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Travels with Charlie: Sumatra

Vital, aromatic, and complex, the Indonesian island of Sumatra is not unlike the coffees for which it is known. As one of the many distant locales visited by our Green Coffee Buyer, Charlie Habegger, on his quest to source superlative fruit, its beauty never fails to inspire. Read on for a few words from Charlie on his most recent trip.

Sumatra is hard to take your eyes off of. It's a one-of-a-kind island, dense with jungle and seemingly endless, sweltering coast, with a coffee culture like no other in the entire world.

Coffee pickers in Suka Damai, members of the famous woman-owned Ketiara Cooperative

Over the decades, Sumatra's unique combination of Catimor-based cultivars, soil, and the singular giling basah—a method of hulling coffee seeds while still extremely wet, and drying them bare to the elements—has created a fascinating terroir that certain roasters find indispensable. 

Sorting coffee deliveries at local collector's office

Coffee drying on the roadside

But Sumatra's coffee tends to be consolidated so rapidly in the highlands that collaborative work usually involves a longer period of de-tangling than in farmer-centric Latin America. Its potential, however, is more than worth the investment, and our commitment there over the past few years is starting to pay off with specific profiles and project opportunities. We should expect some sweet, delicious lots for making blends from the coming harvest, as well as a highly traceable microlot or two from some of the best cooperatives in Aceh.

Cherry pulping in Gayo. This bucket is the unit by which pickers are paid.

Horas, a local roaster in Takengon, who roasts the personal coffees of local farmers

On this visit, I was testing myself and our exporters: How good can we make our coffees? I was intent on walking away from Sumatra with better calibration around blender profiles, so we're faster and less wasteful during our selection process, and so that Blue Bottle is a more consistent presence at specific co-ops.

Turning coffee on a tarp to dry in the sun

Additionally, I was intent on leaving with at least one specific project that would get Blue Bottle to the farm level, and get us a microlot that wouldn't otherwise exist in the world. We visited multiple collectors and milling sites to literally trace the coffee down the mountain, taste their inventory, watch the hand-sorting, and talk about custom milling options for our lots.

The Tim Tim coffee variety has been pruned with traditional Gayonese technique that encourages it to grow downward.

I also met with Koperasi Ketiara, a women-led coffee collective, for the first time. This lead to some pretty long conversations about financial transparency and farmer organization, which allowed me to better understand the coffees they produce.

Of course, this whole trip wasn't just about us getting what we need—that's the preliminary step (and there are many preliminary steps in my trips). The subsequent steps are about us guiding projects that will be enlightening to our guests, and that create nice little worlds for them in their cups of coffee.

Coffee pickers with Rahmah, owner of the Ketiara Cooperative, looking at photos of themselves.

Follow Charlie's travels on Instagram.


By Blue Bottle Staff

Published Jan. 16, 2017

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