Aceh (pronounced AH-CHEY) is the northernmost province of Sumatra. Its highland territory, surrounding Lake Tawar and the central city of Takengon, is considered to be the epicenter of one of the world’s most unique coffee terroirs. Coffee farms in this area are managed with the experience of many generations of cultivation, while also harmoniously woven into their surrounding tropical forests. The canopies are loud and fields are almost impenetrably thick with coffee plants, fruit trees, and vegetables, all of which are constantly flushing with new growth. Year-round mists and rain showers never cease, farm floors are spongy and deep with layered biomass, and almost every square meter of the region seems to exude life. Nothing is ever still. Including coffee ripening, which occurs ten months out of the year.
Koperasi Kopi Gayo Organic (KKGO) is a cooperative of 1408 farms. Members average 1 hectare each and are spread across the hillsides of the Bener Meriah and Aceh Tengah Regencies, which together circle the immediate mountain ranges north and south of Lake Tawar. The cooperative, along with many local industries in the region, identifies itself as “Gayo”, after the Gayonese ethnic group which has long made Aceh their home, and which comprises a vast majority of farmer members. KKGO was founded in 2006 and currently mills and exports through nearby PT Ihtiyeri Keti Ara, a family-owned company with whom Royal has worked for the past 20 years.
Regional coffee distinctions in the northern provinces of Sumatra are interestingly all based on human ethnicity, rather than geography itself. “Mandheling” for example, is a broad label for a widespread cultural group in Sumatra and Malaysia and subsequently the broadest coffee trading term, applying to almost any chosen blend of wet-hulled coffees from across the northern half of the island. “Batak” is a Mandheling sub-ethnicity based around Lake Toba and considered a regional coffee pedigree unto itself, and often marketed as such. These terms are malleable, and it is often difficult to pinpoint a coffee’s exact origin without direct partnerships that allow buyers to trace the entire value chain themselves.
Sumatra’s smallholder coffee is a complicated process. Notably, processing is typically not overseen by a single individual or team; instead, coffee moves task by task through different parties before reaching its final, fully dried, state. KKGO follows the common practice closely. Farmers pick cherry and sell to collectors, who aggregate for their communities and deliver to processors. Processors float cherry for density and then depulp and ferment the coffee overnight. The following morning the fermented parchment is washed clean with spring water and spread out on tarps to dry directly in the sun. After the parchment is dry to the touch, often only a matter of hours depending on the time of day, it is transferred to a local miller, who mechanically hulls the parchment from the wet coffee seed (thus earning the coffee its “wet-hulled” label), and will proceed to further dry the wet, naked coffee seeds on tarps under the direct sun. Each handoff is orchestrated by the cooperative, and the members’ coffee is traced throughout each step of the chain.
Additionally, working with PT Ihtiyeri Keti Ara, whose mill is local to Takengon, means exports are approved and shipped directly from the highlands, with minimal time in Sumatra’s humid port city of Medan—in our experience an extremely key step for retaining quality in Aceh’s coffee.