The Debt Payer: Coffee Pests, Climate Change, And Hopes For A Better Harvest In Northern Sumatra

The spring rain had just let up in Lintong Ni Huta, a village in North Sumatra, when 72-year-old Helmi Samosir sat on the floor of her terrace, sorting coffee beans. Her eyes work in sync with the movements of her fingers, hands quickly separating damaged coffee beans from the healthy crop.

Samosir has been cultivating coffee with her family for more than two decades, but in recent years she has been dissatisfied with the results. “The yields are bringing in less now,” she tells me, “and the quality is not as good as it used to be.”

April to May is coffee harvest season in Lintong, and on the first picking day of the year, she’s able to yield around 15 kilograms of coffee cherries, which she places on a tarpaulin for sorting over the next two or three days. Coupled with the first picking, Samosir predicts that this year’s harvest will only be a maximum of 25 kg of cherry from 200 coffee trees in his family’s 1,600 square meter farm. Those numbers are dissatisfying.

“After this [first picking], for the next one to two weeks, there will still be one more picking, but maybe not this many anymore. After that, there is no more [picking]. Usually, the two pickings are gone,” she says, and I can see the disappointment on her face. Over the previous two decades, the average yield was closer to 80-90 kilograms per harvest, but the decline has been steady over the last few years.

Pests, disease, and climate all contribute to these dropping yields, and on the day I visited her, around 20 percent of what Samosir picked appeared to be defective. After sorting—one of the traditional post-harvest processes, from picking the cherries and pulping—she will dry them in her yard using tarpaulin mats on the ground and direct sunlight.

Helmi Samosir

“Hopefully, it doesn’t rain so that the coffee can be dried immediately and can be sold immediately,” she says. Samosir hopes to sort everything in time to collectors, who will then sell it back to the factories that process them into green coffee that is ready for export.

But it’s not all bad news. “Now we sell unhulled coffee to collectors for US$2.8 per kilo,” she said. That price is almost three times what it was two years earlier, when the COVID-19 pandemic occurred and Arabica coffee exports were impacted. What’s happened since is an unusual dichotomy: coffee in this part of Indonesia has never been worth more, but the harvest has never been smaller. Helmi Samosir puts it simply:

“Prices are good, but the harvest is less.”

Lintong Ni Huta is one of the ten coffee-producing regions in North Sumatra, a province known as one of Indonesia’s largest coffee producers. Coffee from this region is called Lintong Coffee, which has been popular across the international coffee market since the 1990s, in particular via Starbucks, whose “Blue Batak” offering is sourced from this region. “Batak” refers to the tribal inhabitants of the area around Lake Toba, the largest lake in Sumatra, formed by a massive volcanic eruption—one of the largest known to geologic records—around 74,000 years ago. Lintong Ni Huta is one of several dozen villages that ring the shoreline of this lake.

Juandi Nababan, 43, is another coffee farmer I met in Lintong Ni Huta last spring, and he told a similar story about harvest and production, reporting that both the quantity and quality of coffee in his village had deteriorated considerably over the last decade. Borer pests appear to be the primary culprit.

Juandi Nababan

“This is the condition of the coffee tree now,” he says, showing me a coffee tree that looks stunted, with sparse leaves and stems covered in green, moss-like networks of pests. “This green is actually dying and not bearing any fruit.”

“This is a complete failure, serious, very bad.”

A few years after noticing the initial decline, Nababan and his family replanted most of the coffee trees on their small coffee farm. The problem continued, however, and the health of the plants worsened.

The first Arabica coffee seeds were brought by the Dutch to Indonesia in the 18th century. Beginning in 2005, the coffee farmers in and around Lintong have begun using a hybrid Arabica variety known as Sigarar Utang. The source of the seeds, which are the result of natural crosses of Typica and Catimor, were found in 1988 in a coffee field in Paranginan, a village on the shores of Lake Toba, owned by a farmer named Ompu Sopan Siregar. Almost two decades later, the Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture began issuing these seed varieties to farmers, and widespread adoption quickly followed.

“Almost all coffee farmers in this village grow Arabica coffee of the Sigarar Utang variety,” Nababan told me, and for good reason. The tree bears fruit quickly, allowing farmers to harvest fruit right at the three-year mark (most Arabica variety coffee trees can be harvested closer to 4 years after planting). This quick turnaround allows farmers to make money more quickly, and use the proceeds from sales to pay off debts, as most farmers borrow money in advance during planting season and pay it off after harvest. In a neat bit of local marketing, the name—”Sigarar Utang”—translates from Indonesian as “the debt payer.”

But nearly twenty years after being officially issued by the Indonesian government, it appears that Sigarar Utang can no longer keep up with disease, pests, and climate change. The variety appears to be particularly vulnerable to pests after passing its productive period, which can be anywhere from 5 to 20 years, and the high intensity of rain in the region during the month of October often aborts the coffee flowers so they don’t become coffee cherries.

“Five years ago, most of the coffee trees in this field have been replanted, but it’s been two years, seven years ago, pests and diseases have started,” said Nababan, showing red coffee cherries that looked intact but were damaged inside.

“When washed, there are so many cherries that float,” a tell-tale sign that your coffee’s fruit is impacted. “I would say up to one-half of each tree is in a damaged condition.”

Nearly every family in Lintong, around 280 or so groups total, farm coffee in the regions’ coffee fields. Beginning in the 1990s, around the same time Starbucks made Blue Batak a household name for coffee lovers, the villagers in this region turned coffee into their primary source of agricultural revenue. It’s now a multi-generational business affair, with coffee farming techniques (and profits) passed down from elders to children. “My mother used to harvest around 20 cans (roughly 340 KG) per pick from the 250 coffee trees in her field,” Nababan recalls, “at the time, coffee production was very high, and the prices soared.”

A number of coffee farmers in the area found themselves with real profits from the work, and were able to send their children to university, something that was not common in the region at that time.

But now, the villagers of Lintong are staring straight into a new reality as coffee conditions continue to decline. Many farmers are beginning the difficult work of shifting to other crops, including corn, chilies, and other vegetables. Coffee from this corner of Indonesia, once so prized, is slowly being phased out by families in the region.

For now, the Nababan family is holding steady. “I’m still enthusiastic,” says Juandi Nababan. He tells me that coffee has given a lot to his family: “From coffee, we can buy paddy rice, and it enables us to send our children to school.” But he acknowledges that a solution must be sought quickly to the growing production problems faced by the coffee farmers of Lintong. And he wants the government, which has been promoting Lintong coffee abroad for decades, to acknowledge the challenging conditions faced by farmers at the grassroots.

“It’s true that Lintong coffee is well-known overseas, but that was before. This is the real condition now,” he says.

“Coffee here is not what it used to be. It’s like a dream.”

Indonesia is the world’s fourth largest coffee producer after Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia. Coffee is big business here, in a country with a coffee plantation area of 1.29 million hectares and a total production of 794.8 thousand tons as of 2022. But these numbers tell just one part of the story, and scale of production decreases significantly as you follow the statistics; Indonesia is nearly twice the size of Vietnam, but that nation now produces 1.85 million tons annually.

What’s happening around the village of Lintong Ni Huta in North Sumatra is a window into a more extensive set of issues facing farmers across the country. I spoke with Joko Prabowo, a Sumatran coffee exporter at PT Sumatra Specialty Coffee (SSC), which since 2007 has been supplying coffee to Starbucks from farmers in the 10 regions, who said coffee production from farmers has dropped dramatically in the last three years.

Once upon a time, SSC assisted some 21,000 coffee farmers—a number now reduced to 10,142—as registered members of the C.A.F.E Practice, Starbucks’ certification program, in determining standards and sustainability of coffee production. In the provisions of C.A.F.E Practice, it is explained that Starbucks pays a premium to farmers. However, according to Prabowo, there is no premium paid by Starbucks to farmers because farmers in North Sumatra are generally non-organic farmers.

“The premium is given to organic farmers,” he said. “Starbucks only provides development assistance and coffee seeds. This year, Starbucks plans to distribute 1.6 million seeds to farmers in North Sumatra alone,” said Prabowo, whom Sprudge met at the coffee collection warehouse in Siborong-borong.

When asked what caused the reduction in certified farmer members, he said the trigger was the COVID-19 pandemic.  When coffee trading stopped, and coffee prices fell, many farmers switched to planting other crops, which had an impact on decreasing coffee production.

Before the pandemic, SSC exported 10-15 containers of green beans to Starbucks a week, and those numbers are slowly returning. Now that trade is starting to stabilize, and coffee prices are rising, farmers want to grow coffee again, but production remains small, impacted by the double circumstances of decreased yields and farmers who are just now bringing their crops back online.

“Many farmers who stopped growing coffee now regret that decision,” Prabowo tells me, “especially with prices like this.”

Based on data from the Central Statistics Agency, the area of Arabica coffee plantations in North Sumatra is 79,388.64 hectares, with production of 71,588 tons in 2021. Humbang Hasundutan is a region that has the largest coffee plantation area of 12,163 hectares. Its production is 9,690 tons and has slowly decreased over the last few years.

According to Harapan Munthe, secretary of the Lintong Coffee Observer Society (an association of Lintong coffee farmers and entrepreneurs), now the average production is even lower, only 500 kg to 600 kg per hectare per year, lower than statistics which average 700 kg per hectare per year.

However, the market demand for this coffee remains high, so it is impossible for traders to sell large volumes of Lintong coffee. If anything, there is a possibility of fraudulent trading. “Traders buy coffee from farmers in other regions and then sell it under the name Lintong coffee,” Munthe told Sprudge. Other coffee producers I spoke to for this article agree that fraud is a new issue here in the region.

To avoid fraud, according to Munthe, the government has issued a geographical indication that was proposed by the district government to identify the original origin of coffee from the region. But the initial impact of the certification has been limited, says Munthe. “The trade link is still through exporters,” he explains, and many exporters selling coffee from North Sumatra still use the label Sumatra Mandheling Coffee, which refers to the Mandailing district where the Dutch first planted coffee in northern Sumatra in the 18th century. This term—”Mandheling”—has name-brand popularity abroad, and it remains on exporter sheets today alongside Sumatra Arabica Coffee, a term that generalizes coffees sourced from all ten regions on the island, even if they happen to be from the protected distinct region of Lintong.

Until only recently, farmers in the region have not been able to determine the market value of their coffees fairly, according to Munthe. Prices set by exporters in the market have impacted farmers’ motivation to cultivate their coffee, with a knock-on effect of impacting the total supply availability, which is also being harmed by pests and climate change. “Geographical indication certification should enable farmers to export their coffee to the market directly,” Munthe tells me. And in this work, he sees a glimmer of hope.

15 kilometers or so outside the village of Lintong Ni Huta, in Siborong-borong, a coffee producer named Surip Mawardi manages 3.8 hectares of land. His parcel was previously uncropped—”it used to have bushes and some pine trees, he says—until Mawardi planted it to coffee for the very first time in 2020.

Mawardi is a retired researcher from the Indonesian Coffee and Cocoa Research Center. Before he began managing coffee fields, he worked for the Starbucks Farmer Support Center in Karo District, North Sumatra. His land sits around 1400 meters above sea level, and he grows four different types of coffee, including Komasti, Andung Sari 1, Tipika, and Long Berry.

Surip Mawardi
Surip Mawardi

In early April of this year, Mawardi started harvesting coffees from the Andung Sari 1 variety shrub. These treelets yield well, offering as much as .5 kilograms of green coffee per tree, and he assumes that if this average holds out across the 3,000 trees he’s planted, the yield from one hectare can reach 1.5 tons.

These numbers add up in a significant way for the farmer. “It will be like an ATM for me, making money all the time,” Mawardi says. “After fruiting, the cherries can be picked every two weeks, and the peak will be in October to November.” This only happens in Sumatra, he adds—on Java the crops peak closer to the end of September.

As a member of the C.A.F.E Practice farmer network, Mawardi sells wet parchment to Starbucks through exporters and processes a small part of it for local coffee shop demand. For good quality coffee, he can sell wet parchment for US$6/kg, and for US$8/kg after being processed into specialty green beans.

He admits that the lack of cultivation guidance for farmers is a problem for the sustainability of coffee farmers. Most coffee trees after seven years are no longer productive, and farmers do not replace them with superior seeds, which makes them vulnerable to pests. “Sigarar Utang has passed its golden age. It was ahead of its time,” he says.

Surip Mawardi advises farmers to change cropping patterns by using superior seeds (such as Andung Sari 1) that are resistant to pests and climate change. Land preparation practices using compost and shade systems using local shade trees like lamtoro also have a profound impact on oxygenation in the soil, helping protect the health of the coffee plants.

The key is spreading knowledge about these practices and convincing farmers that they can continue Lintong’s legacy of artisan coffee cultivation, especially now that prices are at an all-time high. Coffee quality can even improve, he says, and quantities grow exponentially across harvests, starting first in smaller areas and then growing in the next planting period.

“If that can happen, I’m sure there won’t be a shortage of Sumatran coffee in the midst of high demand like now,” he tells me,  as we stand together on his small coffee farm in the April heat. “And there won’t be any more poor coffee farmers, either.”

Tonggo Simangunsong is a freelance journalist based in Medan City, North Sumatra, Indonesia, the author of Medan Coffee GuideRead more Tonggo Simangunsong for Sprudge.


Mikael Jasin and the Future of Indonesian Coffee

Mikael Jasin has many identities in the coffee industry, but he is perhaps first and foremost his nation’s most decorated barista champion. A multiple World Barista Championship competitor on behalf of Indonesia, Jasin placed 4th at the 2019 World Barista Championship and 7th at the 2021 WBC. He is also the founder and CEO of So So Good Coffee Company and CATUR Coffee Company, where he focuses on barista training, coffee consultancy, and most recently, processing and selling his own Indonesian coffee beans.

There might be no one else doing more at the moment for coffee in Indonesia, which makes Mikael a tough guy to get a hold of. He’s busy! We first talked all the way back in 2020, after the closing ceremony of the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ)’s Coffee Innovation Fund, in which both companies we worked for received funding to implement sustainability projects related to coffee farming in Vietnam and Indonesia (I was an independent consultant for Bosgaurus Coffee, and Mikael Jasin represented his own So So Good Coffee Company). Three years later, I reached out to him to catch up on his recent projects and to learn more about the coffee production industry in Indonesia—and the state of modern coffee in Indonesia today.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Hi Mikael, for those who don’t know, could you tell us about yourself? 

When I introduce myself to people these days, a lot of the time I don’t know where to start. I think I would define myself as a coffee professional because my work spans very different parts of the industry. I’ve recently been processing a lot of coffee, so I’d like to introduce myself as a coffee processor. But when I pitch a coffee recipe to a company, then I’d be a barista, because I’d be making coffee then. So yeah, I guess it really depends on who I talk to. Yeah, I mean, we do process a lot of coffee. I would say that 70% of my time is dedicated to CATUR. So in that sense, I’m more of a coffee processor and exporter, but in terms of my career, the majority of time spent was about making coffee, and I still coach people for competition. So in combination, if I really have to have an identity, I guess I will call myself a coffee professional. For a coffee person, our work spans across different areas. Most start as a barista, but once you’ve been in the industry long enough, you move past that title behind the bar. To outsiders, perhaps you are just a barista or a roaster, but I think your role in the industry will expand beyond that title.

What keeps you so interested in coffee after all these years? 

I was in Australia for university. In the beginning, I needed to find a part-time job to support my livelihood. So I started to work as a barista. But after five years in the industry, I decided to stay because I love the sense of community. If you are a barista, you can go to another cafe, and the coffee people there will be very welcoming. That’s what I like about coffee. As a barista, you will also have many regulars with whom you will develop a special relationship. So I liked that aspect of coffee, which I didn’t find anywhere else.

Then, as I progressed in the industry, I realized that coffee is an agent of change. It has the ability to change the lives of those who come into contact with it. From the people who use coffee as a fuel to get out of sleepiness, all the way down to coffee farmers, whose lives are literally devoted to coffee. Also, most people choose to work in the coffee industry simply because they love it; you can see it at coffee events and expos. Sure, similar to other jobs, we have to make money, but everybody is sort of connected by this love of coffee. So yeah, I think it’s very profound. I don’t see a lot more industries that are more profound than ours.

In general, what do you think about the current state of the coffee-growing industry in Indonesia? 

In Indonesia, we mostly plant robusta hybrids. Because of the high humidity and low elevation, Indonesia is a very challenging country for coffee production. Also, unlike Brazil, where most of the land is flat, our topography is mountainous. So most of the varieties that can survive here are robusta hybrids. To be honest, I think robusta hybrids are great because they still taste like Arabica, but they are also resistant to diseases. They can survive at low elevations of 800 or 900 meters. That is why most of the varieties in Indonesia are Catimor and its clones, which are called by different names, like Sigararutang, one of the more well-known cultivars—you see it a lot in the Indonesian Cup of Excellence. And then we have Tim-Tim, Andungsari, and Gayo. Basically, they are all members of the Catimor family. We have Typica in West Java, but in terms of volume, they are very small.

Where have these varieties come from? 

In Indonesia, we have what is called the Indonesian Coffee and Cocoa Research Institute (ICCRI), which introduced these varieties to producers. In the beginning, ICCRI’s target was to produce as much as we could, not to score 90+ cupping scores or attract crazy prices, so if these varieties just taste better than robusta, then ICCRI is already happy. That’s sort of the background, and that’s why, for the longest time, Indonesian coffee could not compete in terms of flavor profile or cupping score because of its lineage and heritage.

But in the last five or seven years, people have been thinking about a quick fix, like a short- to medium-term fix to coffee quality, so we have been focusing on processing. You can start with a variety that is mediocre, like Tim-Tim or Andungsari, but then you process it in the best way you can. At CATUR, we rely on yeast inoculation, but there are other ways to do that. A lot of people have tried different things, like proper natural processing, and it did improve the score. However, post-processing is only suitable in the short term because, no matter what you do, these varieties will always be a little bit bitter, along with some earthy and woody notes. So give it your best, but you’ll be very lucky if the coffee hits 90 points or more. Whereas with Gesha, if you process it washed, it can still reach 90 points. In the end, I think our answer for the future is to look for varieties or species that are suitable for our local climate while also being resilient and scoring highly. I don’t know what the answer is yet. People have mentioned Gesha or Pink Bourbon, but I wonder if these varieties even work in Indonesia because of the low elevation. Overall, I don’t think Gesha would work in Asia because it is designed for a cooler climate like Panama. If you grow Gesha at 1,200 MASL, I don’t think it’s going to work—but I am happy to be proven wrong.

Could you tell me a bit about the Indonesian coffee-producing industry? 

Most coffee farms in Indonesia are owned by smallholder farmers, who own just less than three hectares of land. These smallholder farmers will either process coffee themselves or bring their cherries to a local wet mill, which is very challenging for processors like us because the coffee will be blends of very different quality. And obviously, as in many other countries, the farmers are getting older while the new generation no longer wants to plant coffee.

In the past couple of years, since COVID-19, there has been a massive shortage of coffee supply in the world, which has led to a demand for high-quality Indonesian coffee. Since the demand was high, cherry prices were crazy high—in fact, last year’s was an all-time high. So coffee producers could just sell coffee cherries to anybody. It then became a challenge for specialty coffee people like us because the market price for coffee cherries was lower than what we used to offer to farmers in previous years. There was no incentive for producers to pick ripe cherries if they could sell coffee cherries, no matter the quality. We could buy cherries at an even higher price, but it was not sustainable because it would drive our costs up, and then we had to sell coffee at a higher price range. At the same time, the coffee quality did not go up because what we were trying to do was just secure cherries from farmers instead of setting a standard for the quality of the coffee we would buy. So I think that was the challenge for specialty coffee people lately, especially in Indonesia. I think it is good for the farmer in the short term, but not so much in the long term, because the market price will eventually crash.

Why did you start So So Good and CATUR Coffee Company? Tell me about these companies. 

CATUR was created in 2021 because we wanted to bring Indonesian coffee to the global stage. I was preparing for the World Barista Championship, but then it was postponed, which was great because I wanted to use Indonesian coffee and I believed I needed more time to fine-tune our processing technique. As I processed the coffee, I realized that I didn’t want to make 20kg lots for competition, but I wanted to make bigger lots. If you’re just doing small lots, there will be no scale and thus no real change. I think real change can only happen when there’s enough scale so that the impact is bigger. In the end, I founded CATUR as a platform to sell these bigger lots.

Our aim is to export as much coffee as we can. Now, we have 17 people working in our headquarters, and our team is working with producers in 14 different regions in Sumatra, Sulawesi, Bali, and Flores. We don’t own farms or wet mills; instead, we partner with local processing partners, except for a wet mill in Sumatra, but other than that, we heavily rely on our local processing partners. These local partners will buy cherries on our behalf, and then they will process the cherries according to our specifications. That’s sort of how it works.

We want to be an agent of change in the Indonesian coffee industry and help people improve their coffee quality in a way that is scalable. We’re not interested in making 15kg lots for competition; instead, our target is to make much bigger lots in a way that is scalable, replicable, and consistent, and then we would make the model available to everybody. That’s why we decided to inoculate our coffee with yeast, and as an extension of that, we are working with a lab named Berlian Biotech. Also, we’re focusing on transparency and sustainability, which not a lot of people in Indonesia have done.

We have a goal to become a carbon-neutral company. There are hard ways and easy ways to achieve that target. The simplest way, which big companies usually do, is to plant as many trees as possible, which I believe is not sustainable in the long run because these companies are buying carbon credits and then producing as much carbon as they can. Instead, we focus on reducing our footprint—when we have to travel, we try to find better routes. If you fly in economy class, your carbon footprint is one-third that of someone flying in business class. Also, we work with people who do reforestation projects. Reducing footprint is not as hard as people might think; it just requires commitment from everybody in the team, and we’ve been lucky that, because of our commitment to transparency and sustainability, we have met customers or coffee buyers who care about this kind of stuff. For example, Europe is our biggest market, and I think people in Europe buy our coffee because of our commitment to transparency and sustainability. When people pay $12 per kilogram of coffee to us, they know exactly how much of it was spent on buying cherries, how much of it goes to our processing partners, how much of it we take as a company, our cost margin, and how much of it goes to different activities… At the same time, these people would understand that when we increase our price, it’s not because we are taking more margin as a company, but because of the increase in cherry prices. It’s the same thing when we claim to be a carbon neutral company: on our website, we have QR codes that you can scan to see the things we have done, and these works are verified by independent auditors.

What changes have you seen since CATUR started? In terms of coffee quality, producers’ livelihood, and so on. 

To be honest, the cupping score for our coffee is kind of stagnant compared with last year’s because cherry quality decreased while the price increased. But in general, since 2021, we have seen an increase in cupping score, which obviously led to a higher price. Also, thankfully, because of our transparency report, people can see that we’re actually paying more. So changes have happened.

In terms of livelihood, we tried, in the beginning, to take data on the number of farmers that supply cherries to us from our 14 different processing regions, but honestly, it got a little bit difficult to trace because there are too many. I know that we work with a couple thousand farming families, but I don’t really want to claim that we know 2,000 farmers. Anyway, I really think that we are making a difference in their lives, like we are giving them knowledge that they didn’t have access to because of language or money. Now that they have worked with us, they get to learn what we do and how to improve their coffee’s cupping score. In the upcoming years, they can either keep selling their cherries to us, which they still do, or they can process this coffee themselves and then sell it to somebody else. My goal is to be an agent of change, and I really don’t mind if producers process all the cherry themselves and don’t have enough for us to buy—it just means we have achieved our mission and that’s nothing to worry about.

Could you tell me in depth about CATUR’s approach to processing coffee? Did CATUR receive consultations on these processing techniques from any universities or institutions? 

From my own research and what I have learned from Jamison Savage of Finca Deborah during my preparation for the previous World Barista Championship, I actually designed the processing steps before I worked with any universities, in the hope that I could create several taste profiles for the coffee that we were working with. Then, in 2019, we received a grant from GIZ, and initially, we aimed to hire some international consultants to help us. Some names were considered, but then COVID-19 broke out, and we had to look for a consultant within Indonesia. It was a blessing in disguise because it was when we found Dr. Intan Taufik, who is a microbiologist from the Bandung Institute of Technology. Back then, Taufik was doing research on inoculating yeast on green coffee to see if they still survived the roasting process, which they did. Then he wanted to see if we could inoculate coffee cherries with yeast, and that’s where I came in. We experimented a lot during our project with GIZ, and we kept working together after the project ended, but, you know, as we are working with a university, every step is very formal because you have to submit requests, so we ended up making our own lab named Berlian Biotech. And Dr. Yintan is our partner now in this lab, so we have an independent life where we can do our own research and produce our own yeast at the pace that we want. After a couple of years, we are getting better at knowing about yeasts and fermentation, so we will be selling our yeasts to the public in a few months.

Our collection consists of four taste profiles, labeled Bumi, Senja, Pucuk, and Kamala. Bumi is a traditional washed coffee, but with yeast. The other three profiles undergo whole-cherry anaerobic fermentation. We inoculate the coffee cherries, put them inside the tank, and then we close it. Depending on available drying space—because it’s very challenging to dry in Indonesia, we can either turn this into an anaerobic natural, and that’s Kamala—our fruity, cacao nibs, pumpkin coffee. If the farm has washing channels available, we will pulp the cherries, wash them, and they will become Senja. Or if we don’t have washing channels available in a specific area, we just pulp it and then dry it as honey, which is Pucuk. I think it helps to smooth the work at the farm because you can just ferment the cherries and then decide later, depending on the farm’s specific conditions. We currently have three different recipes for yeast. Every now and then, we blend the green coffee from different processes, since it achieves the taste profile that we want to target. Blending is a practice that is done quite a lot in commercial coffee but is rarely seen in specialty coffee. At CATUR, we do blends, and yet we are transparent about it.

What do you hope for the future of Indonesian coffee? What will be your role in that future? 

Firstly, I hope that we can produce more coffee, and it doesn’t even have to be specialty coffee. I mean, obviously, specialty coffee has to be there, and high-quality coffee should be a target. But I’m not saying that specialty coffee production will have to completely replace commercial coffee production because, in reality, specialty coffee production still relies a lot on commercial coffee production because of scale. So I think this has to grow together; specialty and commercial coffee have to go hand in hand, and that’s the ideal scenario.

And then our role is hopefully to somehow be the people who either help innovate or help present these technologies to the global world, because I believe we were lucky by the platform that was given to us because of competition, because of social media. We have that responsibility, and hopefully, our role is to be the one who helps gather everybody and do this along with other people. We have Cup of Excellence in Indonesia now, and if you look at the winning farms, you will see most of them come from Gayo in North Sumatra. But Indonesian coffee is not only grown in Gayo but also everywhere else in Indonesia, so hopefully, we can sort of standardize this really great quality that Gayo has and share the knowledge with everybody so that we can spread the quality across Indonesia. And that’s one of the reasons why CATUR doesn’t want to have a farm. We don’t want to have a farm because if you have one, you will focus on it exclusively, and your impact will be very concentrated in that area.

Thank you!

Tung Nguyen is the founder of Citric Meets Malic and a Sprudge contributor based in Hanoi, Vietnam. Read more Tung Nguyen for Sprudge.


“The True Meaning Of Coffee”: In North Sumatra, Third Wave Comes Alive

When Denny Sitohang started his own business—Omerta Coffee—he was still new to the term “third wave coffee.” At that time, back in 2012, he still bought ground coffee from a traditional market; this is what he first served to visitors at his coffee shop, which is located outside the city of Medan, in Northern Sumatra.

How quickly things change. The third wave coffee movement has had a massive impact on coffee lovers across Indonesia, growing from a trend to become something much more. Today the city of Medan is home to coffee bars brewing single origin, single estate, or even single farm coffees brewed using V60, siphon, AeroPress, or other internationally known manual brewing tools.

Cafe owners like Denny Sitohang have been an important part of this movement, sourcing and brewing coffee from various gardeners across the north of the island of Sumatra. But it still surprises him to learn of Medan’s growing fame for coffee; the prestige around North Sumatran coffee is not well-known domestically. Departing from that awareness, Sitohang also began to introduce various coffees from various regions in his coffee shop, such as Mandailing, Lintong, Sidikalang, and other, less-known Indonesian coffee regions with extraordinary quality potential.

Denny Sitohang

“I was so surprised,” Sitohang tells Sprudge. “It turns out that this city is a Sumatran coffee hub, but many still didn’t know it.”

Over the last six months of 2021, Sitohang began to slowly change the concept of his coffee shop. He looked for coffee beans from various regions in North Sumatra and named each brew according to the region of origin. Now coffee farmers are selling their coffees to him directly, with micro capacity and fair price negotiations. It’s the kind of access to product that cafe owners in other parts of the world can only dream of.

“I bought their coffee at a price slightly higher than the market price,” he tells me. Today Omerta is helping lead the third wave of coffee in Medan, as the city’s reputation grows towards becoming a full-fledged coffee hub.

Third wave coffee has changed the coffee industry not just in North Sumatra, but across Indonesia. In Medan, the provincial capital, this trend shows no sign of slowing. Coffees from Gayo, Aceh, and other provinces are also mostly exported through the port of Belawan in this city.

“This third wave coffee trend is marked by the growth of the specialty coffee industry in the country, the increasing number of coffee shops, as well as the way people enjoy coffee, people in this city no longer only enjoy coffee in two flavors, black coffee, and milk coffee,” said Suyanto Husein to Sprudge, a veteran coffee exporter and former Chairman of the Association of Indonesian Coffee Exporters and Industries chapter of North Sumatra.

People’s curiosity about coffee has also changed the way they enjoy specialty coffee with a variety of brewing innovations. That situation inspired Robin Boe, a young entrepreneur, to open a shop for coffee and brewing equipment—Otten Coffee—back in 2015.

Otten Coffee owners portrait

“Initially we saw a problem in Indonesia where coffee lovers find it difficult to enjoy quality coffee and buy supporting equipment, including myself,” Boe tells me. Today the shop is known as the largest coffee equipment distributor in Indonesia.

So far I’ve talked about cafes and equipment distributors, but perhaps the most profound impact third wave coffee has had in Indonesia is among the farmers and producers. Two coffee farmers from different villages who talked to Sprudge acknowledged that reality. This trend makes them focus on the quality of the coffee and feel a more reasonable profit from the results of their hard work.

One of them is Fransiska Silaban, a Lintong coffee farmer in Lobu Tua Village, Humbang Hasundutan Regency who has been selling her coffee within the third wave coffee industry since 2015.

She said when the third wave coffee trend was accompanied by an increase in demand for specialty coffee, she changed the pattern of her family’s coffee plantation, covering an area of ​​six hectares above an altitude of 1,450 meters above sea level. “Slowly we started changing the process by applying a wet hull and full wash pattern, and only picking red cherries,” she says. The process is slower, but the benefits are greater. With that process, he can sell green beans at a higher price. He can sell up to IDR 85,000 ($ 5.80) green beans per kilogram.

“Grain coffee is only valued at around IDR 25,000 ($ 1.72),” she said. Apart from domestic sales, she also sells her coffee to Taiwan and the United States. Although the quantity has decreased due to the pandemic, she is still able to sell an average of 600 kilograms of specialty coffee to the domestic market in a month.

Another coffee farmer, Shafron (of Baron Coffee), admitted that third wave coffee has provided sustainable economic benefits. Since eight years ago he started growing Mandailing coffee on a coffee plantation covering an area of ​​​​four hectares above an altitude of 1,350 in Kayulaut Village in Mandailing Natal Regency, and only processed specialty quality coffee.

“Since the beginning, I don’t want to sell coffee grain because the price is very low, sometimes it is only priced at IDR 10,000 ($ 0.69) per kilogram. That’s why I still choose specialty coffee processing because I can sell it at a high price, and people can enjoy good quality coffee,” he said.


Nowadays he supplies 100-200 kilograms of specialty coffee every month to his regular cafe and roastery entrepreneurs in Medan, Jakarta, and Malang (West Java) with prices starting from IDR 100,000 ($ 6.88) per kilogram.

“I only sell special coffees that are processed by full wash, honey, and natural processes,” he said.

Choosing specialty coffee processes has made him survive the COVID-19 pandemic, even though demand is falling. “I feel lucky from the start to focus on specialty coffee, because at least the demand is continuing,” he said.

Meanwhile back in Medan, Denny Sitohang first started roasting on a small batch machine not long after opening his cafe. As time went on, he started selling more, and roasting more, while developing a true “direct trade” relationship with coffee farmers, buying their coffees from them directly and selling them in his cafe. Today he is never afraid of running out of excellent single-origin coffee beans from North Sumatra.

“Whenever I need coffee, they are always there even when coffee stock is low and demand is high. I feel lucky because I have established connections with them [farmers] all this time,” he tells me, and he’s not hte only one. Several cafe owners in Indonesia have done the same thing, opening cafes as well as roasteries. Visitors can enjoy coffee and find out how the coffee they drink is processed, from the roaster and the barista.

For Sitohang and dozens of specialty coffee industry players in Medan, third wave coffee is a crucial coffee movement. Some might call them “idealists”, or “coffee enthusiasts”, but what they’re doing for the coffee industry in North Sumatra is something much bigger.

“Yes, some people think we are idealists,” he admits to me, “but actually what I and other coffee entrepreneurs in the realm of third wave coffee do is find the true meaning of coffee. We get to enjoy that sensation by drinking specialty coffee in the same region where it was produced, which is an incredible sensation. For us, it’s not only about financial gain, but also passion and satisfaction.”

Tonggo Simangunsong is a freelance journalist based in Medan city, North Sumatra, Indonesia, the author of Medan Coffee Guide. This is Tonggo Simangunsong’s first feature for Sprudge.