What is Sumatra Coffee?

by Peter Taylor | Last Updated: 13 June 2020

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What is Sumatra Coffee?

If you’ve purchased coffee from Starbucks or Kirkland brand (to name the most common places to get coffee), then you have probably seen Sumatra coffee on the labels and you’ve certainly been drinking it. For all that it’s a common feature in your local coffee shop or possibly in your pantry, many people don’t think much about what this type of coffee is or how it got to be so popular in the West. Sumatra coffee may be one of the more common coffee beans we work with here, but its growing, cultivating and processing is anything but common. In today’s piece, we are going to look at the Sumatra coffee bean and uncover some truly weird things about this little bean, including:

  • The unique method of processing
  • The most expensive coffee bean in the world
  • The flavor profile of Sumatra coffee
  • Why it’s controversial among coffee connoisseurs
  • Where Sumatra Coffee comes from

Where Does Sumatra Coffee Come From?

Sumatra coffee beans are grown in the Sunda Islands in Indonesia, which is considered the heart of the coffee green belt. The islands are hot, humid, and tropical, creating a great environment for coffee to grow. The soil is volcanic in origin, making it very fertile. In particular, coffee is grown in ACEH, Lin Tong, the Southwest Region and Lampung with famous area including Lake Toba, Kerinci and Lintong. The entire region is suitable to grow coffee, though the quality varies wildly, depending on where it is grown. Quality ranges from the harsh and cheap robusta coffee grown at lower altitudes to the extremely expensive Kopi Luwak coffee which we will get to later on. The most common coffees are several arabica lines, Linie S and some Abyssinia and Rambung that was brought over in the late 1920s and still grow there today.

Sumatra coffee isn’t just special for the huge range of beans, each with their own flavor and odor profile, but also because the coffee isn’t grown by large scale operations. Instead, it’s grown on small farms that work together in coops to sell their products and split the profits. Coops protect the farmers by ensuring strict processing and workplace rules as well as sharing knowledge and technology. This means that, in general, coffee farmers in Indonesia do quite well for themselves and are considered more ethically sound by purchasers.

A Unique Way of Processing

The islands may be a fantastic area to grow coffee beans but processing them is a challenge in the rain soaked and often stormy region. While Ethiopian coffee, and many other varieties, are dried to 11% moisture, Sumatra coffee is often processed using a wet-hull method, also known as Giling Basah. Wet hulling is the best way to dry Sumatra coffee because there aren’t more than a few hours a day of drying time which isn’t enough time to dry beans down to 11%. Instead, the beans are dried to about 50% and then transported to a we-hulling machine that will use friction to finish the process and remove the beans from its coating. In some places, this process is even done by hand using paddles, mortar and pestles, just as it’s been done for centuries!

The process also ferments the coffee beans and creates a very earthy flavor. In fact, the entire process has a huge impact on the flavor, as well as creating a coffee with lower acidity and brightness. People characterize Sumatra coffee has having a very earthy flavor with tones of chicory, licorice, cedar, and sassafras. It can also have a creamy, chocolaty and even mushroom flavor, depending on which part of the islands the coffee was grown and processed. The reason for this isn’t quite known, but it’s thought that the process exposes the bean to more flavors due to exposure to sunlight, fungus, and other effects. The wet hulling also means that the bean doesn’t dry evenly which creates even more flavors.

What is Sumatra Coffee?

The processing method is a big part of why Sumatra coffee can be polarizing for aficionados. Wet hulling would be disastrous for many other coffee beans because the woody, dry flavor clashes with other flavors. In the case of Sumatra coffee, it helps the flavor profile that is already woody and spicy to be even stronger. If you’re a fan of earthy coffee, then Sumatra is going to be beloved, but if not, you’ll probably hate it. Either way, the Giling Basah method is unique and only found in a few places outside of Indonesia.

Dry processing can also occur in the area, though it’s less common. The beans are picked, the skins are removed and then the beans are fermented overnight in woven plastic bags. The beans are then washed by hands and laid out on drying sheets or directly on the ground. Many coffee drinkers prefer this method because it gives the beans different flavors, but it’s not as commonly used because there’s no guarantee the weather will be dry long enough to allow for dry processing to work.

The Flavor Profile of Sumatra Coffee

As stated before, the flavor profile is extremely varied for Sumatra coffee because it really depends on where the beans were grown and what happened to them over the course of processing. Some of the flavor notes you might taste include:

  • Earthy
  • Chocolate
  • Licorice
  • Chicory
  • Mushrooms
  • Sassafras
  • Peat and moss
  • Spicy herbs
  • Bell peppers
  • Balsamic vinegar

In most coffees, this type of flavor profile would be a sign of low quality, but for Sumatra, it’s considered a full body and rich flavor. Combined with the low acidity, this is a coffee that people who like a dark drink prefer. Sumatra coffee also tends to be a dark roast because the dark roast compliments this flavor profile, (Starbucks dark roasts its beans and since it’s the best known for selling Sumatra coffee, the two have become linked), but there’s no reason why it can’t be light or medium roast.

The Most Expensive Coffee in the World

Sumatra coffee is a common coffee to purchase which makes most people consider it pretty affordable. However, Sumatra coffee also has the most expensive bean in the world. This is the Kopi Iuwak coffee which goes for about $80.00 a cup or $100 or more per pound. The reason is due to it’s extremely… unique… processing.

Kopi Luwak coffee beans are gathered from poop of the Civet cat! The cat eats the beans and the digestion process starts the production process, though the parchment around the bean protects it from getting tainted by poop, and then it is collected, the processing is finished, and it’s sold. The beans have a unique flavor of tomato and mushroom which is completely unique for coffee. And if you want wild Kopi Luwak, it can cost even more as the farmers have to search for the cats and their poop as opposed to ‘farming’ the cats and gathering their poop. It may seem weird, but if you’re looking for a unique coffee, you can’t do much better than Kopi Luwak.

Sumatra coffee is now one of the more widespread coffee types on the market, particularly if you go to Starbucks or buy Kirkland brand coffee. However, many people don’t know much about this coffee and there is more to this bean than may meet the eye! We hope you learned something new and have a greater appreciation for the Sumatra bean, even if it’s not to your tastes.

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