Sumatran trip report from Hannah Gavey

Sumatra: home to the unapologetically earthy cup with enormous body. This sums up about all I knew of the massive country and its coffee production, before the exciting journey to meet seven fellow NZSCA members in the capital of Medan. I really had no idea what I was in for on my first adventure outside of the pacific.
First a 30km drive from the airport through dimly lit shacks to the hotel, which happened to have a moat of Lamborghini’s around it. This would be a country of interesting contrasts, also seen throughout the coffee industry. 
Joining us was guide Veronica Herlina (Specialty Coffee Association Indonesia) who had prepared a packed itinerary of plantation visits, co-op tours and cupping right across the northern reigon. Day one kicked off in Medan where all of Sumatras coffee is processed, graded and exported. Here we visited four exporter companies; Menacom Ltd, Volkopi Indonesia, Djasa d Djasa and Wahana, each one bigger than the last. 
Seeing the delicate (and not so delicate) steps the bean goes through between arrival and dispatch was incredible. Particularly at P.T Volkopi watching the pickers where I could see each bean being hand sorted, twice. There was a flashback to picking 26 kilos of green beans out of the full cooling tray once… A tedious job, however the first thing I noticed here was the chatting and laughter amongst the women. Everyone here was working away happily. This was much different picture to our final stop at Wahana, Sumatra’s largest exporter. They source coffee from several co-ops and the privately owned 468-hectare estate. 250 of which is Arabica coffee with a nursery and luwak facilities, the remaining vegetables and forest. At the processing plant the work was tough. Covered drying patios at 60-65 degrees were raked every thirty minutes and men carried 70kg sacks upon their shoulders. 
It was most of the groups first trip to origin and the volume of coffee and scale of machinery was an insight into how enormous the industry is here. The four companies cupping’s offered a wide range of regional varietals and drying methods, a great introduction to high quality arabica in Sumatra. It also challenged the flavour profiles usually attributed to Indonesian coffee. Wahana offered up some beautiful beans from the medium body Toraja with smooth notes of chocolate and fruit to the distinctively sweet Jantung, natural processing enhancing the acidity and strawberry flavour.
The next leg started with a lengthy debate on a tarmac with pilots and bag loaders about how to remove the excess 80kgs from our flight. By now we had adjusted to ‘Indonesian Time’ and after a casual game of Who-Likes-Their-Stuff-The-Most we boarded our 12-seater plane. We headed north to Aceh, the reigon where the popular coffee Gayo is found and coffee trees grow rampant. Here we would visit several farms, co-ops and see the process the beans go through before the twelve hour dirt-road drive to exporters in Medan. 
One memorable stop was our first plantation visit in Bener Meriah, at an altitude of 1500 metres above sea level. The trees here grew dense and tall, a much wilder plantation than those we would later spend time at. They flower twice a year (March and August) and only for a few days. We were lucky to see something unique to Sumatra, the plants showing red & green cherries and flower at the same time. The pickers were singing and laughing, ducking right under trees to find the uneven patches of fruit (or more likely hiding from our cameras.) Wandering through the maze dissecting the occasonal berry and struck by the incredible view of the Lake Tawar surrounds, it was easy to become slightly lost. For a split second I accepted the group had left me behind and I would live out my days as the jungles slowest picker. It really was a nice place to be. I followed the travelling sound of women giggling back to the path. 
Making our way to the main city of Takengon, we pulled over to indulge in a durian feast. It’s no roadside pineapple but I think we put on a pretty good show for the locals who were doubled over watching us struggle through the delicacy. A stroll of the town that night lead us to coffee at a karaoke café, followed by dancing and drumming in a wedding party we were invited to join down the street. It was a colourful and energetic celebration, which was good fun to be a part of after a raging mug of robusta. 
The people of Sumatra are very welcoming and friendly. I found their easy-going nature and laughter infectious. English speakers would quickly make themselves known and always had an interesting tip or opinion to share about the country’s coffee. The most mentioned being the need for a major shift from robusta to Arabica through the education of farmers. KBQ Baburrayyan (Aceh) co-op addressed this as the biggest challenge Sumatran coffee is currently facing. It was also good to gain a better understanding of what benefits and challenges Fairtrade and Organic certification involves.
The final days of our tour were spent in Lake Toba, a beautiful coffee growing area surrounding the world’s biggest volcanic crater. It was about a 6 hour drive from Medan, which I spent quizzing Veronica and our drivers between naps. Driving and joining us here were coffee collector Saidul Alam and his partner whose name I don’t think anyone ever caught between the yelps and songs. He was endearingly dubbed ‘crazy guy’ by most, with a massive personality providing comic relief at every turn. On one stop at Sipisopiso waterfall he had told other Indonesian tourists they were escorting the NZ Idol finalists around Toba, then stood back and roared with laughter as we were swarmed by camera wielding ‘fans.’ This team was a welcomed addition. Alam had also given me a stash of his roasted product, a delicious mandheling blend and much appreciated escape from that which the local hotels and cafes had to offer. This would travel all the way back to New Zealand for one final cup in the stovetop. 
We visited a plantation and famers in Lintong to view their wet-hulling and honey processing, where berries are dried with the skins left on. Temperatures were much cooler here and the coffee plants looked a lot healthier, hosting plump red cherries and blossom. Even the smallest plants (around one year old) were in full flower. Unfortunately much of this coffee was instantly defect due to the common borer problem, which was found in a few of the fruits we had picked.
Alam took us to the Toba coffee market, where farmers will sell direct to collectors providing them with instant income. It was a bustling hub and I enjoyed chatting with people but after standing round smiling in many more pictures for local shoppers I became a little over-whelmed and tired of attention. A lakeside lunch and some warm Bintang soon saw me back in high spirits.
Following the circumference of the lake we made our way back to the hotel, stopping for a swim at sunset. It was magical and warm, with bats flying above and chants from the mosque echoing around us. This was a perfect way to finish the weeklong journey. We returned to drink the hotel dry of the six dusty beer cans they could rustle up.
The following morning welcomed the first day of rain in nearly two months. We made our way back to Medan via another plantation and one final spicy rice meal together. Concluding my visit I would swim in some strangers’ pool mistaking it for the hotels, almost as memorable as Lake Toba for different reasons (Whoops!)

The trip reminded me why I love working with coffee, learning more is simply never ending. There was so much to absorb from everything we saw and those I met, including my eight travel companions. It was a great crew with a range of experience and jobs in the industry so there was a lot to be learnt from each other too. As well as a bunch of laughs and friendships made. I’d like to say a massive thank-you to the NZSCA for organising an incredible introduction to the green bean world. To Veronica also for putting together the schedule filled with wonderful food, landsca
pes and insight. We hope to see you in New Zealand someday soon! And of course to the team at Caffe Prima for sending me on this amazing experience which has left me ambitious and excited about my roasting career. Can’t wait for the next one!