by Art Lieberman
One day, I was sipping a cup of Sumatra and realized I knew a big bunch a nothing about the region. And when I asked people in the coffee shop, they knew even less (except for the one or two people I spoke with who had traveled there).
When you drink specialty coffee from Sumatra, you are enjoying a product grown by a micro-lot farmer. These guys are working only 1 or 1.5 hectares. Sumatra does not have coffee “plantations.” So, you are really helping the little guy when you drink one of these.
The people of Sumatra have a storied history filled with names and places most Americans have never heard of. Archaeology (you know that guy right?) tells us that hunter-gatherers lived in Sumatra thousands of years ago. And cultures from South Asia and China traded and fought in the area around the Strait of Melaka (which is where a finger of the Asian continent reaches down to almost touch Sumatra).
Aceh, in Northern Sumatra, is believed to be where Islam was initially introduced to Indonesia by Muslim sea traders from Western India. And Islam flourished for a millennium on the Island and in the general region.
Enter the Dutch. During the era of European colonialism, the Netherlands wanted a piece of the World pie. They set up shop in Indonesia and attempted to establish a colony. As you can imagine, the Sumatrans and other Indonesians were none too happy with the European presence.
While trying to raise the living standards of the colonies by building railways and other means, it also attempted to legitimize colonialism under the name of civilization (www.dailysabah.com). Locals did not see it that way. The Aceh (northern region of Sumatra) revolt began in 1873 and lasted for 30 years. The Dutch lost all of its colonies in the 20th century.
Throughout the colonial era, Sumatra saw every foreign power assert some claim in the West Sumatran port of Padang. Besides the Dutch, the British, Americans, and Chinese all asserted control at one time or another.
In the aftermath of colonialism, an Indonesian government worked to unify the islands from the city of Jakarta, Indonesia's capital (on the island of Java), and rebels in Sumatra fought this at first too. They hated Jakarta as much as they despised the Dutch.
No human encounter or conflict can compare to the devastation of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, where a 9.0 magnitude earthquake shook the northwestern shore of Sumatra and set off an area-wide tsunami. In the province of Aceh, the landmass nearest into the epicenter, 15m-high (or 50 ft) waves rose up like the legendary Naga (the sea serpent) swallowing people and coastal developments.
The death count of Indonesians was estimated over 170,000 individuals, most of them in the Aceh region of Sumatra. An 8.7 magnitude aftershock that followed several months later was centered close to the Nias Island (off the Sumatra coast), destroying the capital city and killing hundreds of the inhabitants there.
Among other cash crops, the Dutch brought coffee which the locals learned to grow and process. Lots of coffees are famous for huge body (like Java), winey acidity (like African coffees), or clean crispness like Central American coffees. Sumatra is unique in that it brings an earthy edge to the coffee. Rich earth, spices, subtle ripe fruity notes, with virtually no acid (morecoffee.com).
Only 15% of the coffee grown all across Indonesia is specialty-quality Arabica. This Sumatra Mandheling coffee is grown in the lofty volcanic slopes of the Mount Leuser close to Padang Port in the Batak region of West Central Sumatra.
Some of the best tasting premium gourmet coffees in the world are Mandheling.. These coffees are defined by their earthly flavors and full body. The low acidity feature makes this particularly attractive to individuals with sensitivity to otherwise organic acids contained in coffee.
Sumatran coffee farmers process these beans by constructing de-pulping machines out of scavenged material. After using the machines, they allow the depulped coffee to set out in the mucilage overnight. The beans soak up additional flavors and then are washed in the morning and dry on mats or clay in the front yard (morecoffee.com).
With Sumatran coffee’s best experience delivered, more coffee drinkers get excited about this coffee everyday.
Sumatra, know the history; enjoy the cup.