The wait is over, after many months of planning and hard work on the ground, our new Sumatran from our Tiga Raja mill partnership in Silimakuta, Simalungun is ready for release. Being able to receive any coffee from this year’s harvest has been nothing short of a miracle. As I look back on the journey this far, it’s pretty hard to imagine things turning out any better than where we are at right now — both in terms of the quality we have received and the unlimited opportunities we have going forward to further empower this growing region and the farmers within it.

Richo and farmers in Sidamanik.Consistent, slow drying is a key operational benifit.Small farm holder drying parchment.Hand pulper.Husk is hand sorted at the Tiga Raja mill.The first bag of Tiga Raja Simalungun is bagged up ready for transport.The mill team.

At the recent Melbourne International Coffee Expo (MICE) event, I was able to share a small part of the Tiga Raja backstory via our lab sessions. Thinking back to some of the early exploration trips I did to Sumatra, a consistent theme or analogy comes to mind, helping me summarise the coffee scene there; it’s a picture of the fast food industry. To help illustrate the difference between the coffee produced at the Tiga Raja mill and most commercially-sourced Sumatrans, I’d ask two simple questions. The first being — do you like fast food? Given the higher instance of culinary care in this audience (and within the coffee industry in general), the likelihood is that you dislike fast food for many different reasons. The ingredients are generic and the produce is often mass produced; who knows where these ingredients come from, right? High instances of salt, fat and sugar smooth it over and create generic, short-lasting? Deliciousness?.

The second question I’d ask is; have you ever liked fast food? There’s a very good chance that at some point in your life you have liked fast food. If your answer is ‘Yes, I like it now’, you’ll probably admit that you shouldn’t (if you are being honest with yourself). Our perception of what quality is changes for many different reasons over our lives. Continuing on with the fast food theme, our reasons for being wary of fast food might include references to health, flavour (or the lack thereof) and/or issues with large scale, corporate monopolies who trim the base line of production and quality to suit profitability.

Hopefully you are starting to get where I’m coming from with this analogy. This particular theme is very appropriate for a large percentage of the Sumatran coffee scene. In part, the existing system is driven (sometimes out of necessity) to work with the smallholder nature of the country. Sometimes this is due to oppressive greed by very large stakeholders at both the consumer and export/import level.

Several years ago, I travelled to origin in Sumatra and witnessed first-hand the ‘fast food’ style of coffee that Sumatra had to offer.

As a company, we were therefore partaking in our share of Sumatran salt, fat and sugar when we bought coffee through those channels. Through a process of exploration and understanding, we have grown up in Sumatra and we are forging a new direction with our Tiga Raja Mill. The end result is a coffee that performs above and beyond the commercial grades that currently exist — the coffee quality is extremely high both physically (defects, moisture content and consistency) and in cup quality.

Here are some key points to summarise how our Tiga Raja Sumatran differs from the Sumatran ‘fast food’ coffee:

  1. The partnership. Working in Sumatra is difficult at the local level, let alone trying to establish a mill via a foreign company (that’s us). This project has only been successful due to the establishment of a trusted friendship with Lisa and Leo. They remain our eyes and ears on the ground in a challenging and dynamic coffee producing environment. I cannot convey how happy I am about both this project and the relationship between Five Senses and the Mill. I feel deep gratitude towards Lisa and Leo for their amazing work in light of the challenges they have overcome. The second part of this partnership is about recognising the farmer and bringing a level of co-operation and cohesion from the farmer to the mill. The Talenta co-operative (who are our partners in the local area) are an organised and established supply group who are owned and represented by the contributing farmers/regions. The high grade parchment they supply is testimony to the education programmes they roll out within their own organisation. With this vessel, we have the opportunity to make an impact in more ways than just through offering fair prices. The foundation has been set to establish a clear and refined supply chain that can continue functioning through market spikes, cash crops and other hurdles that the ‘beast’ throws up. In many ways, they are as invested in this project as the other parties and we think this will always be reflected in the quality of the end product.
  2. Regional identification. Our mill is supplied by three sub-regions in the Simalungun region via the previously mentioned Talenta supply partner. We source predominantly from a region called Silimakuta, which is a sub-region of Simalungun, north of Lake Toba. In a country driven by smallholder markets which make traceability almost impossible, we are adding focus through a clear and organised supply network of high altitude grown coffee and quality parchment supply.
  3. Milling and processing. Having our own mill enables us to treat our coffee with care as soon as it arrives from the farmer. Typically, milling and export practices are carried out at hotter export sites in Medan (which is often labelled as Mandheling), often with little control and with a greater focus on productivity. Our Tiga Raja coffee is all processed internally at our mill which is far more sensitive to the challenges of the wet hulled process. The lower temperatures at the Tiga Raja mill ensure we dry very consistently and slowly, and the end result is a very clean Sumatran grade both physically and in the cup.
  4. Trimming the supply chain. We are actively cutting off several levels of export and import via this partnership. By doing this, we are not engaged with a multinational, but our emphasis remains on our partnership alone and that includes our relationships with Leo and Lisa and the co-operative supply group. All of the money that goes into purchasing parchment goes into our partnership. By trimming the number of hands in the cycle, we are effectively paying our co-operative and farming groups more — which in turn encourages the establishment of a supply network that can survive and return for next year’s harvest.

The Sumatran supply chain is a difficult beast. The truth is that the smallest percentage of profit goes to the farmers — not unlike the situation in many other growing regions around the world. We have seen an opportunity for improvement for our own supply of Sumatran specialty grade and we believe our new partnership is again setting new highs for quality and sustainability in the Simalungun region. I believe our new mill is achieving ethics and quality, two words that usually fight against each other at origin.

Our Tiga Raja mill is unlike the commercially sourced ‘generic’ grades that Sumatra has to offer; it is not a fast food establishment. We have presented and sourced this coffee in an attempt to understand the country’s limitations and work around them. As you sit and sip this coffee in your preferred brew, you can be reassured to know that what you are drinking is a product that has deeper value than cup quality alone.

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