Sumatran Coffee: Here’s Why Starbucks Is Buying It In Bulk… (+ Tips For Buying And Home Brewing)
If you want to start an argument amongst coffee aficionados, ask them what they think of Sumatra Coffee.
While some beans and blends are universally adored, Sumatran is more a ‘love it or hate it’ sort of brew.
But why is that so?
And what can you do to make the most of this unusual bean? Read on to find out!
Facts about Sumatran
It’s grown in, you guessed it, Sumatra
Situated in South East Asia, Sumatra has the perfect climate for growing Arabica beans.
Right on the equator, the island enjoys tropical weather; one minute it’s glorious sunshine, the next moment rain is hammering down.
It’s the sort of conditions that gardeners spend hours trying to achieve in their greenhouses.
Indonesia is the third largest coffee producer in the world, but like many other places that grow beans, coffee isn’t native to the area.
The Dutch East India company (VOC) brought seedlings to the area in the 18th century, starting initially in Jakarta (Batavia) and then expanding to other islands including Sumatra.
At the end of the 18th Century almost all the coffee plantations in Indonesia were wiped out by Coffee Rust, a fungus that gives the underside of leaves an orangey appearance.
After a brief experiment with growing Liberian beans, most plantations were replanted with Robusta, and this makes up most of coffee from Indonesia today.
In Sumatra, they remained staunchly Arabica.
The flavor comes from the processing
What gives Sumatran beans the flavor that divides us, is the processing method: Wet hulling. You might also (confusingly) hear this called dry processing, or natural processing.
It works like this; once the cherries are picked, they are processed to remove most of the fruit. They’re then put into sacks and left to ferment overnight.
The following day, farmers pick through the beans by hand, remove the rest of the fruit and spread the beans out to dry.
After that, the beans are shipped to a warehouse for further drying and processing before they are distributed around the world.
Wet hulling means that the beans stay moist for longer, it’s a side effect of Sumatra having such a damp climate. It also gives the coffee it’s unique flavor. Words used to describe Sumatran are things like earthy, mossy, funky and mushroom-y.
Chances are you’re doing one of two things now.
You’re either salivating or making a face like I just suggested you brew your old trainers; and that’s why Sumatran divides the world of coffee.
Sumatran Flavor Profile
Words often associated with the flavor of Sumatran Coffee are complex, full-bodied, and rich but this can often be because roasters tend to give Sumatran a dark roast (more on that later).
With changes in roasting ideas, the flavor profile is becoming (a little) brighter and fresher.
There are three main varieties of coffee sourced from Sumatra; Mandheling, Lington and Gayo.
Mandheling is grown in the north, and is considered by many to be the best coffee that Sumatra produces.
Lingtong, where the beans grown on a high plateau overlooking Lake Toba, is renowned for balancing a rich flavor with a clean aftertaste.
Gayo Peaberry is perfect for coffee lovers who are craving the dense, intensified flavor these round beans bring.
It brings something to a blend
The key to using Sumatran in a blend is to complement it with coffee which provides what it lacks.
Sumatran is a base note, it’s earthy and complicated and low on acid.
That’s why it’s often partnered with coffee from Ethiopia (aromatic at the top end, and fruity) or South American (acidic).
Sumatran brings its solid base and complex flavors to any blend.
If you’re looking to create a coffee that works on many levels, then there’s nothing quite like that funky, mushroom-y flavor. It truly is a unique ingredient.
Sumatran coffee is something that you should try for yourself. It’s not an experience that’s easily described, but those who love it? They really love it. It’s worth trying a cup to see if it becomes your new favorite brew.
Sumatra Coffee today
For many people, their first experience of Sumatran comes in one of the big coffee chains – Starbucks. The coffee chain is a major purchaser of the bean, which it offers to customers in two varieties, regular and aged.
The aging process gives the Sumatran a spicy note that only adds to the unique flavors of this bean.
More than 90% of Sumatran coffee is grown by small holders, on farms of around one hectare in size. These micro plantations band together into cooperatives, and many of them have international certification to sell their beans as organically grown.
Because Sumatra has great flavor but is low acidity, it is often used as part of a blend with other varieties.
You’ll find it alongside South American beans, which have acidity to spare to fill out the flavor profile of the blend.
How to brew Sumatran
The gutsy flavor of Sumatran coffee is best suited to espresso. That’s not the only way to brew it, and if you get a medium or coarse grind you can enjoy the flavor using your usual brewing method.
But in my opinion, to really savor the flavor? Grind it fine and make it an espresso.
Don’t have an espresso machine?
Watch this video from ehow food to learn how to use a stovetop espresso maker.
Although an espresso machine is the easiest way to get your hands on a brew full of crema, you can also use an Aeropress or use a traditional stovetop espresso maker. These take a little bit of getting used to, but when have the knack it’s simple.
Alternatively, Sumatran is a great bean for cold brew. Set your grinder to course, and use our French Press cold brewing method to produce a chilled and flavorful cup.
Cold brew allows flavors to develop but is even lower acidity than a regular cup of Sumatran so it’s ultra-smooth. Being low on acid makes cold-brew kinder to your teeth and stomach, and it’s packed full of antioxidants too.
1. Keep your coffee fresh – store it in a vacuum container (not in the fridge) until you’re ready to use it.
2. Grind it as close to using it as you can, preferably at home.
3. Sumatran is best suited to espresso, although it’s also a great cold-brew candidate.
4. Use filtered water that has been boiled, then cooled for 30-45 seconds.
Where to buy Sumatran
Yes, you can walk into Starbucks and buy beans and pre-ground Sumatran coffee.
But if you’re following this blog the chances are we don’t need to tell you why you don’t want to buy off-the-shelf coffee.
Although you will find these beans on the shelves of gourmet food stores, they’re probably best avoided for the same reasons.
Here are some online suppliers of Sumatran for you to consider:
- Volcanica Coffee only roast once you’ve ordered to give you the freshest brew possible (short of roasting yourself).
- Australian readers might prefer to buy from mycuppa, winners of the Royal Sydney Coffee Fine Food Awards two years in a row.
- Whilst in the UK, the York Coffee Emporium deliver gourmet coffee including Sumatran.
Most roasters will give you a dark roast for your Sumatran.
It adds sweetness to the earthy notes and brings out the natural chocolate flavors of the beans. If you want the traditional experience of Sumatran coffee, that’s the way to go.
Alternatively, you might want to try a lighter roast. If you’re home roasting you can experiment with this – instead of taking your beans through second crack, stop just before it.
They might look a bit mottled and pale, but grind them up and try a brew. You’ll find your coffee has the herbal complexity and earthy notes that makes Sumatran famous around the world.
And now for something completely different
Because of it’s intense, herby flavor profile, Sumatra Coffee makes the perfect accompaniment to a meal. But why not go one step further and use coffee in your cooking?
Not only does coffee add to the flavor of meat dishes, it also helps to tenderize - giving you a melt in the mouth experience.
Add a little Sumatran to your marinade and let is seep into the fibers, leaving them moist and uniquely full-flavored with a caffeinated zing.
Alternatively, add some coffee to the braising liquid when you cook. It caramelizes as it reduces, giving an amazingly nutty, roasted flavor.
Mix ground coffee, salt and paprika and use it as a salt rub before you throw your meat on the grill.
This works really well for pork, but you can also add a coating to the outside of burgers to add that certain something.
You could also combine ground coffee and cocoa to give a rack of lamb a mocha twist; a surprisingly delicious way to ring the changes.
If you don’t like the sound of coffee with meat, then google up one of the many coffee bread recipes from around the world.
Sweet, or savory, there’s a recipe that will benefit from the earthy deliciousness of Sumatran.
Of course, if you’re from the deep south you won’t be surprised by the idea of eating coffee; it’s been a vital part of ‘red eye gravy’ for decades.
They were just well ahead of the trend.
This rich sauce is usually accompanied by country ham but why not experiment?
Whether the idea of a forest-floor tasting coffee appeals to you or not, everyone should try a cup of pure Sumatra Coffee at least once.
You might not like it on its own, but you will at least get an understanding of what this bean brings to the table.
And if nothing else, you’ll be able to take part in the discussions the next time someone tries to start an argument amongst your group of coffee afficionados.