Traceable Sumatra: Bergandal Mill

Posted on December 21st, 2017

Sumatran coffees are already different than coffees from anywhere else in the world. The island in Indonesia is one of the most recognizable names and origins as a producing country, and it has a profile to match: Earthy, savory, woodsy, and warmly herbal with a touch of caramel and citric acid. Coffees to linger over, with heavy body that stands up to a darker roast. Though Sumatra is only one of the regions in Indonesia that grows coffee, it remains distinct, a favorite even among its siblings Java, Bali, Flores, and Sulawesi.  

Sakdan Abdul Wahab, a farmer and coffee collector with whom we work in the Gayo Highlands of Sumatra, Indonesia, also represents something different. For one thing, he oversees the second-oldest existing coffee estate and collection station in Gayo, known colloquially as Bergandal Farm (and which we call perhaps more accurately “Bergandal Mill”), which was established in 1931 by the Dutch during colonial rule.

Many rural farms in Indonesia don’t have names because they are so small and scattered—practically gardens, harvested as needed rather than the methodical picking and processing that happens elsewhere in the world, but “Bergandal Farm” stands for both the actual coffee-growing land (100 hectares) and a collection point that, in a way, represents a microregion within Gayo: Sakdan, like many producers in Indonesia, also purchases and sorts coffee in cherry from his closest neighbors—about 50 in the area, several of whom are his siblings and others of whom are friends and friends-of-friends—bringing together the small quantities of coffee they grow within the very specific area of Tererit, in Takegon, Aceh. 

Sakdan Abdul Wahab

To hone in on a particular area like this at a source not especially known for its transparency is actually tremendously different: What we taste when we taste Sakdan’s coffees are not simply the blanket “Sumatran” profile, but they are truly terroir, even recognizable to a single collector—speaking to a history and experience that goes back to the earliest days of Gayo’s coffee story.

The land and the tradition of Bergandal Farm was inherited by Sakdan through his father and grandfather, the latter of whom was the farm manager for the Dutch owners from the 1930s to 1940s, and who was given the land as colonial rule started to come to an end. The varieties planted in and around there then are still grown today: Tim Tim (a local name for the famous interspecfic Timor Hybrid), Ateng (a Caturra–Timor Hybrid cross), and heirloom Bourbon, among others.

Sakdan processes the locally collected lots on his own equipment, also practically ancient: His Wet-Hulling machine is one of the oldest still operating in the country, installed in the 1970s and powered by its original Mitsubishi truck engine, a throwback to the Japanese influence that brought the Giling Basah, or Wet-Hulled process, to the island nearly 50 years ago. 

The story of Sakdan is not simply a call back to the past, though: His passion and perseverance in coffee is also captured in his awareness of the potential that exists within this tiny area of Gayo. Not only does Sakdan grow, collect, process, and export coffee, he also has built a small roastery and cafe adjacent to his house—giving literal meaning to the term “he lives for coffee.”

At the cafe, locals and neighbors can stop in and start their day with any number of coffees that Sakdan offers for brew and sale—even a few “experimental” full Natural lots, which are rare in this part of the world. Coffee farmers will also bring in small bags of green for roasting, so they can take it home and enjoy the fruit—well, beans—of their own labor. Sakdan’s son and his friends have studied barista and roasting techniques and are essentially operating the only specialty cafe in the area—could this be considered something like Fourth Wave?

Sakdan’s house-adjacent public café

Telling you the story of Sakdan is not only a way of honoring where coffee has come from, but also keeping an open mind about where it will go. Ten years ago, perhaps we would have called it impossible to source single-origin coffees from Sumatra that are traceable down to an individual Sumatran producer (as opposed to an estate owner with European heritage, a holdover from colonial times). Ten years ago, we might also have said that clean, sweet, juicy-fruit-flavors could not be found in Sumatran coffees, or that variety selections would never happen.

Today, we are eating our words, and drinking the coffee—very, very happily.

Highlighted Coffee

P11144 – Sumatra – Aceh 1 – Gayo – Bergandal Mill– Sakdan

Sugary sweet and very tangy acidity with a creamy mouthfeel; lots of juicy fruit flavor with chocolate, ginger, and red pepper.

Sakdan’s son Niko and family friend Novri

The mill’s two-story cherry collection/depulping system

Sakdan and his sons: Niko Sanjaya and Shulih Putra

Bergandal team members pose in front of their historic mill

Novri awaits Niko’s signal from above to start depulping 

Tererit, in Takegon, Aceh