A Tale of Two Sumatras
There are perhaps no coffees more misunderstood than the coffees from the island of Sumatra. The western-most major island of the Indonesian Archipelago, Sumatra is a vast, exotic island known to ancient mariners as the sentry to the straits of Malacca – the pirate-infested gateway to the legendary spice islands. The island was home to exotic animals like the famous Sumatran Tiger and Orangutan (meaning "forest man" in the local language), and ancient and fierce civilizations that amazed European explorers.
After Dutch spice traders established trade with and colonized these remote islands, they founded tropical plantations on the islands of Java and Sumatra. Coffee was among the first crops they cultivated on these plantations, and before long these islands were the largest producers of coffee in the world. Soon, coffee cultivation shifted away from the colonists and towards the indigenous people of Sumatra.
It was then that Sumatran coffees began their rise to fame. And, since Sumatra is a gigantic island rich with cultural and geographic diversity, the coffees from the island were similarly diverse in their flavor and appearance. By the 1920s, coffee was being traded with indigenous names like Ankola and Mandailing, two ethnic groups of western Sumatra who traded particularly good coffee. Some coffee was grown in the lowlands of western Sumatra, but the best came overland from the mountains of Northern Sumatra. These mountains, deep in the dark interior of Sumatra, were mysterious to explorers and Sumatrans alike. And the coffees that came out of these highlands were richly diverse and wildly different from each other.
Now, the miracle of modern travel has allowed us to discover and explore the true sources of these amazing coffees. It has been astounding for us to experience the beautiful diversity of Sumatran coffee, Sumatran culture, and the Sumatran environment by traveling the long road to coffee's origins in the mountains of that dark island.
The best coffees in Sumatra come from two distinct places: the mountains in Central Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra and the mountains surrounding Lake Toba farther south. These coffees can still be classified according to the ethnic groups that grow the respective coffees; the Gayo and Toba Batak respectively. As part of our mission to uncover the secrets of the most amazing coffees of the world, we offer an example of each of these two very different coffees to our customers.
Our Gayo coffee, named after the ethnic group that grows the coffee in the mountains of Aceh, comes from a little valley called Jagong. Small Gayo farmers cultivate this coffee organically using the traditional varietals of Bergundal and Tim-Tim. The result is a syrupy-sweet dark-chocolate and fruit sensation, with a dollop of the deep earthy tones that make Gayo coffees famous. We pay tribute to the Gayo culture by featuring a hallmark of Gayo architecture on each bag, the ornately decorated triangle that fills the gable of each traditional Gayo house. The Gayo speak their own language and maintain their unique culture, including the tradition of coffee cultivation and trade.
Hundreds of miles south, in a completely different area of Sumatra, the magnificent Lake Toba sits as the centerpiece to the mountain homeland of the Toba Batak people. The Batak have cultivated coffee in these jungled mountains for generations and traded them in the towns of Siborongborong, Lintong Nihuta, and Dolok Sanggul.
Our favorite coffees come from Dolok Sanggul, and we buy coffees exclusively from this community. Our icon for this coffee features the silhouette of most ubiquitous symbols of Batak life, the unique, curved-roof "boat houses" that are the traditional dwelling of the Batak people. Dolok Sanggul coffees are spicy and resinous, complex and fragrant, bringing to mind the reality that Sumatra was known to the ancients as a spice island, home to pepper and cloves. The coffee is extraordinarily well prepared and clean as a whistle, a rarity in an island which is unfortunately notorious for dirty, moldy coffees.
These two coffees could not be more different than each other, and we think it's a shame that many still lump them together using the generic "Sumatran" descriptor. Both are amazing examples of an authentic tradition, and we couldn't imagine choosing between them. So try them both, and experience the diverse land of Sumatra from two unique perspectives.