Return to Sumatra

A wise old woman (ex-Mother-In-Law, actually!) once counseled me: “Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.”

That’s true enough regarding most corporate claims of sustainability, partnership and fairness in the coffee world. That’s why we deal directly with farmers and co-ops, and get to the field as often as we can. But it is especially true in distant lands, such as Sumatra. Although we email and skype regularly and see each other every year at trade conferences, the changing realities on the ground make it really difficult to know what is going on without actually being there.

So back we go to Sumatra after three years. Jakarta is a booming hyper-metropolis, complete with superhighways, megamalls and The-Chain-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named everywhere. Yet down at the old docks of Sunda Kelapa, the swirling smells of rotting fish and coconuts leads to the fleet of ancient wooden Bugi schooners, still plying their interisland trade, their crews as piratical as ever. It allows me to touch the soul of old Indonesia again.

Change has come rapidly to North Sumatra, as well. The muddy main street of Takengon that I have walked since the 1980's is paved. Cafes and local ships crowd against each other as the boom in specialty coffee has brought visitors and money aplenty -- just not to the average coffee farmer. The place reminds me of a Wild West gold town.

The most telling sign of change (literally!) is a set of giant white "Hollywood"-style letters on the mountainside overlooking Takengon, spelling "GAYOLAND" -- a symbol of pride, growth and of recognition (Gayo is the main ethnic group in this area). Equally as telling, the last letter has fallen flat on its face, and nobody seems to notice or care. It's a boomtown.

The Gayo region still pumps out some of the most in-demand specialty coffee in the world. And now, where we once walked alone, we walk past buyers from Counterculture, Intelligentsia, Starbux and the omnivorous Green Mountain. Lots of coffee, lots of money changing hands. Lots of corporate pretty boys in their Banana Republic khakis.

The word is out there that we are here, so the little hotel front desk is flooded with messages from farmers, organizers and exporters we've known forever. The names of the coops, exporters, processors change, but they seem to be the same faces as before. This coop folded, so these three new ones formed. This exporter realized there was big money in fair trade, so he created his own "coop", perfectly legal of course, managed and controlled by all his relatives. Another exporter was banned from trading, so a new company emerges. Lots of coffee, lots of money.

Our driver, Bibi, gets us out of town, hammering us over rocky mountain roads to visit some of our growers. Sumatran coffee fields are full of healthy, busy plants bursting with red coffee cherries. Walking through Mardian's coffee fields in the village of Lukup Sabun, we come across a patch of huge berries, the biggest I have even seen! Mardian explains that they are an old heirloom varietal called "Bawani" that hasn't been on the market for many years, so he just mixes the few plant's harvest in with his other cherries. They are stunning, sweet and juicy with two gigantic beans in each cherry. I ask if he would be willing to "double sort" them out and sell them to us for a premium.

"Premium?" he smiles broadly, "sure!!" Thus arrives our forty sacks of "Sumatran Gayo Heirloom" several months later. Just as we are receiving them in the Beanery, a massive earthquake hits the Gayo region, destroying Mardian's home and these previous heirloom plants. We send money to rebuild his house (fortunately none of his family were injured), but the heirloom cannot be recovered. (UPDATE Aug 2016: Mardian WAS able to recover some of the heirloom plants post-earthquake after all! He saved a few trees, and has been cultivating them ever since, building up quite a healthy (yet small) annual harvest and some great microlots!)

Back in Takengon, a message requests me to come to another hotel for a “special meeting”. No explanation. Let’s go, let the adventure continue!

At the hotel ten exporters are waiting. They all want to sell me kopi luwak, the famous coffee eaten by wild civit cats, excreted, then collected and processed by these guys. Kopi luwak retails for about four hundred bucks a pound, and in some hipster cafes you can buy a single small cup for twenty dollars. I know that about two-thirds of all claimed kopi luwak has been shown not to be the real thing by scientists who test the stuff, so I ask how much is available. Forty containers – 1,600,000 pounds! I tell the guys that there aren’t enough civits in the entire world to produce that much. What are they doing, force feeding their kids coffee cherries? They all burst out laughing and there is no more talk of kopi luwak. Really now!

We also spent a lot of time on the trip trying to "follow the money" to determine exactly how much goes into the farmers pocket. This is hard enough to figure out in the most transparent cooperatives (cherries to green beans/kilos to pounds/rupiah to dollars/coop expenses...). But it is a real struggle with some of the newer, exporter controlled groups. And it's not just the money - it's who controls the decision making on the use of fair trade and other premiums. Do the farmers really have a voice or do they just rubberstamp the real boss' decision. Half the farmers don't know how much they get, half ain't talking in front of the exporter or his agent.

Fair trade is still the best, most consistent system out there for delivering money and services to the farmers, but in some places it can subtly be captured by the big guys who have always run the show. And for coffee companies that just want the label to capture a growing consumer market and don't really care what happens on the ground, well, that's good enough.

So the struggle continues. That's why we take the time to meet and work directly with our farmers, send interns and Javatrekkers to get under the hood of our relationships, and don't take anybody's word for it until it can be verified. It is really easy to make misrepresentations to the consumer -- either consciously or unintentionally.

On a lighter note,I was able to find an eighteenth century working ship's rail cannon (a "lantaka") in a Chinese junk shop in Medan, the coffee shipment port. But since we were on the way to the airport and eighty-pound cannons don't fit handily in the overhead I left it with the farmers to stick inside the container of Gayo and Heirloom we put together. The coffee is now in the Beanery and the cannon is in my living room.

Drink up, me hearties, yo-ho!

-Dean and the Beanery crew

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