RNY On Location: A Look into Sumatra Coffee

This October, RNY’s Joe Borg and James Schoenhut traveled to Sumatra, Java, and Bali! In this second half of our two-part Indonesia origin series, Joe shares how this trip heightened his appreciation not only for Sumatra coffee, but for the people behind it all as well.

My First Trip to Indonesia

Joe & Jaime visiting the Ketiara cooperative, photographed with the director, Rahmah & her husband

For the first time in my 11-year coffee career, I had the opportunity to visit Indonesia. I have to say, leaving my wife and 3 boys (all under the age of 4) behind for two weeks was enough stress! Additionally, knowing the flight from JFK to Singapore for the first leg of the trip required being airborne for 19 hours was altogether daunting. Luckily, the first flight was not as bad as I thought it would be. The idea of staying up the night before in preparation to sleep as much as possible during our night flight was a good plan!

As soon as we arrived in Medan after our travel time of about 1 full day from JFK, we hit the ground running by visiting our partner exporters and millers. Going into the trip, I knew it would be quite different from my travels to Central and South America, and even Africa. That being said, I know there is still a considerable amount of mystery regarding Sumatra and the flow of coffee from the tree to your cup. So, I am here to provide some insight into how it all happens. I’m also going to touch on the exciting changes that have taken place with Sumatra coffee over the years, as well as what you can expect from Royal New York in the near future!

An Introduction to Sumatra Coffee

sumatra coffee farmer
A coffee farmer that delivers coffee to Meukat Komuditi Gayo

It is estimated that there are over 2 million coffee farmers in Sumatra. 90-95% of them are considered small producers, each having around 1/2-2 hectares of land for coffee farming. In addition to coffee, many grow various fruits, vegetables, and spices, both for supplemental income and their own consumption.

As we know, yearly coffee production varies due to many factors. These can include weather, agricultural diseases, and the overall care for the farm. In Sumatra, annual production ranges from approximately 10-11 million bags of 60kg per year. Combining both arabica and robusta, this is estimated to be around 75% of the annual production for all of Indonesia. Java, Bali, Flores, and Sulawesi make up the other 25%.

Demystifying the Flow of Sumatra Coffee

Cherry being de-pulped


The climate plays a huge role in how coffee is cared for and processed in Sumatra. Due to the humid weather and rainy season during their coffee processing, the giling basah, or wet hulled process dominates the Sumatra coffee industry. This process allows for faster drying, lower risk of quality defects, and faster cash flow. You can learn more about giling basah here.

In short, the giling basah process is unique to Indonesia. Some have tried it elsewhere, but I would argue that it’s hard to replicate! Giling basah is when coffee is depulped from the cherry, typically a day after picking, and the wet parchment is set to dry to 30-40% moisture. Then, the wet parchment is hulled, exposing the coffee bean and further drying it to an exportable moisture of 10-12%. This unique processing method greatly affects the overall character of the cup profile. It’s likely that you’ll experience a big body, low acidity, more predominant chocolate tones and even some earthiness in the resulting cup.


Wet parchment being dried at the farm level in Takengon, Sumatra

In many cases, the sorting and grading processes depend on the buyers’ requests. Exporters in Medan may have various sources for sorting defects. These can include electronic color sorting, density separators, and screen sorting for bean size.

For further defect removal and better grades, you’ll find warehouses with groups of women. Typically known as “mother pickers,” these women will sort through coffee a second time to remove any remaining defects. This leads to a higher quality cup and more appealing appearance.


sumatra coffee grades

Grade 1 coffees are the most sought after in the specialty coffee market. DP, or double picked, is first sorted using machinery, then sorted by hand pickers. Comparatively, TP, or triple picked, goes even further with removing defects to increase the look and quality.

The above table shows the common coffee grades in Sumatra, and the right column represents every grade’s threshold amount of defect allowance per 300g of coffee.

Sumatra Coffee Trade

The Sumatra coffee trade is unique in that the farmers have many options for selling and processing their coffee. Most commonly, farmers de-pulp their own coffee at the farm level. Then, they’ll sell it to a collector or miller/exporter. In some rarer cases, the farmer will directly sell cherries to a mill. The coffee will then be de-pulped and processed in its entirety at the mill level. See the different methods outlined in the below chart:

Final Thoughts & Exciting Offerings!

Hendra, a micro miller in Sumatra processing many unique styles of anaerobic, washed, naturals & more

This trip heightened my appreciation not just for Sumatra coffee, but for the people behind it all. Meeting the farmers and seeing the process firsthand granted us an invaluable perspective on such a substantial part of the global coffee trade. On this trip, we were treated with hospitality like no other, including the unique experience of enjoying a dance party at the Ketiara Cooperative. Not only did we leave Indonesia with strengthened business relationships, but we left with stronger friendships as well.

Royal focuses on many types of coffee from Sumatra, consisting of Grade 1 DP, Grade 1 TP wet hulled coffees, and natural processed coffees. In fact, we’re working on projects with smaller farmers for more traceability, as well as millers who are experimenting with anaerobic naturals, honeys, and fully washed coffees. Stay tuned for some exciting coffees to hit our warehouse in full bags and as offerings from the Royal NY Line Up!

Current Instore Offerings:

Sumatra Samosir Island Wet Hull Triple Pick (GP): RNY # 53703

Sumatra Takengon GR1 DP PT IKA: RNY # 55131

A Sneak Peak at What’s Coming Soon:

Organic Sumatra Aceh Ketiara “Adsenia” Triple Picked (GP): RNY # 55641

Organic Sumatra Aceh Ketiara Fair Trade (GP): RNY # 55642

Sumatra Takengon GR1 DP PT Meukat: RNY # 55672

Organic Sumatra Garmindo Mandheling Fair Trade: RNY # 55581