Sumatra is one of the great romance coffees of the world. It is not simply that the Indonesian island of Sumatra embodies a Conradian romance of the unfamiliar. When it is at its best the coffee itself suggests intrigue, with its complexity, its weight without heaviness, and an acidity that resonates deep inside the heart of the coffee, enveloped in richness, rather than confronting the palate the moment we lift the cup.
Sellers often label Mandheling coffees dry-processed. In fact, the fruit usually is removed from the bean by a variety of hybrid methods. The most prevalent is a backyard version of the wet method. The farmers remove the skins from their little crops of coffee cherries immediately after picking using rickety pulping machines ingeniously constructed from scrap metal and wood and bicycle parts. The skinned, slimy beans are then allowed to ferment overnight in woven plastic bags. In the morning the fruit pulp or mucilage, loosened by the overnight fermentation, is washed off the beans by hand. The coffee (now in its parchment skin) is given a preliminary drying on sheets in the farmer's front yard. The parchment skin is then removed by machine at a middleman's warehouse and the coffee is further dried. Finally, the coffee is trucked down to the port city of Medan, where it is dried a third and last time.
It is reported that elsewhere in the Mandheling area the mucilage is simply allowed to dry on the bean after the skins have been removed, much as is done with the semi-washed coffees of Brazil. Thereafter the dried mucilage and parchment skin are removed by machine and the coffee subjected to the same two-phase drying.
Some admirers of Sumatra enjoy certain of these flavor taints. Earthy Sumatras, which pick up the taste of fresh clay from having been dried directly on the earth, are popular among some coffee drinkers. Musty Sumatras, which acquire the rather hard, mildew taste of old shoes in a damp closet, are also attractive to some palates.