Bean spotlight: Sumatran Arabica

Bean spotlight: Sumatran Arabica

by Espresso di Manfredi

Origin: Northern Sumatra, Indonesia

Character: Rich, spicy, sweet, fruity

Notes: earth, cocoa, tobacco, spiced fruit


Sitting in the Indian Ocean in western Indonesia, Sumatra is the sixth largest island in the world. The high plateaus in the island’s north are home to a coffee bean that is highly sought after by aficionados.

“One of my favourite coffees,” says Caffe di Manfredi master blender Wayne Archer of Sumatran Arabica. “The rich, spicy, fruity, almost wild taste is fantastic to drink as a single or as part of a blend.”

The sheer breadth of Sumatran varieties available is partly a consequence of the structure of the local industry: made up of thousands of small-scale producers operating on farms that average less than five hectares in size, the number of producers is reflected in the nuances of tastes. Depending on exactly where it was grown, Sumatran Arabica can take on earthy notes of leather, tobacco and cedar or fruitier, spiced flavours.

“The unusual methods of producing this coffee creates its widely variable flavour profile,” Archer says. The hulling process, called Giling Basah—literally, ‘wet grinding’—is better known to the world as ‘wet hulled’ and accounts for the bulk of Sumatran coffee processing. This, and the lack of iron in the soil, is said to explain the distinctive blue hue of the bean. It is also gives the island’s coffee its signature heavy body/low acid character.

Of the main growing regions, Mandheling coffee comes from the province of North Sumatra and includes Linton coffee, grown in the highlands around Indonesia’s biggest lake, Lake Toba. The 1,200 metre-plus plateaus and rich, volcanic soil in the area makes a happy home for the Arabica bean—so much so that crops grow year round without any need for chemicals. Many growers in the region adopt a unique three-stage drying process, which further builds on the unique characteristics.

Further north, Aceh province is starting to rediscover its coffee heritage following years of civil unrest topped off by the fierce 2004 tsunami. Gayo Arabica, from the Aceh region of the same name, has a premium reputation around the world because nearly 80 percent of the area’s farmers strive to keep organic plantations. Processed via traditional wet methods, Gayo tends towards a lighter-bodied character compared to its Sumatran cousins.

As well suited as it seems to the high-altitude rainforest, Arabica is not indigenous to Sumatra. Getting in on the spice trade of the time, Dutch traders decided they might as well dabble in coffee as well, introducing Arabica plantations to Sumatra and nearby Java in the 1600s.

Four centuries later and the Sumatran Arabica has retained its distinctive, rustic qualities, enthralling coffee enthusiasts all around the world. The flavour is often seen as a love-it-or-hate it proposition.

For Archer’s money, it’s a sign of the sophistication of the flavour. “It’s probably a coffee for the more refined coffee palate,” he says.