Sumatra: The Island of Liquid Gold
The Sanskrit name for Sumatra - Swarnadwīpa - translates to "island of gold," referencing the ancient abundant gold despots 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 makes 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 has been lost, calling for serious protection of the land, as well as for the many varieties of rare species that are severely endangered.
Previously, 25 million of it’s 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 created heritage protected sites spanning across large national parks, however, these areas are fragmented, so though it is at a slower pace than in the past, deforestation still continues.
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.
Sumatra’s 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, at almost 90% of the population Muslim. Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism are also practiced by the remaining 10%.
The most developed, and largest, city in Sumatra is Medan. This is often the port that travelers arrive before heading out on adventure explorations to local villages and mountains).
Sumatra’s Main Attractions
Travelers are drawn to Sumatra’s rugged natural scenery, coming to the island to journey through the 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 the local rare wildlife. Many people will visit this area to trek, and to see the protected orangutans that come out for visitors to see 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 that 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.
For anyone traveling to the Aceh region, sampling the famous local coffee is a must as it is the most popular of all Sumatran’s coffee offerings.
Sumatran Island 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 of Sumatra include the Sun Bear, Proboscis Monkey, Clouded Leopard, and the Flying Fox Bat.
- Sumatra also holds critically endangered species of Tiger, Rhinoceros, Elephant, Orangutan and Ground Cuckoo - due to poaching and deforestation.
- Deforestation is a result of illegal or commercial loggings, 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.
The strong and complex taste of the beans has an earthy flavor that is either loved or for the faint of heart or those that prefer subtle, smooth coffee, too strong to handle.
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, spiced and sometimes even mushroomy.
The 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. It’s as if the individual families are interacting as if it were one big farm, whilst simply focusing on their small land production.
This is actually a fairly common way to farm coffee in many Indonesian islands. Partnerships can have anywhere from 20 to 1200 different members in the group, who all follow processing structures to be consistent in their cultivation.
It’s a sustainable way to grow coffee to benefit individual families to be able 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 to support local families to sustain their heritage of coffee cultivation.
Sumatran Coffee’s Unique Production Process
In Sumatra, farmers harvest coffee using the ‘wet-hulling’ method (‘Giling Basah’ in Indonesian). As Sumatra’s climate is humid already 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 that distinct earthy flavour.
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, 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, notes of cocoa, vanilla and tobacco.
Region: Lintongnihuta, North-central region of Sumatra, close to Lake Toba.
Notes: Sweet and medium body, earthy aroma, notes of cedar and woody spices.
Sumatran Coffee Quick Facts
- The climate offers balanced soil and tropical humidity and temperatures make it ideal for Arabica production.
- Unique harvesting processes are used which enhances the bold flavors.
- Some varieties from the Aceh region are popular for their aged coffee, often selling after years of processing.
- The coffee has a very low acid content.
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.