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Sumatran coffee has long been the black sheep in the world of internationally renowned coffees. So much so, in fact, that “infamy” might even be best to way describe its rep among coffee lovers the world over. This unusual, utterly unique-tasting bean, more than any other we know, falls distinctly into that love-it-or-hate-it category of coffees. It’s the Taylor Swift or pineapple pizza topping of coffees.
The vanilla ice cream. The country music. Whichever way you skin it, Sumatran beans are unique, boasting complex flavor profiles that you’ll be hard pressed to find from any other coffee growing region around the globe.
But just what is it that makes this bean so distinct from coffees grown in other regions around the world? And why is its rep one so besmirched with unfavorable reviews? And, most importantly, if we happen to be lovers of this coffee, how are we to get our hands on the best Sumatran beans out there?
In this article, we aim to answer the above question with our guide to choosing Sumatran coffees. To that end, let’s start by taking a quick look at what this bean’s all about and how it acquires its distinct flavor and character.
Sumatran Coffee: The Lowdown
A Word or Two on Sumatra
Sumatra is a large island located in Indonesia, just off of the coast of Malaysia and north of East Jaya. As some of you will know, this region is frequently referred to as the “coffee green belt” owing to the abundance of world-class coffees it produces. The hot and humid weather in the region plays a large part in the creation of Sumatran beans’ distinctive flavor.
The main growing regions in Sumatra are Lintong, Aceh, and Lampung. The beans produced in these regions are all of the arabica variety and include Typica, S-Line Hybrids, Caturra, and Bourbon. For the most part, these coffees have a deep, pungent, earthy character and carry notes as diverse as sweet cedar, bell pepper, mushroom, and dark chocolate.
Sumatran Coffee Production
Coffees from the Indonesian island of Sumatra have a fairly unique, mild, and low-acidity profile. These characteristics result from the wet-hulling method used to process the beans.
Wet what? You may well ask
Before we go any further, let’s take a quick look at what this processing method amounts to and how it contributes to Sumatran beans’ distinct taste.
The Hulling Process
Hulling is the process by which the pergamino (skin) is removed from coffee beans and is usually performed between the milling and polishing stages. Most coffee producers hull their beans dry when the pergamino is more fragile and easy to remove.
This is generally done in a large, industrial “huller,” a machine that comes in varying forms but always performs the function of gradually removing the hulls with a kind of gentle exfoliation. The hulling is typically done when the beans have been left to dry until their moisture content is in the region of 10%.
Sumatran beans, on the other hand, are typically processed or hulled in situ by the producers. Right after picking, they’re treated to a thorough washing which also removes the pergamino in what’s known locally as the Giling Basah process. This process gently softens the beans’ hull to aid removal and simultaneously decreases the beans’ acidity levels.
Because Sumatra’s climate is high on humidity, the drying process is often complicated by heavy and persistent rains for much of the year. This being so, Sumatran coffee producers of yore developed this process as a means of removing the parchment from their beans—i.e. hulling—when the beans have only been left to dry for shorter periods and reached roughly 50% moisture content.
Sumatran Coffee: The Taste Test
So, what does all this mean for the flavor profile of Sumatran beans?
Well, the abundance of moisture present in both the plantations’ soil and added during the process of wet hulling gives the beans a flavor that’s unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else in the world. The high moisture content of Sumatran beans also means that they continue to ferment right up to the point of roasting, another factor that contributes to their dynamic and unique flavoring.
Not only are Sumatran beans lower in acidity, but they also carry rich earthy notes and reduced brightness. These earthy notes are often complemented by hints of balsamic vinegar, mushroom, bell pepper, peat, moss, herbs, and spices.
While to some this flavor profile will leave a lot to be desired or more closely resemble that of a single-malt Scotch, for others it is an “acquired taste” that offers a very worthy, distinct, low-acidity alternative to coffees from other famous growing regions.
Now we know what makes Sumatran coffees so special, let’s take a look at some of the best varieties you can get your hands on.
The Five Best Sumatran Coffees
For those of you who have read our review of Volcanica Coffee Company, you’ll know that this New York-based retailer is one what we’re really excited about. Relatively new to the scene of coffee retail, they’ve taken the field by storm, producing a stellar range of delicious single-origin coffees that are as fresh as any we’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting.
Volcanica’s Sumatra Mandheling is no exception. Sumatra Mandheling takes its name from the Mandheling people, who were Sumatra’s original coffee farmers. (Legend has it that a member of the Japanese army posted in Sumatra during World War II got the wrong end of the stick and inadvertently named this variety of coffee after muddling up the beans’ growing location with the ethnicity of its growers.)
This coffee is shade-grown at altitudes of 2,500 to 5,000 feet and is very low in acidity, has bold chocolaty and caramel notes, and that rich earthy aroma for which all Sumatran coffees are famous.
Volcanica’s medium-roasted Mandheling has a very mild brown sugar and cocoa aroma that dances on the palate before a vaguely winey, fruity, clean swansong. This roast is both Fair Trade Certified and Rainforest Alliance Certified and is available in whole bean and drip, espresso, and French press grinds.
We just can’t quite get enough of our Volcanica, can we? Well, there’s a good reason for our favoritism, especially when it comes to this exquisite-tasting Sumatra Gayo Peabody Coffee.
Volcanica’s Gayo Peaberry coffee is shade-grown in the Ache Province in the north of Sumatra at altitudes between 4000 and 6000 feet. As with other Sumatran coffees, the processing methods employed in making these beans and the region’s high humidity contribute greatly to the flavor and character of the coffee, bequeathing it a very heavy, rich, complex, syrup-like body and hints of clove, cardamom, caramel, peach, and cacao nib that tickle the palate before a mild, floral finish.
Volcanica Gayo Peaberry beans retail for just under $22 per pound are both Fair Trade Certified and certified organic.
3. Brooklyn Roasting Company Mocha Java
A bit of a wildcard entry in our list, the Brooklyn Roasting Company’s Mocha Java is dual-origin dark roast that’s ideal for those who enjoy subtle and unique flavors.
Mocha Java blends have an interesting history. Named after the Yemeni city of Mokha in Eastern Africa, Mocha Javacoffees combine beans from the widely recognized birthplace of coffee, Yemen, with beans from Sumatra, a practice that began in the 18th century when Java was under the rule of the Dutch East India Company and Yemen was the central trading hub of the Arab World.
The two bean types complement each other perfectly, with the Yemeni variety providing the light, fruity brightness found in many East African coffees and the Sumatran beans the deep, rich, full-bodied character and earthy tones for which Sumatran beans are famous.
The Brooklyn Roasting Company’s Mocha Java blend combines beans from Sidama in Ethiopia (Yemen’s close neighbor) and Sumatra’s Aceh region. The result is a rich, sweet medium-roast coffee with notes of blackberry and honey and a slightly spicy finish. There are countless takes on this classic blend out there and this, without a doubt, is one of the best.
Brooklyn Roasting Company’s Mocha Java beans are both Fair Trade Certified and Certified Organic.
4. Starbucks Sumatra Coffee – Dark Roast
If you like your coffee dark, thickly textured, a little rough around the edges, and low on acidity, then Starbuck’s Sumatra Dark Roast could well be the coffee for you.
Available in whole bean, ground, K-Cup pods, and Verisimo pods (but, for some reason, no longer in decaf), this full-bodied, robust, bold bean brings us all of the best qualities Sumatran coffees have to offer.
This is a coffee that really doesn’t mess around. Carrying spicy and herbal notes and a deep, earthy aroma with an ever so slightly salty, tobacco-flavored finish, this is a hard-hitter and the ideal pick-me-up in the a.m., particular when accompanied by savory eats.
While a little flatter and lacking the depth and resonance of other Sumatran coffees in our review, this coffee still offers the unmistakable deep, earthy aroma, heavy body, and low acidity typically associated with Sumatran roasts and leaves a light note of fresh earth and herbs on the palate.
5. Kopi Luwak Direct Kopi Luwak Coffee
Kopi Luwakis, without a doubt, the most controversial coffee in the world. The proud bearer of such undesirable alternative handles as “The Cat-Butt Brew,” “The Cat-Crap Coffee”, and “The Most Expensive Coffee in the World”, this is truly a coffee unlike any other. Kopi Luwak is not only tear-inducingly pricey but, as you might have guessed, is the only coffee in the world that can rightly call a cat-cum-wolf-like creature’s intestinal tract one the zones in which it is processed.
Yep, you read that correctly.
Kopi Luwak coffee beans are a true delicacy and curio of the coffee world. The berries of the Kopi Luwak are eaten by a small animal called the luak (a.k.a. the Asian palm civet). While in the stomach of the luaks, the berries soften and shed the hull which envelops the berry with the help of the enzymes contained in the guts of the luaks.
This process, it is claimed, divests the beans’ of their innate bitterness and—horrifyingly for some—lays the foundations of the flavors that give this coffee such a unique character, aroma, and profile. In time, nature runs its course, the luaks excrete the berries and, hey presto, the Kopi Luak bean is born. Almost…
Readers unschooled in the ways of Kopi Luwak production will be glad to learn that post-pooping the beans are carefully cleaned, dried, and roasted. Whew!
You will probably have guessed by now that such an elaborate production method means that the volume of beans produced by Kopi Luwak farmers is far more limited than with more “traditional” methods. Indeed, the great lengths that Kopi Luwak producers—the human ones, not the luaks—go to in order to produce their beans result in prices high enough to put off your average sultan—most varieties are currently available for the princely sum of circa $300 per pound.
Before you go robbing any banks to give it a try, let’s first answer the question that’s on everyone’s minds:
Isn’t Kopi Luwak coffee just a pile of very expensive poop in more than the literal sense?
Well, yes and no…
As elaborate, gratuitous, and downright disgusting as the Kopi Luwak production process might seem on first impressions, there’s actually a modicum of the quasi-logical method in the madness. Though it’s safe to assume they are not one jot about us coffee drinkers, when munching coffee cherries, luaks pick only the ripest fruit on the tree, thus ensuring only the sweetest beans enter stage two of the production process.
Their intestines, moreover, do the job of conventional hulling machines by removing the fruit’s hull, all while simultaneously fermenting the beans. This, the producers tell us, is the magic that brings the beans their unique flavor. And there’s no doubting the Kopi Luwak bean’s flavorsomeness—it’s earthy, full-bodied, low-key, and generally much lower on acidity than dry-hull processed beans.
Ultimately, the only way to definitively answer the above question is with another: how much are you willing to pay for a novelty, rare, slightly freakish coffee that will give you life-long bragging rights among your coffee-drinking cohorts?
If your answer to that question happens to be “a pretty penny”, then you could do worse than to cast an eye over Kopi Luwak Direct’s Kopi Luwak Coffee.
There are a number of reasons to choose Kopi Luwak Direct as your retailer should you happen to be considering taking the plunge into the world of Kopi Luwak consumption. The most important of these is very simple: ethics. As you might imagine, certain unethical Kopi Luwak producers are not afraid of flouting common decency and animal rights in a bid to up their profits.
These farms have been found to not only cage the civets (luaks) and overfeed them in order to speed up production and raw materials but also treat their other staff—i.e. the human variety—less than humanely and pay less than the fair living wage.
Gladly, Kopi Luwak Direct uses only free-range civets to process their beans and also works hand-in-hand with the native B’laan tribe, buying their beans directly from the coffee farmers to ensure ethical production practices and direct their business to a source.
The 2,800+ civets responsible for the processing of Kopi Luwak Direct’s beans live and roam freely on the slopes of Mount Matutum. Because the Luwaks are free-range, they choose only the ripest coffee cherries while continuing to consume their full and natural diet, something that sweetens, enriches, and enhances the flavor of Kope Luwak Direct’s coffee in ways not evident in the beans “produced” by caged Luwaks.
Kopi Luwak Direct’s growers also use no artificial fertilizers on their plantations, thus guaranteeing their farms have a low environmental impact and their beans are healthy for humans and luaks alike.
With regard to taste, Kopi Luwak Direct’s coffee is a very smooth, low-acidity, full-bodied roast that carries subtle nutty and caramel notes and lacks any semblance of bitterness, thus negating the need for sugar or sweeteners to take away the beans’ “bite”.
The Verdict: Sumatran Coffee
From beans processed in the bowels of a small mountain-dwelling mammal to historical blends that combine some of the best beans Africa and Indonesia have to offer, our review has seen a little bit of everything Sumatran coffees have in store. These coffees are nothing if not unique, and, granted, are maybe not for the unadventurous, but if you’re keen to sample some super tasty coffee that’s low in acidity, high on flavor, and unlike any other, you ever tried, Sumatran coffees are well worth a try.
The pick of the bunch? Assuming that the average reader isn’t willing to take out the small bank loan required to keep themselves stocked up on Kopi Luwak for any more than half a day, we recommend newcomers to Sumatran coffee dip their toes into the Sumatran coffee market by trying out Volcanica’s Sumatra Gayo Peaberry Coffee.
This heavy, complex roast is everything we love about Sumatran coffee—it’s low in acidity, low-profile, far less likely to offend that some of its earthier Sumatran relatives, and far more likely to delight with its rich, syrupy body, gentle notes of caramel and cardamon, and its mild, cleansing floral finish.