Best Sumatra Coffee: What is Sumatran coffee and where is Sumatra Island
You may not know it, but you've probably tried Sumatran coffee before. This low acidity, nutty, and complex coffee is commonly used to add depth to espresso blends. While its earthy flavor can be...polarizing among specialty coffee lovers, Sumatran coffee is slowly gaining prominence as a smooth and invigorating brew that many people love.
At Black Ink, we are always looking for the best beans. That is why this Indonesian coffee is was a must have on our menu. Read on to find out more about what makes Sumatran coffee unique and how to best enjoy this full-bodied, invigorating single origin!Try Some Today →
Where is Sumatra
Sumatra, one of the largest islands in the world, is located in Indonesia. This massive island is part of the Sunda Islands and is responsible for producing millions of pounds of Arabica and Robusta coffee beans each year.
The History of Sumatran Coffee
The Indonesian island of Sumatra provides excellent growing conditions for coffee trees. Here's why:
- It's located near the Equator. This means year-round sunshine and suitably wet conditions for coffee trees to thrive.
- It has high altitudes (760-1,600m / 2,500-5,250ft above sea level). This means that even with the constant sunshine, temperatures are never too hot or cold for growing arabica coffee.
- It has rich, fertile soil. Sumatra (and nearly all of Indonesia) sits along the Pacific Ring of Fire, where volcanic eruptions and earthquakes frequently occur. This means that the soil here is full of minerals and nutrients. Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world, is home to some of the best Sumatran coffee.
While Sumatran is the fan favorite, there are actually quite a few choices of Indonesian coffee.
You might be wondering: how did coffee even get to this part of the world? Coffee cultivation in Indonesia actually began in the 1700s. This was early in the Dutch colonial period, when coffee seedlings were sent by the Dutch East India Company from Yemen to Batavia (modern-day Jakarta).
Because of this, Indonesia became the first place outside of Ethiopia and Arabia to cultivate coffee, with the crop quickly spreading to Sumatra, Bali, Sulawesi, and Timor.
- Indonesia is the fourth largest producer of coffee in the world, but only 25% of the coffee exported is arabica (what we cover in this guide).
- 90% of Sumatran coffee is mostly grown on smallholdings by local farmers, not on large commercial farms.
- Coffee beans in this region are largely processed using a traditional wet hulling method unique to Indonesia.
- People tasting coffee from Sumatra are often divided on heavy, herbaceous, and earthy flavor.
- Starbucks uses Sumatra coffee heavily as a base for their coffee drinks.
Types of Coffee Grown in Sumatra
The island is home to several different C. arabica varietals and cultivars. Although Robusta coffee is also widely grown at lower altitudes, they are not part of this guide.
Arabica Typica was the original stock brought to Java and Sumatra, but only a few varietals survived Indonesia's coffee leaf rust (a fungal disease especially prevalent on arabica plants grown at lower altitudes) outbreak in the 1880s. Today, there are over 20 local varieties arabica coffee grown in Aceh alone, including hybrids brought from India and even Bourbon cultivars.
Sumatra Coffee Growing Regions
Sumatra coffee is typically grouped and sold as three distinct types: Mandheling, Lintong and Gayo. 90% of it is grown by smallholder farmers on their farms, and then sold in markets. The "farms" are usually plots of land that aren't heavily used, around one hectare (2.5 acres) in size. When we visited the Lintong region around Lake Toba, coffee trees were even growing freely along the roads.
Sumatra Mandheling Coffee
"Sumatra Mandheling" is a bit of a misnomer: It's not the name of a coffee growing region. In fact, it's a trade name that originates from the indigenous Mandailing people of northern Sumatra, and anything sold as "Sumatra Mandheling" could be a mix of beans from Tapanuli, Aceh, or other regions of north Sumatra.
Lintong is a region just off the southern end of Lake Toba. The high altitude and pleasant weather of this region gives Lintong coffee an earthly and complex flavor profile, with hints of spice, slightly brighter acidity, and a slightly cleaner mouthfeel than other Indonesian coffees.
Gayo (Aceh) Coffee
Gayo coffee is quite hard to come by. At 1,300-1,600m (4,265-5,249ft) above sea level, this mountainous region near Lake Laut Tawar produces beans that can be considered Strictly High Grown (SHG). As the beans are of superior quality compared to those grown at lower altitudes around Aceh, they're sold separately from "Mandheling coffee".
Sumatran Coffee Production Methods
Unlike most other coffee growing regions around the world, Sumatran coffee beans (and from other parts of Indonesia) undergo a traditional processing method called "Giling Basah", which the coffee industry terms as wet hulling.
Giling Basah (Wet Hulling)
Traditionally, coffee beans are either wet processed (washed), where the coffee cherries are pulped by washing, or dry processed (natural), with cherries being dried before pulping. Instead, with wet hulling, the beans are pulped right after picking by mechanical pounding - either with sticks or with a machine. At this point, the bean still has a high 30-50% moisture content.
Why wet hulling? Well, Sumatra's high rainfall and humidity means that coffee farmers get only around 4 hours of suitable drying time on a good day. While technology has progressed a fair bit, trying to dry coffee beans hundreds of years ago without the aid of machinery would have destroyed the farmers' precious crop! Hence, the wet hulled method remains entrenched in local coffee production.
The beans, along with any remaining pulp, are left to ferment overnight. The next day, the coffee beans are washed after the wet hulling and further dried so that they can reach the typical 12% moisture content of exportable green coffee beans.
This processing method is especially important, because it's what gives Sumatran beans their unique flavor profile. In addition to imparting a blue-grey hue to the coffee bean, Giling Basah also tends to partially crush the bean or create a split on one end of the bean. This is believed to reduce the acidity and increase the body of the beans.
Of course, Sumatra beans can also undergo washed or natural processing methods; some of the coffee produced this way offer a pleasant acidity and clarity that coffee drinkers will be more familiar with.
The unique processing method used in Sumatra means that Sumatran coffee beans are best roasted within three months of harvesting. However, coffees from Aceh are sometimes stored for months or years to allow the beans to develop as aged coffee. This can result in coffee with an extraordinary taste - or a really funky one.
Sumatran Coffee Roasting Methods
As a result of its unusual processing methods, Sumatra coffee beans have slightly higher moisture levels and less brightness. Thus, they lend themselves to a medium-dark roast level: the beans are heated to a slightly higher temperature at the beginning of the roast, and then roasted for longer to bring out more sweetness and richness.
This has unfortunately led to the belief that all Sumatra coffee is dark roast, especially since Starbucks buys massive quantities of it. They are known to roast Sumatran beans very dark as a base for their espresso blends. Thankfully, a good coffee roaster will be able to sort you out with beans that are roasted just enough to bring out the best of the coffee.
What Does Sumatra Coffee Taste Like
Again, due to the terroir and unique processing methods used, coffees from Sumatra tend to pack more of a punch with a full body and rich, earthy flavors.
Sumatra Mandheling and Lintong coffees have a similar flavor profile. They're known for their complex earthy aromas, low acidity, and intense notes of chocolate, licorice, and spice. While Lintong coffee is slightly less full bodied, coffee enthusiasts would still place it on the heavy side when compared to beans from other parts of the world, like Guatemala.
Gayo coffee, on the other hand, has a noticeably brighter flavor, with caramel notes and a pleasant hint of acidity. The wet hulled coffee from Sumatra is often labeled as "semi washed", but the fully washed process is becoming much more common for Gayo coffee as they boost the price of the higher altitude, higher quality beans.
How To Brew Sumatran Coffee
Sumatra coffee is best enjoyed as an espresso based drink. As long as you don't let the shot run too long, you'll be able to balance the heavy body with the coffee's naturally rich flavor. If you don't have an espresso machine, one way to ensure you extract all the nutty, chocolatey goodness of this coffee is to use a stovetop Moka pot.
Another option for brewing Sumatra coffee at home is the Aeropress (especially if you use a steel mesh filter instead of the standard paper filter). This will yield a lovely smooth cup and avoid the risk of any burnt notes.
Best Sumatra Coffee
It can be hard to pick out the best Sumatra coffee, not least because the coffee world has developed certain...expectations of its flavor. But if you're looking for something new to try, give our Sumatran Coffee a shot. Unlike most other Sumatra coffees that come in a dark roast, we offer a smooth and flavorful medium roast that brings toasty, chocolatey flavor to your daily cup!Try Some Today →
At Black Ink, we offer all of our coffee in the form of kcups as well. So, if you are in need of a Sumatra kcup, and don't want to drink Starbucks Sumatra Kcups, be sure to check out our kcup selection!
Inevitably, when talking about Sumatra Mandheling or any other coffee from Indonesia, Kopi Luwak coffee will sometimes be mentioned. This rare and highly prized coffee is also extremely controversial, so we've included the most important things you need to know about it here.
Kopi luwak is not a Sumatra coffee. Luwak is the Indonesian name for the Asian palm civet, a small jungle-dwelling mammal that can be found throughout Southeast Asia. Essentially, kopi luwak is coffee that is "processed" by palm civets that eat the coffee cherries, ferment them in their intestines, and then defecate them. It is produced mainly in Indonesia as well as the Philippines.
Kopi luwak is often unethical and cruel. Kopi luwak was initially picked from the jungle as excrement from wild palm civets, as it was believed that the animals would choose to eat only the best coffee cherries. Unfortunately, the growing international demand for kopi luwak led to caged production - where the civets are kept in battery cages and force-fed cherries in order to get the beans more easily. The lack of transparency in production means that even "wild sourced" kopi luwak is usually from caged civets.
Genuine kopi luwak is highly labor-intensive and just one pound of it can cost anywhere from $100-$500. More importantly, most experts in the coffee industry agree that kopi luwak tastes thin, stale, and flavorless. You're better off not trying it!
Is Sumatran coffee Arabica or Robusta?
The coffee from Sumatra is mostly arabica, although some of the cultivars are said to contain Robusta lineage (crossbred in the past) to make them more resistant to disease.
Is Sumatra coffee considered a low quality coffee?
When third wave coffee rose to prominence, coffee connoisseurs were divided on Sumatra coffee because of its low acidity and darker notes. It was also often over-roasted, affecting the quality of the final cup. However, Sumatran coffee is now better understood and people who are sensitive to acids or prefer more complexity love it.
Does Sumatra coffee contain more caffeine?
No. This misconception comes from the fact that it's often roasted so dark. (Oh, and light roast and dark roast have about the same amount of caffeine.)
Enjoy Your Kopi
Smooth and robust, Sumatra coffee is the perfect single origin for the everyday coffee drinker. It's also a great counter to brighter, fruitier coffees when you want a little variety for your palate. Try some Sumatran coffee today and let us know what you think about it!