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Sumatra: The Island of Liquid Gold

The Sanskrit name for Sumatra - Swarnadwīpa - translates to "island of gold," referencing the ancient abundant gold deposits in the highlands of this Indonesian island. Though rather than being known for its gold deposits now, Sumatra is celebrated for its exotic landscape, and perhaps more famously, its unique coffee production. With this in mind, it feels more apt to call Sumatra the "island of liquid gold."

Where is Sumatra?

Sumatra is the largest island part of Indonesia’s Sunda Islands, located south of the Malay Peninsula, to the west of Java.

What is Sumatra known for?

With its wild terrain, active volcanoes, and rare wildlife, Sumatra has made global news in several areas. The Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 was a major natural disaster in Sumatra which resulted in immense destruction, encouraging the global community to support recovery efforts.

Additionally, deforestation is a major issue that has made Sumatra known on a global scale. A significant amount of Indonesia’s timber production and the world’s palm oil production comes from Sumatran forests, and the island also has many plantations for tobacco, rubber, various spices, tea and of course, coffee. A great deal of Sumatra’s natural forests have been lost, raising a call for serious protection of the land, as well as the many varieties of rare species that are severely endangered.

Previously, 25 million of its 44 million hectares landmass was covered by natural forests in 1985 (that’s close to 60%). Though by 2016, only 25% remained (11 million hectares). Conservation efforts have designated protected sites spanning across large national parks, however, these areas are fragmented, so deforestation still continues, although it is at a slower pace than in the past.

Sumatra is also known as one of the world’s top coffee producers, with a unique offering of coffee crafted from the volcanic soil, as well as the harvesting process, that has enthusiasts either absolutely loving the dark taste, or snubbing the bold, earthy flavor profile.

Climate and Culture

Typical of Southeast Asian regions, Sumatra boasts a tropical, humid and hot climate. The island has over 10 national parks, which contain 3 world heritage sites. Tropical rainforest makes up a great deal of the landscape.

Over 52 languages are spoken in Sumatra, all belonging to the Malayo-Polynesian language branch (except where Chinese and Tamil are spoken).

The main religion of the island is Islam, and almost 90% of the population is Muslim. Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism are also practiced by the remaining 10%.

The largest, most developed city in Sumatra is Medan. This is often the port that travelers arrive at before venturing out on expeditions to local villages and mountains.

Main Attractions

Travelers are drawn to Sumatra’s rugged natural scenery, some coming to the island just to journey through its mountainous regions.

The main attraction is Lake Toba (5-hour drive from Medan) - the largest volcanic crater lake in the world - which is believed to have been created by a large eruption thousands of years ago.

Bukti Lawang is another area that’s found on the outskirts of Gunung Leuser National Park, which is a protected jungle that boasts rare local wildlife. Many people will visit this area to see the protected orangutans that come out during their twice-a-day feeding.

Banda Aceh is the capital of the province of Aceh (and also the region that was hit hard by the 2004 tsunami). One of the key sites for people to visit is the Grand Mosque in Aceh, which is revered as one of Indonesia’s most beautiful religious monuments.

Quick Facts

  • It’s the largest island of Indonesian’s archipelago governed entirely by Indonesia (also the 6th largest island in the world).
  • It’s the only place in the world where elephants, rhinos, orangutans, and tigers all live together.
  • Other rare species include the Sun Bear, Proboscis Monkey, Clouded Leopard, and the Flying Fox Bat.
  • Sumatra is home to some species that have become critically endangered due to poaching and deforestation.
  • Deforestation is a result of illegal or commercial logging, as well as palm oil plantations.
  • The most popular tourist attraction is Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world.
  • The Aceh region is famous for its unique coffee.

What makes Sumatran coffee unique?

The Sunda Islands in Western Indonesia are known to create some of the best coffee in the world. Sumatra is the largest of the islands and the varieties found here are legendary.

Sumatra began producing coffee around 1884, with plantations being created around the Lake Toba region. The growth altitude ranges from 800 to 1500m above sea level and the island’s fertile volcanic soil makes for great coffee production.

Sumatran coffee’s unique flavor profiles are often described as dark, chocolatey, creamy, earthy, spicy, and sometimes even mushroomy.

Coffee Creates Community

Around 90% of Sumatran coffee is grown in a community collective concept. It’s most typically grown by small-hold farms, cultivated by families who farm small pockets of the land on a few acres (some farms holding just 100 trees).

These small farms work together in cooperative partnerships to allow profits to be split evenly among regions. This is a fairly common way to farm coffee on many Indonesian islands. Partnerships can consist of anywhere from 20 to 1,200 different members who all follow specific growing, harvesting, and processing guidelines to ensure consistency.

This sustainable way to grow coffee benefits individual families by allowing them to grow in their homeland, while also being able to meet high market demand by banding their communities together. This means that Sumatran coffee is also a valuable commodity for supporting local families and sustaining their heritage of coffee cultivation.

Sumatra's Unique Production Process

In Sumatra, farmers harvest coffee using the ‘wet-hulling’ method (Giling Basah). As the island’s climate is humid and the weather in the tropics is volatile, farmers will have a small window of around 4 hours each day to dry the beans before the rains come in.

The beans are dried to 50% moisture content (rather than the common 11% dry for general harvesting methods) and later shifted to facilities that have wet-hulling machines that use friction to remove the bean coating and complete the drying process. The machine also ferments the coffee in the process, which gives these beans their distinct earthy flavor.

Types of Sumatran Coffee

The 3 most popular Sumatran Arabica Coffee types are:

Sumatra Mandheling Coffee

Region: West-central region close to Padang
Notes: Smooth and heavy body with sweet notes of chocolate, spices, and licorice

Aceh Gayo Coffee

Region: Highlands in central Aceh, close to Lake Laut Tawar
Notes: Strong and sweet body with notes of cocoa, vanilla and tobacco

Lintong Coffee

Region: Lintongnihuta, North-central region of Sumatra, close to Lake Toba
Notes: Sweet and medium body with an earthy aroma and notes of cedar and woody spices

Coffee Quick Facts

  • The climate offers balanced soil and tropical humidity and temperatures make it ideal for Arabica production.
  • The coffee has low levels of acidity.
  • Indonesia is currently the third-largest coffee producer globally.

Our Sumatran Sipangan Bolon

This coffee is produced along the Western shore of Lake Toba, in Northern Sumatra. It brews a rich, heavy-bodied cup loaded with complex layers of earthy flavor. Look for notes of tobacco, squash, and a tame spiciness.

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