her home for coffee, and while it was being prepared we wandered over to the patios and mill to have a look. Farm hands were busy raking labu out on the concrete, while dogs were sunning themselves on the warm coffee. In the warehouse we could see the 150 million rupiah processing machine that Mr Saragi had invested in, allowing him to mill 500 tons of green coffee per year from his own and neighbours’ crops. Upon selling the green to the exporters he said making IDR 6000 per kg greens – which seems to me to be quite low so perhaps something got lost in translation again, but he’s very happy with his investment and they just build a brand new, beautiful house where we then went to have coffee in. Sitting around on mats, watching Juliana prepare her chewing tobacco while sipping the hot, sweet, truly home made coffee, I kinda had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. This tiny little old lady with the cheeky smile and sparkly eyes was just too magical and sometimes unexpected people and my job are just the best in the world.