A Glimpse into Direct Trade Coffee in Aceh, Indonesia

This is the third and last installation of our Direct Trade commentary and we thought we’d conclude it by sharing about our magical sourcing trip in Indonesia (fun fact: Indonesia is the fourth largest producer of coffee in the world!)

Along with our partners from the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe, our team of 19 headed to Banda Aceh last November. We used Banda Aceh as our base to move around to different farms. Just over 1000km from Singapore, Banda Aceh is located on the island of Sumatra, on the Northwestern tip of Indonesia at the mouth of the Aceh River. It is also the largest city of the province of Aceh. It’s been 12 years since the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami hit the city and killed 167,000 people. Banda Aceh recovered brilliantly from the devastating disaster and showed us what resilience meant – roads, bridges, and homes have been rebuilt, trees have been replanted and grown, the millions of tons of debris that covered the shores (2km inland) have been removed. But reminders of the disaster seem to be everywhere. Almost everyone in Banda Aceh has a story to share.

The rural coffee farms that surround the city, high up in the hills, were unscathed. The silver lining was that the coffee industry blossomed in a time of despair and provided a source of comfort and support for the rebuilding of the city. We resolved to visit the farms of Aceh and while there were too many farms and too little time, we narrowed down to 4 farms & cooperatives that are similar in their dedication to the development of specialty coffee but unique in their production and processing methods.


Our Warm Welcome

Our trip began with a long and tiring journey to Banda Aceh. We were rather exhausted when we finally reached (as with all travels), but the welcome and care taken by our hosts put all that behind us soon enough. Our first hotel was The Pade Hotel (“Pade” meaning rice) located on the outskirts of the city. The hotel backed onto vast stretches of rice fields making for a picturesque scene. From our hotel, we would see farmers preparing the water filled fields for their sowing during the next month. Our time with the beautiful and expansive flatlands was short-lived as we left the next day to embark on an 8-hour long drive to Gayo Mountain, located in the town of Takengon.

Takengon, a town in Aceh, is in the highlands of western Sumatra and situated on the shores of Lake Laut Tawar. Takengon sits at the head of the Lake, surrounded by the coffee-growing mountains.

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Photo credits: telusuri-indonesia.blogspot.com

Pantam Terong farm

On Day 2, we visited a small farm in the town – much of the coffee produced in Gayo is produced organically on smallholdings, where families grow and pulp the coffees, laying the parchment to dry in front of the house. The Pantam Terong farm produces 1.5 tonnes of parchment per year. Coffee grown in this farm is all shade grown – meaning coffee is produced from coffee plants grown under a canopy of trees that provide shade. Before the parchment is fully dry (35-40% moisture), it is taken to a milling station where the parchment is removed to expose damp coffee beans. The beans are then returned to complete the drying process, where the parchment is dried to 13% moisture levels. This is called wet hulling or girling basah. This is the reason Gayo coffee, as it’s known for, has a significant blue/green colour that differentiates it from other coffees in the world. Didn’t know that, did you? Honestly, neither did we.

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KBQ Bubburrayan Cooperative

Day 3 started off a little more laid back. We made a trip to the KBQ Bubburrayan Cooperative after lunch. The cooperative was started in 2002 and has 7000 members to date, each producing 700-1000kg of coffee. The system works as follows: the farmer brings in his coffee and the defective beans are measured against the good beans via cupping. Following this, the farmer then offered a price.

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At the cooperative, we also got to see firsthand the processes involved in producing coffee after the parchment is dried. Following drying, local ladies pick out defaults from a conveyor belt and hand sort the beans before they are graded and bagged for export. Our trip round the production plant ended with a tasting session where we learnt how to identify and savour the citric and floral notes in coffee, alongside very wine-y coffee from natural processing.

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The Indonesian government lays down strict rules on how coffee can be grown and processed. They limit farms to 1,800 trees per hectare, and each tree is changed every 25 years. Each tree is expected to produce 1 kg of coffee cherries (= 20g of green beans). Trees are pruned down to 2 metres, weeds are cleared with a mattock and pulp is laid between the rows as compost. Red cherries are then collected via selective picking.

During our visit, we also saw small, humble research laboratories where studies of the coffees are done – the research is performed to determine the quality and characteristics of the coffees, and how the quality can be maintained or bettered sustainably. Here, we also saw jars of Kopi Luwak (Asian palm civet) parchment. We requested to see the animals, and were greeted with a satisfying reply of: “I doubt it, as we will have to catch one first”. This probably means that the civet cats are free-range and the Kopi Luwak is obtained naturally, instead of being reared in cages and force-fed.

Kebun Percobaan Gayo Coffee Plantation

Day 4 was especially eventful. We visited the coffee plantations of Kebun Percobaan Gayo. To welcome us, a lovely flute melody was performed for us before commentators gave us an introduction on the background of the farm. We got the fun opportunity to don the pickers’ traditional clothing and take part in a cherry-picking competition to see who could pick the most quality cherries in 10 minutes. Our next task was to plant a tree – a tradition for visitors like ourselves. Each tree was named and their crops to go to the local community.

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The farmers were extremely warm and welcoming, and we even got the fun opportunity to don the pickers’ traditional clothing and take part in a cherry-picking competition to see who could pick the most quality cherries in 10 minutes. None of us from Hook won, but it gave us a better idea of the arduousness involved in the process of handpicking each and every coffee cherry is. Our next task was to plant a tree – a tradition for visitors like ourselves. Each tree was named and their crops to go to the local community.

On the way back to Takengon, we saw the wide range of crops that are grown: maize, banana, sweet potato and peanuts. We stopped by a small garden that grew not only a few coffee trees, but grew chilli, ginger, cassava and oranges as well! One of our team members decided to get really into the pulping process (well actually, he was just busy snap chat-ting and wasn’t paying attention to where he was stepping!) and fell into the wet pit of decomposing pulp! We all had a good laugh! Luckily, he was pulled out before he was completely submerged in rotten pulp. He had the fortune of being hosed down by one of the local farmers who also gave him some old clothing to wear on our trip back to the hotel.

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Kebun Percontohan Coffee Farm and the Co-op

On the morning of our 5th day, we set off to visit a certain Mr Maisir Aman Al’s farm, Kebun Percontohan, that produces 3,500kg of coffee per year in 0 .5 hectares of Gayo 2 coffee trees. As coffee here is shade grown like most of the plantations in this region, Lamptora trees with orange, cinnamon and avocado formed the lush canopy – shading both us and the coffee shrubs from the harsh sun rays. The shade from the canopy also results in longer maturing time, and this allows the flavours and natural sweetness of the coffee cherries to be more developed.

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We then moved on to the Co-op, Koperasi Serba Usaha – Gayo Mandiri and received a warm welcome from its officials and farmers. The Co-op has 1,300 farmers who bring their coffee for processing and certification. Following the cupping tests, the beans are then sent to Medan for final grading, sorting and bagging before being exported. We got to witness the processing of the beans and enjoyed a tasting session before lunch.

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The Farewell

e were inevitably sad to leave the land of endless rice fields, cows grazing on central reservations, colourful mosques and an abundance of scooters… Not to mention the culinary wonder of Aceh. (We cannot even begin to describe how much we LOVED the food.) All of this brought us so much joy and laughter, and a wealth of knowledge on the local customs, culture, and coffee production in Indonesia. Our week’s stay in Aceh was blessed with unforgettable memories and new friendships. Farewell speeches were made as we bid our goodbyes to our new friends that we made in Aceh Tengah and Bener Meriah.

The next morning, we embarked on our day-long drive back to Banda Aceh through the mountains and the paddy fields, and then made our way home to Singapore the following day.


Banda Aceh has come a long way since the tsunami tore through the city that fateful day. But more than the rejuvenation the city has experienced since then, the Sumatran locals we met on our trip truly completed the entire experience. They were extremely warm, welcoming, and lively, never letting us feel uncomfortable at any time. For this, we are infinitely grateful and we hope to meet them again some day!

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It is through Direct Trade that such relationships are forged, and communities are built and rebuilt. It is also through Direct Trade that we can be confident of the quality of the coffees we offer and the sustainable processes used in their production. More importantly, we find meaning in traceability and purpose in our role as storytellers for our farmers and the communities behind them.

With this, we conclude our three-part series on Direct Trade and hope you’ve been enlightened as much as we have been! We hope that it has been an informational and interesting read that gives you a better idea of what we believe in and why.

 

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Thanks for reading! (Love from the founders, Ernest & Faye)

 

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