In November of 2013, we set out for Sumatra to answer the question: Is it possible to find high-end microlots in Sumatra? We had been cupping very good container-size lots, and in 2012, but had never seen anything really unique that was worthy of being kept separate from the coffee that we were buying already. This quest was the reason that, Jason Long—head of sourcing & CEO, and our sensory-analysis director, Ian Freithem, made the trek to Indo and spent long days cupping coffees, driving to farms, and searching for something special from this famous coffee region. Something, dare they even think it, beyond our understanding of quote-unquote "Sumatran coffee."
On this trip, we met Sabri, a farm owner and collector. In addition to the common Sumatran varieties of Ateng and Tim Tim, he also has some old heirloom surprises on his property: Bourbon and Abyssinia. Jason, visiting with Sabri and seeing some unusual-looking fruit among his harvest, said, "That looks like Pacamara, what is that?" Sabri responded that it was Abyssinia variety—“Abyssinia” being the former name of Ethiopia, and the name for an Ethiopian variety that was first introduced to Java in 1928 before being introduced to Sumatra. Jason asked him to keep the ripe Abyssinia separate from the other lots. This is how we are able to offer increasing amounts of single-variety, single-farm Sumatran coffees.
One of the (many) reasons microlots are rare from Sumatra can be summed up in one word: selection. At every link of the production chain, "selection" here emerges as the weak or limiting point, in part due to the unique structure of the Sumatran coffee market. Coffee is not selectively picked, but rather harvested as a mishmash of ripe, underripe, and overripe. Varieties are not kept separate. Processing is relatively nonstandard, and lots will arrive at a point of sale in varying degrees of fermented. Typically, farmers here sell their depulped but still in-mucilage coffee (often in sacks or bags, so it is essentially "pile fermented") to what are known as coffee "collectors," agents who go from marketplace to marketplace in search of coffee that is blended and processed to mill specifications, with little concern for variety or lot separation.
Sabri has been able to identify different varieties on his property by cherry and plant morphology, and he does very careful selective picking of ripe cherry. He had never been asked to maintain separate variety lots before, but as of January 2014, we have been proud to buy his coffees offer them with two unique levels of traceability: single-farmer and single-variety lots. The coffees are still wet-hulled, lending them an unmistakeable "Sumatra-ness" to them, but the clarity of flavor, the sweetness, and the complexity that is possible with Sabri's single-variety lots are second to none.
For more information about coffee production in Sumatra, visit our Sumatra Origin Page.