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Sumatra Trip Report 2023

In November, Hannah and I travelled to Sumatra in Indonesia. As one of our core origins, and as we haven’t visited in a few years, our trip took us to some remote and wonderful places. We spent ten days visiting Sari Makmur, Wahana Estate, Permata Gayo and Ketiara, soaking up the local food, coffee, culture and hospitality along the way.

Shade Grown Coffee in Suku Rami, Aceh

Sari Makmur

Our first port of call in Sumatra was with Sari Makmur or, to give its full name, Sari Makmur Tunggal Mandiri – ‘Tunggal Mandiri’ meaning ‘Single Independent’. This is fitting, as Sarimakmur is still a family-owned business that has been trading and exporting commodities since 1995. Set up by Maria Simarmata, Sarimakmur trades in coffee, pepper, spices and cocoa today. DRWakefield first developed a relationship with Sarimakmur in the early 2000s and has worked with the Simarmata family for over 20 years. Alongside trade and export, the company has a blossoming farm-to-shop business in Sumatra. Opal Coffee Roasters is a brand serving coffee to customers across its six sites in Medan and the wholesale market, sourcing green coffee and ingredients for its food offering from its coffee and vegetable farm, Wahana Estate, in nearby Lake Toba.

Drying Patios at Sari Makmur Dry Mill, Medan

We spent our first three days in Sumatra with Andry, Maria’s son and CEO of Sari Makmur. After picking us up from our hotel on Thursday morning, we visited Sari Makmur’s warehouse and dry mill on the outskirts of Medan. The company owns five warehouses and factories across Indonesia, receiving Arabica and Robusta coffee. Two warehouses are in Sumatra, one in Medan that receives Arabica coffee from Lake Toba and Aceh and the other in Lampung on the island’s southernmost tip. The remaining three warehouses are on the neighbouring islands of Java, Sulawesi, and Flores. Sarimakmur also exports a small amount of coffee from Yunnan in China.  

At the Medan Dry Mill we saw the coffee process and cupped some coffees from Wahana Estate and the neighbouring regions. After the factory tour, we had lunch at one of Opal Coffee’s destination shops where we enjoyed a generous, delicious lunch and a taste of the trendy (and equally delicious) avocado and chocolate smoothie served across the city. We finished our meal with an espresso affogato, made with coffee grown on Wahana Estate, before the six-hour trip to the farm near the town of Sidikalang to the West of Lake Toba in North Sumatra.  

Cupping in Sari Makur Quality Lab

Wahana Estate 

The rainy season in Sumatra starts around November and runs through to around March. We can attest to this, as it poured down for most of our trip to Wahana Estate. The meandering road took us West of Medan, snaking between Lake Toba and Mount Sibuatan (which I’m sure were beautiful beyond the rainy haze). Arriving at Wahana Estate long after dark, a home-cooked meal awaited us to warm our spirits before karaoke, an activity we became well acquainted with over the next ten days.  

Wahana Estate Guesthouses

A different picture greeted us when we woke and stepped out into the morning sun. Bright, lush greenery surrounds Wahana Estate’s main site and guesthouse, still glistening from the night’s rain. Wahana Estate was established in 2005 and is the largest private estate in Indonesia. Alongside coffee, the farm produces maise, sweet purple potatoes, daikon radishes, edamame, clementines and tea. An on-site vegetable processing facility prepares, cooks, and freezes produce for export to Japan.  

Shaded Nursery at Wahana Estate

After breakfast, we toured the estate, visiting the peacefully shaded coffee nursery and meeting Cornell, the farm’s agronomist, before driving to the farm’s various lots. The coffee produced at Wahana is mostly high-quality or experimental. The most cultivated varieties are Longberry, Rasuna and P88. Other varieties include the local Komasti and Sigarutang, Pacamara, and Toraja, which originates from Sulawesi. Amongst the Arabica plants, we also spied a few Liberica trees, whose large leathery leaves stand out distinctively. Wahana Estate is undergoing a regeneration project, and 50% of the coffee is being replanted. Young trees are intercropped with lemongrass as they are planted in the field, which is removed just before the first cherry production.  

Hannah, Andry and Tom at Wahana Estate

We ended the farm tour with a visit to the estate’s dry mill, which was built in 2007. Mostly, coffee in Sumatra is processed by the traditional Giling Basah method, which you can read more about here. Wahana employs three main processing techniques: Traditional Wet-Hulled, Dry Hulled (or Washed) and Natural. All coffee is processed using fresh, natural rainwater and treated after processing. Alongside its own coffee, Wahana Estate also supports smallholder growers in the surrounding area. Over 10,000 farmers, 43% of whom are women, deliver coffee cherries to Wahana, which are processed on the farm and sold as regional lots. In addition to fair payment, farmers receive support from the estate, such as agronomical training, soil analysis, and seedlings. 

We were fortunate to spend two nights on this beautiful farm, enjoying more locally-grown food and coffee (and karaoke). On Saturday, we set off towards Medan, ready for our Sunday drive to a region infamous for quality coffee – Aceh. 

Team photo with Maria and Andry

Permata Gayo 

Takengon is a town in Aceh, a region in the northern tip of Sumatra, that overlooks the majestic Lake Laut Tawar. It’s nestled at the base of the Gayo Highlands, a prime-time coffee-growing area. The drive from Medan to Takengon is nine hours on a good run. We did not have a good run, checking into our hotel late in torrential rain over 12 hours after leaving Medan on Saturday morning. Our time wasn’t misspent. Thanks to our driver’s playlist, we made good use of the journey to become familiar with the local music (shout out to you, Mr. Junet!) and sample some local dishes like Nasi Goreng, (Indonesian stir-fried rice) and coffee along the way.  

Aceh is a province quite different from others in Indonesia. It is the region where Islam began to spread to Indonesia in the 13th century, and today is the only Indonesian province officially practising Sharia law. Recent times have been difficult for Aceh and the Gayo Highlands. Conflict and displacement affected the region throughout the thirty-year-long Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebellion, which claimed over 15,000 lives. The insurgency came to an end after an agreed peace deal in 2005, following a strong military offensive in the region and the devastation caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Today, however, tells a different story. Although not so much of a tourist area due to accessibility, the Gayo Highlands has a reputation for high-quality coffee, and the people who grow coffee here can make a reasonable income. Slowly but surely, the economy of the highlands has recovered since the early 2000s, with coffee contributing to 90% of the local economy.  

Meeting Armia, Rama and Permata Gayo Cooperative, Bener Meriah

We spent our first two days in Aceh with the cooperative Permata Gayo in the regency of Bener Meriah. Permata Gayo was established in 2006 to assist in the growth of coffee production in Bener Meriah as people gradually returned to the area to plant coffee, and DRWakefield has been purchasing its coffee for over ten years. Over the past seventeen years, coffee production has flourished in Bener Meriah, and an estimated 98% of the land available is used for coffee production today.  

Shade Grown Coffee, Suku Rawe

After a meeting with the cooperative over coffee and cake, we spent two days visiting three villages, Tamas Mumalang, Suku Rawe and Suku Rami, with Armia, the cooperative chairman, Rama, the processing manager, and the Permata Gayo team. These are just a glimpse of the 36 villages where the cooperative works within a 32 km radius of the main office. In each village, we visited the collection centre where cooperative ‘collectors’, who act as the bridge between Permata Gayo and the farmers, receive and process coffee, deliver training and quality feedback, and organise payments for producers. We also visited individual farms and members of the three cooperatives associated with Permata Gayo; the main cooperative, which has 2122 members; a women’s cooperative called Kokowagayo, with 327 members; and a recently established youth group, Stovia Garuda Yaksha, with 60 members. Coffee in the Gayo Highlands is typically one of three varieties: Gayo 1 (Tim Tim), Gayo 2 (Red Bourbon), or Gayo 3 (a mix of Super Ateng and Catimor), and it was good to see that many coffee trees in the area are young and productive, thanks to a rejuvenation and training project designed by the cooperative to increase productivity.  

Kokowagayo Cooperative

During our stay with Permata Gayo, we were given an insight into local life in the Gayo Highlands. Wherever we travelled, the Permata Gayo community welcomed us with touching generosity as we helped to pick coffee on farms, ate lunch with the cooperative staff, and even attended the wedding of a cooperative member. As the sun set on our second day with Permata Gayo, bookended with an insightful cupping at their Bener Meriah dry mill, we said our goodbyes to the wonderful team on Monday evening. We jumped back in the car and coasted down the mountain back to Takengon for our next meeting with Koperasi Pedagang Kopi (KOPEPI) Ketiara.  

Coffee drying at collection station, Suku Rami

Ketiara Cooperative 

Pulling into the main driveway of the cooperative just north of Takengon, we couldn’t help but feel the welcoming community spirit of Ketiara. Rahmah Ketiara, the cooperative’s founder, was joined by a collection of fun, smiling staff and Hagung Hendrawan, coffee and business development manager at Fairtrade Network of Asia and Pacific Producers (NAPP). We exchanged introductions over a light bite of corn, potatoes, bananas and coffee. The kind energy and humour of this first meeting continued throughout our next three days with Ketiara. 

Rahmah Ketiara and team

Rahmah founded Ketiara Kopepi in 2009. Before setting up the coop, she was a local trader and would sell coffee to exporters like Sari Makmur. Before that, from the time she was a teenager, she would help her father buy cherries locally. She has many siblings but was the only one not to go to university, staying locally to focus on building a coffee business rather than studying.  

Today, Rahmah has built what is better described as a movement than a cooperative. She lives on the Ketiara compound, which houses the processing facility, warehouse, office and guest house, with her husband, Mr Eddie. Her two sons, Bambang and Ari, also work for the cooperative and live nearby. Ketiara Kopepi feels like a pocket of youthful, modern energy in a region rooted in tradition. The cooperative staff are young and not yet married. Over 70% of the workers at the cooperative are women, and there are 1158 coffee-producing members, the majority of whom are under 50 years old. 

Hand sorting green coffee at Ketiara

Ketiara sources coffee through eighteen collection stations in the Gayo Highlands. Coffee collectors receive either cherry or wet parchment, and all coffee is processed using the traditional Giling Basah or Wet Hulled method. Ketiara is unique to other cooperatives in Sumatra in that Bambang has a very special role in the business: Ketiara’s Coffee Chef. As Coffee Chef, he tastes all the coffee from each collection station during harvest and blends them to create the five different profiles Ketiara produces. These five blends are Ipak Gayo, meaning ‘girls of Gayo’; the Ketiara Hutan, a project coffee created for and sold to DRWakfield; the Sumatra Classic Mandheling*, a refined version of the renowned Mandheling profile; and two blends for the US market, Queen Ketiara and Bies Penantan.  

*Fun Fact: We use ‘Mandheling’ to describe the classic Sumatran cup profile: smooth, sweet, full body with cocoa, tobacco, earth, and cedar wood. The name was born during the colonial period, as the main port for coffee exports was based in the Mandailing Natal Regency in the North Sumatra province. However, today, not just coffee grown in Mangailing shares this name. Coffee cultivated throughout Sumatra that bears the iconic cup profile is called ‘Mandheling’. 

Rahmah and Mr Eddie and a picnic by the lake

We were treated to the complete Ketiara experience during our three-day stay. We woke in the morning to the sound of the morning Adhan from the mosques surrounding Takengon before breakfast and coffee. In the daytime, we visited the villages of Bukit, Bies Mulie and Pandangan Mata, where Rahmah and Ari own coffee farms. Here, we met coffee farmers, plucked and ate fruits from shade trees, drank coffee at collection centres and enjoyed the song and dance of workers in the field. We ate a picnic on the shore of Lake Takengon and had a feast in the mountains of Pandangan Mata. In the evenings, we ate delicious, hearty meals at the cooperative and sang karaoke over an open fire. We were even the guests of honour at Bambang’s son’s birthday party.  

Ketiara Cooperative Members, Bies Mulie

One of the key aspects of our visit was to check in with the Hutan Project, a reforestation initiative instigated by Rahmah and supported by DRWakefield. Many farms we visited benefit from shade trees planted through funds raised by the Hutan project. These trees not only help the coffee by improving soil, attracting insects away from coffee plants, bringing birds into the region (which eat the insects), and providing shade but also bring additional income to farmers in the coffee off-season. It was wonderful to hear this project spoken about in such high regard by Ketiara’s cooperative members and to see the benefits the Hutan fund is already bringing to coffee producers in the region.  

Hutan Project Shade Tree

It was hard leaving without taking a sense of the Ketiara family with us. The energy and hospitality of the cooperative is infectious, and we all felt quite at home after three nights of eating, singing and dancing around the fire. But, sadly, all good things must come to an end. And we set off on the long road back to Medan early Thursday morning for our flight home the next day. With the local radio on full blast, of course.  

Ketiara Cooperative at Rahmah’s farm

Conclusion 

Although tradition seems to lie at the heart of Sumatran coffee, it was interesting to see all three suppliers we met innovating differently. Wahana Estate and Sari Makmur are embracing vertical integration and differentiation, growing unique varieties, and expanding their agricultural offerings. Permata Gayo is experimenting with new processing methods, developing washed, honey and natural coffees. And Ketiara is innovating culturally, proving that women have an essential role and place in Sumatran coffee while demonstrating the strength of a strong brand.  

Ketiara Cooperative Staff

While these suppliers approach coffee differently, they share the same challenges. As is the case in many origins, the climate crisis is changing weather systems and coffee production across Sumatra. In Aceh, since 2020, weather systems are increasingly unpredictable. Production months have begun to change as coffee ripening happens at different times, meaning it’s hard for farmers to plan and pick during the harvest. Dry weather during the flowering season affects productivity in the field, while wet weather during the picking season creates challenges for processing and drying, something more recently exacerbated by El Nino. These challenges can make communities that rely heavily on coffee production vulnerable to income loss.  

Liberica Coffee at Wahana Estate

Luckily, the internal coffee prices in Sumatra are relatively high, meaning farmers can make a good income when the harvest is good. In reaction to these challenges, cooperatives like Ketiara and Permata Gayo are delivering training and allocating certification premiums in a way that supports smallholders and protects them from the adverse effects of a warming climate—key examples of how certifications like Fairtrade can positively impact smallholder cooperatives. Wahana Estate is also regenerating, supporting local producers and planting newer, higher-yielding varieties that may mitigate some of the negative consequences of climate change. 

Altogether, we left Sumatra with a renewed appreciation for Sumatran coffee and the Giling Basah method and a deeper understanding of how this process came about. Click the links to go on your own journey of exploration with our range of coffees from Wahana Estate, Permata Gayo and Ketiara Cooperative.