Trip to Origin – Bener Meriah, Gayo Highlands, Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia
by Jenna Westerink – Head Roaster at Two Before Ten, Aranda
Back in April, I took my first trip to origin, visiting coffee farms in the Gayo Highlands at the northern tip of Sumatra.
Having been to this region before, the journey there was not too difficult but still long. After flying to Medan via Kuala Lumpur, I took an overnight taxi to a village near Kutacane in south-east Aceh before continuing another 7 hours by motorbike with a friend through the mountains in central Aceh. We spent a night in Takengon by the lake to rest before our big tour the following day.
In the morning we were picked up by Paramesh, the regional manager for the coffee branch of Ecom Trading. Your typical image of a successful businessman, throughout the day I witnessed the man effortlessly negotiate prices and deals as we explored the farms and mills across the Bener Meriah area. Our driver was an eternally cheerful local man called Hairul who turned out to have a lifetime’s worth of experience growing specialty coffee with his father and was quite excited to be talking with my friend in his native language.
First stop was the Ecom offices and processing centre. The region has had an especially bad harvest season driving prices sky-high and making coffee scarce, so the warehouse was sparse and the normally bustling sorting stations were currently empty. However, there were still African raised beds set up in the vast courtyard for drying specialty natural, washed and honey-processed beans. The tents are designed to keep the temperature of the raised beds consistently warm. It was a unique experience walking along the pungent-aromatic rows in 40-degree heat.
Paramesh took me past the hulling, ‘souton’ gravity sorting and ‘gerera’ size sorting machines, explaining the functions of each as we sipped on cups of fruity, earthy Gayo kopi. Then we all got back in the car and headed for the farms.
Alongside all the roads in Bener Meriah are plastic sheets covered with wet-hulled coffee beans drying in the sun. Sumatran Gayo coffee is well-known throughout the world for its consistently earthy, full-bodied flavour profile characterized by this particular processing method and is always in high demand from large companies throughout North America and Europe. Knowing this, I expected all the coffee I tried to taste this way but was surprised to find some magnificently sweet, fruity, blueberry flavoured beans that had been processed naturally – by drying the beans the 40% moisture content while still inside the cherry pulp.
Our small group drove around the single lane roads climbing in elevation from 1500 masl up to 1900 masl. We stopped at various farms growing Bourbon, Ateng Super and Tim Tim varietals, wandering through the rows of trees checking out cherries and flowers, asking a thousand questions along the way. We visited the farm of Hairul’s father who spent hours every day meticulously pruning his trees’ branches to direct the plant’s nutrients back into the cherries. Tasting a cherry picked from a nearby tree left an intensely sweet flavour in my mouth.
Following a suitably spicy Indonesian lunch, we continued on to a warehouse and hulling station. Hairul demonstrated his expertise by accurately guessing the moisture content of beans stored in between drying sessions, and we witnessed the noisy hulling machine churning through several tons of beans, separating the parchment from the green beans inside.
Back at the main office, I watched Paramesh’s team evaluating defects in small samples while savouring a final cup of coffee. After a long day of occupying Paramesh’s precious time, we said goodbye and Hairul drove us back to the city where we stayed one more night before another long journey back.
Getting the chance to see, taste and smell everything that goes on at origin was a wonderful experience, and greatly helped to increase my understanding of all the effort involved to get high-quality coffee all the way from farm to the customers’ coffee cup.
– Jenna Westerink