I first came to Indonesia in 2008. I flew into the city of Banda Aceh and rented a motorbike. I first followed the coast, driving past families harvesting lowland rice, before turning to the interior and climbing. I drove through the mountains for hours, climbing several thousand feet. Stopping at small warungs, or rest stops along the way, I warmed myself with the rich, gritty coffee Gayo. The roasting from open air kitchens would reach me on my 125cc motorbike. As I climbed higher, the coffee trees began to show themselves first at 800 meters and at 1500 meters, the forest, on both sides of the road were alive with coffee trees, sheltered by fruit, durian, mango, and nitrogen fixing caliandra trees.
At a certain point in my ride I rounded a bend and was hit by a wall of rain, funneled between mountains. In the growing darkness, I spotted flickers of light, that danced like fireflies in the rain. I headed toward the light. The light turned out to be the din of other motorbike headlights. I crowded into a small shelter; the Indonesians made room and welcomed me.
Our shelter turned out to be a coffee nursery, maintained by one of the village cooperatives - some large, some small - that span the islands of Indonesia. Looking at those small saplings, glintering by motorbike headlight, with the people taking such care to protect the coffee - you might say I fell in love.
Since then I've been traveling the coffee regions of the world, flirting with the small region of space that harbors arabica coffee and is the mainstay cash crop and income of farmers all over the world. In Sumatra, I was intrigued of stories of "coffee pirates," crazy collectors who stop at nothing to get coffee to market. I became close with many of the farmers too. In rest houses on the farm, Indonesia farmers told me how they worked against corruption and made sure they received fair prices. Meanwhile I became enamored by differences in taste depending on growing characteristics, soil, altitude and slope. It was this growing love affair that led me here.
As I write, I'm in the small village of Panawuan, an hour away from the city of Bandung. Tree frogs and cicadas hum, a motorbike cycles down the road, silently, to save fuel. Inside the small bamboo pad from which I write, coffee parchment dries and ferments in bamboo baskets. A small roaster sits on the table. There are a couple of handcarts. It's a little like home, of course, since we also roast coffee. There are even a few greenhouses outside, also constructed of bamboo and not unlike those needed for our small farm. They serve to accelerate the coffee and an experimental laboratory.
But this is where it's at. Outside, coffee trees dot the mountain. It shimmers with lights of small farmers houses. I'm home. I'm home amongst coffee and the organic farmers. My hands are a little worn from the soil, trekking earlier on the mountainside, but that's just the way I like it. There is even a sleeping dog at my feet. And even though Gani's thirty-six year old restored land rover is a bit long in the tooth, the machine is serviceable and clean, getting us where we need to go. There's a feeling of innoviation here; this life is one that's handmade.
The coffee did not used to be known. I found this particular coffee by a series of happy accidents that led me to these people.
When in Sumatra, I met my friend Eko, who runs a coffee cooperative, is a natural leader, photographer, architect and visionary. He, along with a number of others, discovered years ago that collectors were sneaking coffee from Java into Sumatra. Coffee being sold, internationally, was mislabeled and marketed as the famed Mandelhing Sumatra coffee. Eko and other leaders - Darius and Dadang - were intrigued. Although the account of their own journey was documented here (see below), they found a unique variety of coffee in this village. Not only is the variety of arabica biologically different, but when planted, processed and mixed with other arabica coffee the farmers grow here, well, it's an entirely different flavor. It's good coffee.
Perhaps more importantly, once the cooperative - Klasik Beans - was fully up and running in Panawuan - since 2011 - they were able to raise the price farmers are paid; making this coffee - Suda Hejo - a distinctly different regional coffee and elevating the status of farmers and the image of farming coffee.
Farmers here are among the highest prices to farmers I know of in all the coffee regions where I've traveled. To help differentiate their coffee from the other coffees in Indonesia, the cooperative also tracks the differrent coffee growing areas in distinct villages. These "micro-lots" help give the village identity. This is a tremendous amount of work, sometimes involving keeping track of individual farmer harvests from the cherry to drying. The team here - Las, Aboy, Dani, Denny, Dog, Dadang, Hugo are up to the task. They are all from the region, speak Sudanese, Bahasa and English. They are well traveled, self taught group.
Some of the team traveled to Aceh with the landrovers to help - for one year - just three days after the tsunami hit. Most of the team has mountaineering experience they use for volunteer rescue and conservation missions. One is a doctor, running a local clinic in town. A couple others share risk right along with the farmers, planting Sunda Hejo coffee in their own rented land plots adjacent to village farmers. In another village, the whole team purchased five hectares of an old steep vegetable plot to convert back to a shaded coffee forest, simutaneously preserving the soil, livelihoods and forest.
These are my people, doing the same things we value back at home. These are the people who are giants, and by working with them, in the farms and forests, we get to walk in the footsteps of giants.
Recommended reading: Discovering Sunda Hejo Coffee