Several months after returning from Sumatra, it finally feels as if we have a solid game plan for going forward. We put a huge focus on this decision to ensure we achieve sensorial success and source a coffee that both defies the normal Sumatran supply chain and aligns us with a partnership which allows us to trade ethically.
Sumatran coffees seem to divide cupping tables in a similar fashion to many naturals — lovers love, haters hate. Coffees that have distinct cup profiles can often be very tricky to source, Sumatran coffees particularly so due to the inconsistent marketing and sourcing methods employed by the majority of entrenched ‘big boy’ exporters and buyers. Those who only have a distant relationship with Sumatra and those who buy regular lines sourced from many suppliers are almost guaranteed to be using a product that is radically different year round. These year round changes go beyond that of the seasonality of an agricultural product; that is a given for those who care to think semi-deep. The changes I am talking about here are much more radical.
The first of two trips to this amazing country saw me touring around the other great Arabica growing region of Sumatra; Lake Tawar in Aceh which is located in Sumatra’s North. We visited many producers and cupped many coffees around the region. On one specific occasion I remember visiting a warehouse in the area. We were shown around the facilities and then taken to warehouse floor where we witnessed many bags lined up ready for export processing. Acting like good tourists, we dipped our hands in the coffee, smelt it and took some shots of the bags lined up. I asked our tour guide what the coffee was and what it would be sold as — he replied slowly, glancing upward, taking his time to conjure a response, as if deciding on the coffee’s marketing potential there and then. ‘Mandhelling Grade one’ he replied. This was my first example of the marketing of coffee in Sumatra. To give you some context here, Mandheling or Mandailing is the name of an ethnic group located in the region’s south. This coffee was from the Aceh region, many miles away and much further to the north. This is an example of marketing according to cup profile and demand.
Going forward, this conversation and a few other experiences with our Lintong Grade one over the years shaped my determination to source a coffee as directly as possible from Sumatra. The aim for me was to cut out the marketing and sourcing process that defines a flavour profile and forms the basis of much of the coffee exported from this region. Sourcing a coffee as directly as possible has so many benefits. Traceability and consistency are the driving factors here, but let’s not pretend that this is easy for a second. After all there’s a reason why coffee is exported the way it is out of Sumatra. Some factors are necessary for creating commercial volume from a small holder-driven country, and others are unnecessary and driven by flat out greed. Without the many styles of sourcing and marketing, many people would not have an avenue to sell their coffee. It’s an unfortunate model, but in many cases it’s necessary and the best method.
Our new Sumatran is from the region of Saribu Dolok — Simalungun located North East of Lake Toba. We are not staking claim to doing amazing things here. The spotlight needs to be on the growers and producers who contribute to this new mill which is being built by our partners on the ground. This new mill forms a base for us whereby we can add further traceability and consistency to our Sumatran offering — I see this as an ongoing partnership in which we can grow, and improve many aspects of what we offer you from Sumatra. Regional and varietal profiling, direct sourcing from specific sub regions (altitude) and experimental work with processing are all possible variables we will look into in the coming seasons.
To make a start, we have selected a regional blend from this mill which we are calling Sumatra — Simalungun. The coffee is triple picked ‘Fancy’ (local classification for Triple Picked coffees) and relates to the additional defect processing through which this coffee will pass. This will ensure a very clean and consistent profile which does not alter between the first and last bag — an essential factor that will have flow on benefits from roasting to your cup. The coffee is sourced from small holders from six sub-regions in and around Simalungun. This mill operates by partnering with growers by allowing them to use their processing facilities on a ‘first right of refusal’ basis. If the coffee quality is there, it is bought at an above market rate. Through this mill, growers also have access to many other benefits like education on farming practices, cupping and roasting (which is great as many farmers never get to taste their own coffee) and English lessons for farming kids.
We will taste the pre-shipment sample very soon. I will write an update on the specific flavour profile, along with a comparison in the coming weeks so that you can be aware of any flavour profile changes.