Sumatra: Some Things I Have Learned About Aceh Gayo Coffee, Perhaps.

Sumatra is complicated, in culture as in coffee. Here are a few things I learned in Aceh.

I am an out-of-towner and I could be wrong about any of this. Learning is a process, and a traveler is not in the best position to really “know” very much. But you can travel and be observant and ask decent questions. (And there is a Video (quite long!) from this same trip: Aceh in October.) -Thompson

It is pronounced A-CHEY. The C in bahasa Indonesia is a CH sound. Coffee would be pronounced CHO-FEE so that’s a good reason to say Kopi, as they do in Indonesia. K is the hard C. Wikipedia and Wicktionary  writes the pronunciation as “at͡ʃeh” . I have seen it spelled as Atjeh too, while traveling here.

Aceh Sumatra, Map via Google
Aceh Sumatra, Map via Google

A geographic-political area in Aceh are called Regency, which I believe is the same as a Kabupaten in other parts of Indonesia. It would be like a County in the USA. Perhaps it is a regency because, even throughout most of Dutch rule, Aceh was autonomous from the Europeans: It was a Sultanate, a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire (who was really in no position to protect it from the Dutch!) The rest of Sumatra, was under Dutch rule, which they fought bitterly in the Aceh War. An interesting story tells of the nearsighted and arthritic Acehnese guerilla leader Cut Nyak Dhien, a widow who inspired the resistance fighters to continue.

The benefits of colonialism
The benefits of colonialism. In this case, planting tea seedlings, which replaced coffee in Java after the blight of 1880s

Coffee production was not a choice for the Gayo people or other indigenous groups. The Dutch mandated coffee planting as they took the coffee harvest as a form of tax for the privilege of being colonized.

Gayo Village Massacre Aceh War
600Dutch atrocities in Kampong Likat Tanah Gayo, children and women were also massacred by Van Daalen’s Dutch army. Aceh War (1873-1904)

Aceh had a war of resistance, often fought as guerrilla warfare, against Indonesian rule from 1976- 2005. A peace was negotiated so that Aceh is now an autonomous zone of Indonesia.

Gayo_Man_Didong_Dance
Gayo_Man_Didong_Dance

Sumatra is spelled as Sumatera in Bahasa and also on older maps and geographic references. (Also Sumaterra at times).

The Gayo people are distinct and speak a very different language than the Aceh people, and there are different cultural groups of Aceh and Gayo. The Gayo tend to be farmers, and Acehnese are more traders, very roughly speaking. The coffee is sometimes called Gayo Mandheling which is pretty off base. It’s because Mandheling (the Dutch spelling of Mandailing) came to mean all Sumatra coffee.

Mandailing or Mandheling has been used to describe literally ANY arabica coffee from Sumatra. In other words, it’s a fairly meaningless term. There are no Mandailing people in Aceh zone or Gayo areas. There is still coffee grown in Mandailing area though.

There are 3 Regencies with coffee in Aceh: Atu Lintang, Aceh Tengah, and Lues. The first two are near Lake Tawar, a  very beautiful lake in an ancient volcanic crater, and Lues is adjacent but a bit distant.

Coffee in this area was wet-processed generally, until the late 1970s when the request for farmers to sell their wet parchment coffee to collectors was heard. This lead to the robust role of the “collector” and the rise of the wet-hulling technique, called Giling Basah here.

Aceh leaders bring sugar cane for appeasement in meeting with Dutch military.
Aceh leaders bring sugar cane for appeasement in meeting with Dutch military.

Here’s a quick explanation of wet-hulling vis a vis Wet Process coffee. It’s quite confusing but here’s the simplest way I can explain it. Wet-process coffee (aka washed coffee) is done all over the world, and was the primary way to process in Indonesia until the late ‘70s.

In wet process, the coffee cherry is pulped, which removes the outer skin. The fruit mucilage clings to the parchment layer which coats the seed. Think of a plum seed where the fruit sticks to it. To get the fruit off you ferment it, then wash away the mucilage while scrubbing it in the washing channel a bit. Then it is laid out to dry on a patio or a raised bed. In a week the coffee seed will shrink as it dries,  separating from the parchment layer. When the coffee is ready for export, you can easily hull off the parchment coating, sort the coffee for size and density, and bag it for export.

Here’s an overview of the wet process method from a card I made some time back:

Wet Processing Coffee Overview
Wet Processing Coffee Overview

Guess what? 87% of that is the same with wet-hulling! The farmer is often small scale so the pulper could be cranked by hand, the fermentation isn’t a big cement tank, but a bucket, and the coffee isn’t washed down a channel. It’s just scrubbed and rinsed in the same bucket. So wet-hulled coffee is fermented. The difference comes after.

Sumatra: Freshly wet-hulled coffee, left, and partially dried coffee, right
Sumatra: Freshly wet-hulled coffee (Labu), left, and partially dried coffee, right

Wet hulled coffee is laid out to dry for a short period of time, say a day or so. Instead of drying the coffee down to the 10-12% moisture range, the farmer bags up the coffee when it is 40-50% moisture or so, and delivers it to a collector or a mill.

The mill might dry it a little more, but instead of waiting days until the seed dries and reaches 11% moisture or so, they hull the coffee out of the parchment when it is 25-40%. The green bean hasn’t contracted at all, it’s soft and enlarged still. In fact, the green bean isn’t very green, but a pale whitish shade. If you see the “Before Drying” vs “After Drying” parchment images in my Wet-process card, this perfectly illustrates the points at which coffee is wet-hulled (ie the Before image) and “Dry-Hulled” (the After).

<– Then the coffee is laid out to dry without any coating on it. This is unheard of anywhere else, risky in a way. But it’s the norm in Sumatra and other parts of Indonesia since the ‘80s.


Terms local used in trading:

  • Asalan green bean, unsorted. Sometimes the coffee is traded as Asalan, then the exporter does the final hand-picking.
  • DP Suton is name for dried green bean just after gravity table.
  • Gabah wet parchment, not yet hulled. Coffee is sold from the farmer to the collector as Gabah, more often than not.
  • Labu just wet-hulled coffee, like 35% – 40% moisture. Labu means pumpkin / squash.
  • Grade 1 – used locally as term for basic lower grade. Ha ha. For real. Makes sense since coffee imported as grade 1 is so crappy.

Marketing myth aimed at consumers would likely want to find a history where Giling Basah emerges from a local cultural tradition, from the elders, or from some classic Plantation period practice. But in fact wet-hulling, which has become the signature of Indonesian coffee, isn’t some old tradition, and it wasn’t done for quality really. I have heard several “origin stories” about it. One is that it was requested from a trader in Medan, or from a Japanese buyer. Some say it was done first in Sulawesi, or Tapanuli, but it certainly did not originate in Aceh.

Coffee_Harvest_Indonesia_Lithograph
Coffee_Harvest_Indonesia_Lithograph

What I hear is that the way the grandparents of today’s farmers treated coffee and traded coffee was different. They saw it as a kind of savings account. Coffee was washed and fully dried to 10-12% range.  Then it was stored under the bed, or in a kind of attic, for safekeeping. When the farmer needed money, when they had a larger expense, they would sell some coffee. This is the way I have heard coffee was treated in other places. It parallels a story I heard of Yemeni farmers and their naturals. The point is, the farmer was in control of their crop, and determined the flow of coffee into the marketplace.

You can imagine this system of coffee trading in stored “savings account” dry parchment was not creating an advantage for the trader. Even if a harvest was larger, the coffee doesn’t flow into the system ….or it only does so when farmers require money.

Wet hulling speeds up the processing and stabilizes the flow into the trading system. While it does pay the farmer quicker, and for less labor, before wet-hulling, it didn’t seem that is what farmers wanted. They wanted to have security.

Currently many farmers end up in a debt cycle.

They owe money against their harvest, usually to the collector who might have advanced them cash or materials or fertilizers. So know it would seem the advantage is on the side of collectors and traders under the wet-hulling system.

Aceh farmers tend to be small-holder types. Though there are some larger estates, smallholder farms account for most of the coffee. And the farmer manages the pulping and fermenting, as well as the initial drying most of the time. There are zones where the farmer sells the cherry direct to a collector/processor who does the rest.

Coffee farmers are generally organized into cooperatives, and many deal with a particular collector. This might be because of debt carried by the farmers due to some prepayment, or carried over from the past. Smallholder farmer debt is a bad cycle that often results in lower payment for the crop, and sadly it happens in many coffee origins. When we talk about fair pay for farmers, the sole focus on monetary compensation totally misses other critical factors like debt.

There is a wide range of old and new hybrid varieties planted in Aceh, and many farms are quite mixed in terms of the plantings. See Aceh Coffee Varieties

TimTim and Abyssina-3 Coffee Variety in Aceh , which is longer and larger
TimTim and Abyssina-3 Coffee Variety in Aceh , which is longer and larger

Trading coffee in Sumatra and Indonesia

Business as usual among the traders in Aceh involves fairly low levels of trust, in my opinion, mixing of lots, and some mild deceptions. Transparency is not the culture here. The buyer who deals with the large coop or trader might, in my opinion, not be receiving the coffee they think they are buying … but if they cup and it’s good, no harm done, right? I suppose …

I would gamble that a decent percentage of coffee sold as Organic certified would not test as Organic in a lab. I would gamble that a good portion of  “transparent Fair Trade certified” coffee is not from the farmers described on the certificate. In fact, if Sumatra contracts need to be filled at a good price, your FTO Sumatra might be from Flores, or Sulawesi, or Central Java. Broadly speaking, working directly with small farmers, collectors and groups creates a traceability trail that makes switching coffee more difficult. But not impossible!

If you are from Indonesia / Sumatra / Aceh and would like to help me correct any errors here, or add information, please make a comment to below and I will respond.

Thanks! – Thompson, writing from Banda Aceh, October 2019

2 Responses

  1. Hi Thompson,

    Your writing attracted me to read while googling.
    Now for us here, if it is called Mandheling coffee, it must be related to coffee from the province of North Sumatra and Gayo coffee is Sumatran coffee from a different place.

    The practice of trading coffee in Aceh and throughout Indonesia is exactly the same as what you have written. Organic coffee is only labeled based on short observations and brief interviews of how they cultivate coffee and may never have been to the location. As far as I know, here there are no strict rules governing this certification. So anyone is free to label and with their own standards. It also includes “Fair Trade Certified” exactly what you have found.

    Here is also a link about our coffee that you might be interested in

    https://theconversation.com/nine-myths-about-indonesian-specialty-coffee-farmers-and-development-145394

    Thanks.
    I am Indra Buana
    Born and raised in Aceh, currently farming small-scale coffee in the highlands of South Sumatra.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I think the article you link to has a lot of merit on many of its points, but I really would not call those “myths.” I think they are things people hear in marketing language mostly, or would like to believe are true. But they are not always true… that doesn’t actually make them false, or a myth, but all those items are definitely open to debate. So questioning these things is very valid, and why I like that article!

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