Traveling to Sumatra: Learning to Pick Coffee

I was awakened by a loud rooster outside of my window and the traditional Adhan (Islamic call to prayer) being played over a speaker. I was groggy with jet lag, but excited to start this once-in-a-lifetime journey.

It was our first full day in Sumatra, and we met with two of our guides, Bobby and Garlos, and set off for our first coffee farm in the Takegon region. I sat in the backseat of our vehicle and took in the view as we climbed steep mountain roads. When we finally reached our destination, we met with two local farmers who showed us firsthand how coffee cherries are picked.

Coffee was introduced to Sumatra in the 18th century after Dutch colonization, and has led Indonesia to be a powerhouse in the coffee-growing world. Coffee trees produce a beautiful, round, deep-red cherry which houses a single seed, which we call a coffee bean because of its appearance. To grow new trees, farmers plant these seeds in large shaded beds during the wet season so that the roots can firmly establish in the rich soil.

The varietal of coffee we were looking at, called Tim Tim (just 1 of approximately 6,000 varietals in the world), yields a unique Sumatran cherry that provides am amazing, earthy, rich body in the coffee we drink. The unusual altitude at which it grows (the optimum being 1,200 feet above sea level), unique climate, and rich volcanic soil combine to give the Tim Tim a distinctive flavor profile that is impossible to recreate in any other location. And this is why we travel halfway around the world to obtain it.

Many coffee farmers prune the Tim Tim trees to resemble short Weeping Willows, with branches that bow outwards and then curve in a downward direction. Doing this allows more nutrients to reach the coffee fruit, which otherwise would have gone to upward growth and leaf formation. Moreover, this makes it easier for the farmers to pick the cherries which are kept within arm’s reach.

The coffee farmers had created near-perfect conditions for their trees, sometimes across hundreds of acres, and their countless hours of strenuous labor and constant upkeep was paying off. The trees were spread out evenly, had the ideal amount of shade, and were yielding huge amounts of high-quality fruit. We could see the pride in the coffee farmers’ faces as we toured the farms, and knew it was well deserved.

As we explored, we saw many women picking the cherries off the trees and putting them into satchels. Their pace at which they worked seemed unbelievable, with handfuls of fruit being added the satchels every second. I asked one of the women if I could try, and was amazed how incredibly hard it was.

I had to maneuver my way into the tree and search each individual branch for ripe cherries, making sure I only selected those that met the farmers’ high standards for quality. I finished picking one branch in the same amount of time that the farmers had picked an entire tree. I gave it my best shot, but with hundreds of trees remaining to be picked, I got out of their way as I was only slowing them down.

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