From the Road: Salaam from Sumatra2-7-10
Hello friends and family,
Gayo country is a long way away. It takes about 30 hours to get to the island of Sumatra, but once you get to the port city of Medan you’re not there yet. It takes another 11 hours of driving to get to the Gayo highlands surrounding the placid Lake Tawar. Takengon, the city by the lake, is the headquarters of the Gayo people, an ethnicity which has a rich cultural heritage and long history. The Gayo have farmed and fished these highlands for thousands of years, and have their own language, culture, and traditions. It’s a beautiful land – rolling mountains lined with farms and topped with forests, and Gayo villages nestle along the steep, winding roads of this country. This is coffee land – about 90 percent of the Gayo people’s income comes from coffee growing and export.
I’m here to visit our partners, the Gayo Organic Coffee Cooperative, and their leader and exporter, Mr. Irham. Irham is a special person – he has been working in coffee in this area his whole life, growing up collecting coffee from local farmers, driving it down to the port city of Medan, and selling it to exporters. Doing this, he gained the respect and trust of the local farmers, and, about 4 years ago, after the tragic Acehnese civil war ended, Irham was able to start exporting coffee himself. We got the tip and began buying coffee directly from him. In the meantime, Irham led the formation of the Gayo Organic Coffee Cooperative, a democratic cooperative of organic coffee farmers.
As we continued to buy the cooperative’s coffee, we wound up discovering something special – coffee Irham marked “Jagong” was distinct from the rest, with a cleaner, more delicious flavor. Turns out, Jagong is a washing station in the valley of the same name, and I visited for the first time in 2007. It was an amazing find – most coffee here is processed casually on the roadsides. The Jagong mill, on the other hand, is a truly artisanal mill where farmers bring their cherry for crafting. The motto of the Jagong Mill “Jagalah Kebershian” which means “keep it clean” is a perfect descriptor for the mill – it’s a completely unique place in the Sumatran highlands – a place where coffees are fully fermented and washed before wet-hulling and drying.
The Jagong mill was apparently built as something as an experiment by the Dutch, trying to develop better, more consistent coffees from the area. During the Achenese war, the mill was abandoned, and Irham was able to negotiate a purchase – so the Jagong mill is now owned by the Gayo Organic Coffee Association, and we are the main buyers of this coffee. In the confusing and chaotic landscape that is coffee from the Gayo highlands, I’ve come to consider this mill and its coffee – grown in the surrounding valleys and washed in Jagong – the treasure of the Gayo mountains.
So, of course, Jagong was the first stop on our trip here, and I was also out to solve another mystery: this year, our favorite coffee was marked Atu Lintang. Was this another Jagong? Since Irham speaks no English and I no Gayo, email was no help. I finally figured it out on my first day here – Atu Lintang is the name of the valley right next to the Jagong valley, and the Atu Lintang farmers bring their coffee to Jagong for processing. Jagong wins again! See what I mean about something special? I was therefore able to concentrate my travels on these two valleys. Trekking around was made easier because the roads have been much improved this year – the trip from Takengon which used to take 3 hours now takes an easy one-and-a-half!
I am filled with respect for the farmers of Jagong and neighboring valleys. The Gayo have a reputation for being extraordinary devout and hard-working, and they are fiercely protective of their culture and heritage. Every farmer knows that this coffee is special, and that it is unique to these highlands. Local legend says that this was the very first place in Sumatra where coffee was planted, and I believe it. These are still the spice islands, as well, and farmers grow cinnamon and cloves on their farms, along with fruit trees like tangerine, snakefruit, and the famous spiky durian. Irham and the farmers have been working harder in recent years, focusing on cherry ripeness. Ripeness, of course, means sweetness, and we’ve indeed noticed that the sweetness of Jagong coffee has increased in the past few years. We spent time discussing how Counter Culture can support further forays into coffee perfection, and we're working on some very special coffees from these farms. Stay tuned for that.
I’ve also had a great time traveling with Irham and his family. Tragically, Irham’s brother, confidant, and partner died suddenly last year, and this has been tough on Irham and the cooperative. Luckily, Irham’s two children, Andi and Ina, were ready to start taking some responsibility. It’s charming to see serious, stern Irham gently showing his children the details of the coffee trade. Andi now sits as the cooperative’s president, and 24-year-old Ina has moved by herself to the big city of Medan to tend to the coffee exports. It’s a big responsibility, but she is ready for it, and she’s especially excited to take coffee quality to new heights in the next generation. It’s exciting and it makes me so happy to be laying the groundwork for a durable relationship in Aceh – a place that has known so much instability. “We work together to improve quality,” Ina said to me in English first thing yesterday morning, a phrase which she had clearly been practicing.
Anyway, I’ve got tons of notes and have been making lots of plans. After 4 days in the highlands, we made the 11-hour drive back to Medan yesterday, and will spend today visiting the dry mills and port facilities. Then, this afternoon, we fly to Java for the next leg of the trip. Yes, you read correctly, Java. I’ll tell you all about it next week.
Meanwhile, I miss you all. See you soon.