Indonesia is a vast archipelago-nation made up of thousands of islands. It is one of the oldest producers of coffee in the world, going back to the early 17th century. Lower quality Canephora, popularly referred to as Robusta, constitutes around 90% of the nation’s production, with Arabica constituting the remaining 10%. The three major Arabica-producing islands are Java, Sulawesi (once called Celebes by the Dutch), and Sumatra.
Java coffees are grown on state-owned farms and are always washed. The finest can have a unique, very fine floral character. After almost 30 years in the coffee trade I have tasted this only once. It is difficult to find a Java that goes much beyond generic coffee flavor. Low world prices have strongly contributed to this uninspiring state of affairs. I keep hoping.
Sulawesi’s best production is in the region of Toraja and goes to the Japanese, who have invested heavily in the island’s production. The best grades are always washed, but much of the island’s non-Japanese production is still processed in a very rudimentary way. Sulawesi coffee is similar in character and appearance to much of Sumatra’s Arabica production, and it is sometimes clandestinely packed in Sumatran bags to fetch higher prices. Sulawesi coffee, sometimes referred to as Celebes, is appreciated for its low acidity and heavy body.
Sumatran Arabica coffee has a near legendary status. Many coffee lovers feel Sumatran coffee is the embodiment of syrupy body and rich earth tones. It is grown in the northern portion of the island, mainly in Aceh at the northern tip and on plateaus of 3,000 to 4,000 foot elevation in the Lintong Mountains in the central northern area, to the west of Lake Toba. Clouds and a misty humidity prevail throughout. While such conditions lengthen the maturation rate of the coffee, leading to potentially greater complexity, they also create huge quality-control problems.
Most coffee in Sumatra is grown by small farmers. Some small farmers in Aceh bring their cherries to central mills where the beans are washed. Others process the coffee themselves, using very primitive methods described further on. There is a strong independence movement in Aceh against Indonesia, with considerable turmoil in the area. The small farmers of the most traditional central northern areas of Sumatra have little infrastructure to attain sustained quality production. Families remove the fruit from the coffee beans and then proceed to dry the mucilaginous seeds (which we call beans) on plastic sheets in their yards, or, where lacking, on the sides of the streets. The beans are picked up by a middleman well before they are even close to dry and brought to a rudimentary mill where they are immediately hulled (hulling), leaving them no protection (see parchment). The beans must be brought down to the sunnier coastal city of Medan, hours away, to complete the drying. Even then the coffees are rarely dried sufficiently and therefore continue to be subject to instability and mold. The earth tones that so many aficionados marvel over are typically the result of the presence of defective beans, due to insect or fungal damage, and from primitive processing and sorting, dramatically compounded by excessively humid conditions. Despite all the problems mentioned above, the rare fine Sumatran can be worth the wait. Sumatrans have a sultry quality unlike any other coffee. In my opinion, it is also the only coffee which, when properly aged for several years, produces an extraordinarily heavy, sweet cup, a bit like port. This requires two miracles: finding a great clean Sumatran in the first place and then having the patience, knowledge, and resources to age it over years.