NORTH Sumatra has always been known for its amazing coffee beans which flourish in the volcanic soil in places like the foothills of Mount Sinabung in Karo Regency. Its capital city of Medan however is less well known for having a thriving coffee shop scene, but this is slowly starting to change.
In the past few years locals have begun to look at working as baristas as a legitimate career, fueled by an uptick in coffee shops in other parts of the country like Jakarta, as well as better access to barista training programs.
On a countrywide basis, Indonesia’s coffee business is booming but it also has a long and illustrious history across the archipelago. Coffee was first brought to Indonesia by the Dutch colonialists in the 17th century and quickly flourished across Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi. According to the International Coffee Organization, from 2016-2017 Indonesia was the fourth largest coffee bean producer in the world after Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia.
One local resident who wants to promote Sumatra’s coffee culture is Agung who is from Medan and is the head barista at a new coffee shop called Partner 8 on Jalan Setia Budi. Agung studied to be a barista in Jakarta where he worked for four years and also undertook formal barista training. Partner 8 has only been open for seven months, but Agung proudly shows off their range of coffees which he describes as the ‘full Sumatra’. In the roasting room there are shelves stacked with boxes of beans from all over the island, including Karo, Lintong, Mandailing, Kerinci and Simalungun varieties.
Agung explains that what makes Partner 8 different from other coffee shops in the past is that they are now working directly with the growers who own plantations in places like Kerinci near Jambi. In the present day, according to figures compiled by Indonesia Investments, Indonesia now has 1.24 million hectares of coffee plantations, although some 90 percent of these plantations are owned by local growers who cultivate only 1-2 hectares each, making them small scale rather than vast, company owned parcels of land.
In previous years, growers would sell their beans to a middle man who would then sell the product on to coffee shops, marking up the price in the process and therefore disenfranchising the growers and driving up the price of beans for buyers. By selling directly to coffee shops, growers now get paid in full for their beans and the prices remain stable.
Price is an important factor in the new-found coffee shop culture that is booming across Indonesia, as a rising middle class means that more people can afford to pay a higher price for good quality coffee. Agung also wants to stress that making one single cup of coffee takes a huge amount of work. First the beans are grown, harvested, cleaned and then sold to Partner 8. Then they are cleaned again, roasted, and sorted by hand. Then they rest for a week so that the full flavors develop, and are ground by hand by a barista who then uses the ground beans to make the finished drink.
As Agung says, “People sometimes complain that coffee shops in Indonesia are too expensive, but they don’t realize that it’s a long road from a coffee plantation to your cup. There are lots of steps from the growers, to the buyers, to the roasters and then the baristas.”
And the partnership between the growers and the baristas doesn’t stop once the beans have been received according to Agung,
“We work with the growers to get the best beans possible” says Agung. “Sometimes the beans come to us and are not as good quality as the batch beforehand. So we sit down with the growers and work out why. We also visit the farms and educate each other on how to get the best results.”
Agung says he is now hoping to use his skills to change some of the bad coffee drinking habits that he sees in Medan. Despite having some of the most delicious coffee beans in the world, many drinkers choose to stick to instant coffee out of a packet, or drink filter coffee with huge amounts of sugar in it which is unhealthy and masks the true taste of the beans.
“The most important thing is education,” says Agung. “When people come to Partner 8 we try to explain to them about the different kinds of coffee we serve and advise against putting too much sugar in the drinks. We also educate drinkers on how to enjoy the coffee by drinking it slowly to capture the full flavor.”
According to Agung, the beans in Sumatra are known for their citrus and flowery notes as well as a fruity taste depending on when the beans have been harvested and how they have been roasted. To make sure that they are fully in control of the process, Partner 8 roasts and grinds all their own beans on the premises with an imported roaster. They are also in talks with new growers in the region all the time, to try and build a constant supply of good quality beans that patrons can enjoy without sugar or syrup.
“We really want to get people to drink coffee in its purest form possible,” says Agung. “That’s really our wish for the future of coffee shops in Sumatra.”