Sumatra Notes ...

A quasi-historical note: Mandailing, spelled here "correctly," is technically an ethnic group in Indonesia, not a region, as is Batak. The coffee is called Mandheling from tradition, based on a perhaps mythical encounter between occupying Japanese soldiers and Mandailing coffee shop owners. When asking what the excellent coffee they were being served was, the owner misunderstood and thought they were asking what HE was. His reply was, of course "Mandailing". Later a former Japanese soldier contacted a businessperson in Sumatra after the war, and asked if the excellent coffee "Mandheling" was commercially available. The broker was the famed Pwani, and they shipped 15 tons of coffee to Japan that year. But can you see the great irony here? The person that desired the great "Mandheling" coffee actually created it in the act of asking for it. (Higher quality all-arabica coffee was never exported from Indonesia before this). The authenticity of the coffee was based not on its true origin, cultivar, or other "real" determinations of cup character, but in the language of this initial exchange. Of course, over time Mandheling has come to mean a lot, and have very specific cup qualities. But you will find a similar situation with Yemeni brokers who blend coffees for US importers seeking "Mocca". Its suited to US tastes, a milder cup for softer palettes from a blend of Yemeni origins, not too wild in the cup. BTW: the above story is from a Sumatran source, but in fact the 1903 Sears Wholesale Grocery Catalog listed "Java Mandailing" for sale (it was common until recently to call all Indonesian coffees Java such-and-such, like Java Timor or Java Kallosi etc) so Mandailing was definitely in use long before the '50s.

Grade One Sumatra Versus Premium Triple Pick? Specially prepared Sumatras used to be a very, very difficult thing to find. Michael Sivetz, who basically invented the concept of air roasting that many home roaster's employ, has a section in his book Coffee Quality that bemoans the poor preparation of "Grade 1" Sumatras. How can a coffee have be Grade 1 with a musty cup? Because unlike most countries, grading is done not by physical defect but by cup flavor. Sounds good, except for the fact that some pretty nasty cups make Grade 1. In other words, forget the Sumatra grading system. It is also true that the inclusion of unattractive coffee in some of those Mandhelings gives them their "oomph!" Take them out and you can actually have an overly-prepped Sumatra, a cup without the exotic "forest floor" earthiness and deep husky flavors that define the origin character of this coffee. That's the danger of the Triple Picks. What do I mean by Triple Pick and Super Prep.? Simply that the coffee has undergone obvious and extensive hand-sorting beyond the norm, and it is clear when you see it beside a Grade 1 Mandheling. (But if you really love Sumatras, cup them side by side ... you may like the less refined Grade 1 DP flavors more

Google map of Northern Sumatra


The main coffee areas for Arabica are in the Northern part of Sumatra. On this Google Map I marked Takengon city in the north, and Lake Toba in the south.The coffees from around Takengon are Aceh types and account for much of the Mandheling coffee. Lintong is a general name for coffees from the "south" (meaning south of Medan, which is where you fly into to get to the coffee areas).


An interesting 16th - 17th century map of Sumatra

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This page is authored by T. Owen and Sweet Maria's Coffee, Inc. and is not to be copied or reproduced without permission