It has been just over a year since our last visit to Sumatra. Since then pretty much nothing has changed, the crop remains tight and the quality of the crop as usual remains variable.
This year farmers had high expectations on the new crop as the flowering came in time and in good shape but unfortunately not the rain, which was meant to help to form and develop the new cherries. Rain was expected from June to August for an October/ November harvest but it came two months later with very clear consequences. First, the size and quantity of the cherries have been compromised and second there is not enough coffee around which has sent prices to the roof, yes! Again. Of course, this might not come as surprise to most of us but it making very difficult for exporters mainly to meet their obligations. It is a shame as Sumatran coffees during our summer were traded within normal differentials well in line within historical levels.
I visited two of the main coffee producing provinces, North Sumatra and Aceh. This situation above described was equally experienced in these areas. However, it is worth noticing that coffee growers from Aceh generally look after their crops better than those from North Sumatra (Lintong), making their coffee plants more resilient to any changes in weather conditions and ultimately giving them a decent chance to make a living out of coffee. I was told by an exporter that the rate of conversion from cherry to exportable green beans is just about 20% from cherries coming from the Lintong area compared to at least 50% from Aceh.
In general, as a country there is still a lot to do to improve the quality and yields of the coffee. Currently, the system suffers from a lot of inefficiencies starting at farm level as farmers traditionally pick cherries without consideration of being red ripe or green immature then deliver them to the local collecting points or micro wet mills to be processed. Every village depending on their size will have at least 1 or 2 collectors, in the case of cooperatives the collectors are elected democratically by the local members. Normally the first quality control filter should be done at this level but farmers still expect a full payment for the total weight of the cherries regardless of quality. Therefore, the collectors don’t have any other choice than processing the whole lot which produces a lot a waste which is still sold and transported as wet parchment (locally know as Gabah 40-45% moisture content) to the dry mills usually run by private exporters. Very few cooperatives will process the wet parchment and prepare the coffee for export themselves. I was very lucky to visit a local market on a trading day, here the Gabah is traded next to pretty much anything from vegetables, grains, animals, clothes to gasoline.
The wet parchment depending on how far it has to be transported may experience early fermentation that could spoil the quality of the whole lot delivered to the mill. Once at the mill the Gabah is weighed and put on concrete patios to reduce its moisture content to a level that can be further processed or hulled (about 30% moisture content). It is important to notice that very little cherries will processed as fully washed which consist on drying the parchment until 12-13% moisture content with a combination of patios and mechanical driers then hulled and graded for export. The bulk of the cherries will be processed as semi washed or traditional method. The semi washed method is done by hulling the wet parchment to get the green beans know as Labu (20-30% moisture content) that will be put on patios for further drying and finished off in mechanical driers to a 13% moisture content level, which is worth noticing that Indonesia is the only coffee producing country allowed to export coffee above 12.5% moisture content.
Finally the dried green beans called Asalan are ready to be processed and graded for export. This is done by a combination of machines and hand pickers. The coffees we buy usually are prepared to Grade1 DP or TP double or triple pick accordingly (DP not to be confused with dry process).
The exporters we work with despite having colour sorting machines at their mills still employ 100s of people, mainly women, to pick defects by hand. This contributes tremendously to the local economy generating jobs that are well needed.
There is a lot to take on as an origin. We have been very fortunate to work with top private exporters and cooperatives who believe the country can do better and offer great coffees consistently.
When I visited the Wahana estate located nearby Lake Toba the main thing that impressed me was how well looked after were the coffee plants. Wahana is running a unique operation where the whole farm has been planted as blocks of varietals offering quality and traceability. More than 12 varietals have been planted of which Rasuna, Toraja, Longberry and Jantung have been consistently giving good yields and cup quality. We have bought some these amazing varietals including the unique Wahana natural that many of you are familiar with. Wahana is going to be in full swing next year so we are looking forward to get more of these single varietals which can be processed as fully washed, semi washed and natural.
Our suppliers believe that Sumatra still has more to offer as a coffee origin. They are trying to break the mould and traditional approach to quality. Wahana apart from producing and processing its own coffees is processing cherries bought from the surrounding areas instead of the traditional Gaba which is more difficult to handle. This way they have been able to control the quality of their coffees and add value and consistency. This system works very well in Costa Rica where the cherries are processed in a centralised wet and dry mill for efficiency and quality control.
At a cooperative level they face similar problems but with less capacity to change to a more sound system that eventually will add more value to their members. A manager of a very good coop showed me a very unique project, he called it how to reduce the number of members of the coop, and his answer was: improving quality. Farmers have been for years accustomed to deliver cherries without any quality sorting to the local collectors, as explained above, making it very difficult for any coop to say no to them. This is a brave move by this coop and something we will support it as it proves that individuals can change and bring change for the greater good.
This trip to Sumatra has been very enlightening coffee wise and has allowed me to understand some the challenges farmers and exporters face to add value to their coffees. We hope the initiatives briefly mentioned above are just the beginning of a new era and a way forward.
By Santiago Barahona