Similar to many other Indonesian islands, Sumatra was formed by a volcanic eruption. The surface of the island is covered by a thick layer of volcanic soil, rich in nutrients and extremely fertile, making it perfect for coffee growing.
A Brief History of Indonesian Coffee
In the early 18th century, coffee markets in Europe were under a monopoly of Arabian growers. Dutch East India Company was very interested in breaking that monopoly. At the urging of Nicolaes Witsen, the burgomaster of Amsterdam, Dutch governor of Batavia ordered coffee plantations to be raised in Dutch East Indies, today known as Indonesia. The incredible fertile soil proved to be ideal for coffee, and just several years later, the first shipment of Java coffee reached Europe. Coffee growing soon spread to other islands as well, including Sumatra, the second-largest island in Indonesia. By the end of the century, the Dutch East Indies became the world’s largest coffee producer, surpassing both Ethiopia and Arabia.
Sumatra coffee trade flourished until the disaster struck in the form of a disease called rust that almost completely wiped out coffee plants throughout Indonesia. To counter it, planters switch to Robusta coffee, and today just about 25% of Indonesia coffee exports are Arabica. One of the most famous Arabica coffees in Sumatra is called Mandheling.
Need to know about Arabica and Robusta beans? Be sure to check out our piece “What’s the Difference Between Arabica vs Robusta Coffee Beans” for more.
Coffee Growing Regions
Coming from the Batak region of west-central Sumatra, near the port of Padang, Mandheling coffee is grown on volcanic slopes of Mount Leuser. The plantations are usually located at a height between 2,500 and 5,000 ft. Most of the plants are of Catimor and Typica variety. Contrary to popular opinion, Mandheling is not the name of the region. Unlike other coffees around the globe, Mandheling isn’t named after a region, port of origin, or some other geographical feature.
The name comes from a local ethnic group, similar to Batak. It is compounded from two words, mande, meaning ‘mother,’ and hilang, meaning ‘lost.’ According to the local stories, the name originated during World War 2, when a Japanese soldier asked about the coffee he was drinking. The owner of the coffee shop, thinking the soldier asked him about his origin, answered “Mandheling”. After the war, Japanese soldiers stationed in Sumatra were the first customers, and coffee was exported to Japan under that name, which soon spread throughout the world.
Did you know that coffee is a fruit and comes from plants? Dive into “Everything You Need to Know About Coffee Fruit (Cascara)” for our feature study on everything that is coffee fruit.
Indonesian Sumatra Mandheling Coffee
Most of the Sumatran (and Indonesian in general, for that matter) coffees have a distinct taste, coming from a process called Giling Basah, or wet grinding. Most growers remove hulls from beans once they are at 12 or 15% of moisture. Indonesian farmers do it at 50%. After mechanical hulling, beans are left to dry. The process results in a coffee with low acidity, but with a rich and full-body, with traces of herbal flavors, and strong earthy tones, with a distinct chocolate finish. Other notes include cedar, sweet tobacco, and spices. The acidity, although low, is noticeable and is consistent and balanced. This signature flavor is unique to the region, and Mandheling coffee is an excellent example of prime Indonesian coffee.
Be sure to also check out “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Coffee Plants” for more on coffee fruit and the origins of coffee.
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