In North Sumatra, Indonesia, a road snakes around lush forest, beautiful waterfalls and striking volcanoes to arrive in a land that grows a strong coffee with enchanting flavor.
The seven-hour route north from Medan to Lintong twists around treacherous mountain corners and reveals a breathtaking vista: the world’s largest volcanic lake. Lake Toba is deep blue and stretches to the edges of steep volcanoes shrouded in mist.
It’s on the shores of this impressive body of water, formed by an eruption 70,000 years ago, that the prized Blue Batak coffee is grown. The area’s elevation (between 3,200 and 5,200 feet above sea level), climate and fertile soil are ideal for growing specialty Arabica coffee. The town at the heart of this region, Lintong Nihuta, is also the site of a weekly market where the region’s growers sell green coffee to buyers representing local mills. The Lintong market is a colorful and chaotic scene where you’ll find Batak women slicing open green coconuts and displays of freshly caught fish from Lake Toba. Farmers haul in sacks of Arabica and robusta coffee beans, as well as rice and an array of spices. The bags of coffee present a visual potpourri of beans processed through a variety of different methods, but a common thread in this region’s coffee is that it is all grown by small farmers who hold one hectare or less of land.
The Dutch first brought coffee to the islands in the 17th century. Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest coffee producer and today yields some of the world’s best specialty coffee. Although the Indonesian archipelago contains an astounding 17,508 islands, coffee farms are primarily found on Java, Sulawesi, Bali and Sumatra because of ideal growing conditions. Approximately three-quarters of the country’s coffee is robusta, a variety primarily used in instant coffee or consumed domestically, while most of the region’s Arabica is exported.
Indonesia is famous for some of the most expensive coffees in the world. The coffee known as Kopi Luwak is harvested from the droppings of the civet, a cat-like animal endemic to the islands. It has been known to fetch a price as high as $700 for a kilogram (more than $1,500 per pound), but the coffee recently was the subject of controversy when the BBC exposed animal cruelty behind the practice. Kopi means coffee in Bahasa Indonesia, the official language of the country, despite the fact that most people speak indigenous languages. (It is estimated that 300 distinct native ethnic groups in Indonesia speak 742 different languages and dialects.)
Sumatra is Indonesia’s westernmost island and home to some of the world’s most biodiverse tropical forests and peat-lands. These ecosystems are home to rare and endangered animals such as Sumatran tigers, orangutans, rhinos and clouded leopards. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, there are fewer than 400 Sumatran tigers remaining, and Balinese and Javanese tigers have already died out. If more drastic measures are not taken to prevent further deforestation and poaching, the critically endangered Sumatran tiger may disappear, too.
As recently as 2007, the World Wildlife Fund reported that rainforest had been cleared illegally for coffee farming in Sumatra’s Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. But the coffee industry is in an important position to help improve the dire environmental situation in Indonesia through more sustainable practices. In areas where deforestation is rampant, coffee farms may become the only habitats available that provide shelter and food for rare species of birds and mammals.
Blue Batak is named after the indigenous Batak people who reside in the area of Sumatra surrounding Lake Toba. From linguistic and archeological evidence, it has been concluded that the Batak settled in this area more than 3,000 years ago. The Batak people practice a religion that is rich with mysticism and expressive myths, and they retain their own script, known as the surat Batak, solely for religious ceremonial purposes. They revere priests and gurus who practice traditional Batak medicine, and are believed to possess clairvoyant powers.
Batak society is also known for the fierce tradition of ritual cannibalism, which was graphically documented by a number of famous Western explorers—including Marco Polo, who in 1292 described encounters with hill folk referred to as “man-eaters.” Cannibalism was considered a judicial act as well as a way of strengthening warriors when they consumed the heart and blood of other humans. It is likely that this ritual ended in Batak society by the early 19th century.
Today in North America, the Batak name is associated primarily with delicious coffee. Sumatran coffees have experienced a spike in demand in the U.S. and Canadian markets in recent years due to the increased attention on single-origin specialty coffee. Coffee from Lintong is intensely earthy, distinguishing its cup profile from coffees grown on other islands. That earthiness is a result of the wet-hull processing method, exclusive to this area of the world. In this method, the pulp and mucilage are removed from the coffee cherries before their moisture content drops below 15 percent. Typically, the process takes place when the coffee beans are closer to 12 percent moisture content.
Plainly stated, these coffees are being hulled wetter than normal. The Batak do not reduce the moisture content more thoroughly because their weather conditions are intensely rainy and they prefer to get their coffees to market faster. Their unique wet-hull processing, combined with low iron content in the local soil, is responsible for the distinctive blue color of the beans.
Coffee in Lintong is harvested from October until June. The largest harvest occurs in October and November, and there is a smaller harvest in March and April. In 2013, annual rains came very late and were exceptionally heavy, so Lintong lost most of its first big coffee harvest. Farmers have noticed a steady temperature climb and change in rain patterns over recent years that has continued to negatively affect their crops. For coffee farmers in Sumatra, climate change is real and threatening their livelihoods. In order to prepare for more variability in the future, farmers need to diversify their incomes and receive better access to microfinance.
Volkopi is a company that is working to help farmers find more productive ways to harvest coffee and generate steady incomes in the future. Volkopi is the Sumatran division of the multinational company Volcafe Group, which works worldwide to source and promote high-quality coffees from smallholders, cooperatives and estates. Volkopi acts as an umbrella for a collective of 388 small farmers in Lintong that covers 400 hectares of land (almost 1,000 acres).
Elidon Sitio, who manages Volkopi’s work in sustainability and certifications, describes the needs of farmers in a changing world climate: “[They] live from the coffee and from the land. We must find a way to help them understand better the effects of changing climate and economics. Right now, it’s very difficult for them to survive.”
Volkopi has a well-organized and transparent traceability system, whereby it collects, analyzes and documents every green coffee bean purchased. The company monitors the quality of the farmers’ output and helps to improve their coffees over time. Sitio speaks with passion about the Volkopi farms, all of which are Rainforest Alliance-certified and meet the rigorous environmental, social and economic standards of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN). “I love working here, because we are always in direct contact with the farmers,” Sitio says.
Each of the small farmers produces coffee on less than a hectare of land. They may bring some of their coffee to sell at the weekly market in Lintong, but Volkopi goes directly to the farmers to purchase most of it at a better price. The organization pays a consistent premium over the local market price and provides access to the international market that the small farmers would not otherwise have. In addition, farmers receive access to credit in the months before the harvests when they need extra funds the most. Through this collaboration between Volkopi and the farmers, the quality and consistency of Blue Batak coffee from Lintong has drastically improved.
Volkopi uses Farmer Field School (FFS) techniques to organize its 388 small farmers into 16 training groups. Each group undergoes three months of training on 10 modules of sustainable agriculture that align with the core principles of the SAN. The farms must successfully pass their audits to achieve Rainforest Alliance certification. Isner Manalu, project manager at Volkopi, explains, “We use the Rainforest Alliance system because it is great at empowering the farmers to make positive changes and lead on their own.”
It was in Indonesia in 1989 that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization first implemented FFS. Now, more than 2 million farmers across Asia have participated in this type of training through governments, non-governmental organizations and private companies. FFS is used to implement good agricultural practices, such as integrated pest management, organic fertilization and better waste management. There are many examples of improvements made in Lintong as a result of the FFS training and Rainforest Alliance certification. Volkopi farmers have learned to make their own compost completely from materials that originate on their own farms. They are also using a mixture of water and ethanol in recycled water bottles to trap and remove pests, instead of spraying synthetic pesticides. Certification is one way to guarantee that coffee farmers are paid fairly, while helping to make sure that they are maintaining wildlife habitats and the environmental richness of their land.
The FFS system appoints lead farmers who are then able to train other farmers. Volkopi looks for farmers with strong character and leadership qualities to be the leaders. The lead farmers receive an additional bonus for each new farmer they train to become part of the program. It has proven to be an efficient system of promoting sustainability in the region due to the clear economic incentive.
Women are also making strides in Lintong coffee production through this system. There are two groups of Volkopi farmers made up entirely of women. Of the 388 farmers in the network, 60 are women.
Four of the 16 lead farmers in the FFS system are women. In addition, the children of all the farmers receive free English and environmental education classes twice a week at Volkopi. Benefits to the farmers increase every year, as do the number of farmers in Lintong that participate in the program. An estimated 2,700 more farmers will be trained in the FFS system in the next calendar year.
Part of the appeal of Blue Batak is the coffee’s distinctive cup profile—to bring out that complex profile, a medium roast is most effective. The coffee’s taste recalls sage, tobacco, cedar and herbs, but these earthy flavors are balanced by chocolate tones. It is a fairly robust cup with a low to medium level of acidity and a syrupy mouthfeel.
Sometimes the coffee will surprise its drinker with a layer of spiciness.
A single-origin Blue Batak may not be agreeable to every palate because of its intensely earthy flavor. As a result, some roasters prefer to spike a blend with it. Either way, the coffee is unique in its flavor and aroma—certainly in its blue color, but most importantly in its story. Savoring a cup of Blue Batak can take the consumer on a trip down that winding road through misty peaks to a place where the hands of the Batak people are working hard to bring their special coffee to market.
—Maya Albanese is a freelance writer.