Lake Toba, Sumatra, the largest volcanic lake in the world. The little squares on the water are fish farms.

Coffee with a soul

How your morning cup supports farmers and their families in Sumatra

by Brady Brewer, svp China and Asia Pacific, Starbucks Coffee Company

Sumatra is spectacular and so is the coffee grown there. The rugged and vibrant land is enriched by ash from one of the biggest volcanic explosions in earth’s history. Because of this naturally fertile soil, virtually anything can be grown. Cocoa, coffee, rice, every tropical fruit imaginable, tea, cinnamon, spices — it’s all produced in a tapestry of land that covers bountiful valleys and lush mountains.

Traditional Batak Sumatran houses in a rice field.

On this island, coffee is grown in backyards. When I arrived, I saw traditional Batak houses, with curved roofs that look like a boat’s hull, each with a small plot of land the family uses to grow coffee and other fruits and vegetables. Among their crops, a family might own just enough coffee trees to produce a pound or two of coffee a day, making each bean precious.

Unlike many coffee growing regions, where the harvested coffee cherries go straight to processing, in Sumatra, they are processed in backyards and patios. The freshly picked cherries are depulped and laid out on a tarp on the front patio to dry in the sun before being transported to the local mill. In a daily procession, thousands of farmers come by foot, bike or car and bring their small bags of coffee beans to a central mill to be dried and hulled.

The owner of one such mill is named Sam Filiaci. He got into the coffee business while in the Peace Corps and started working with local cooperatives in East Timor in 1993. When Sam got started in Sumatra, he sent faxes to all the major coffee companies to share the story of his delicious Sumatran Arabica coffee. He didn’t hear back from any of them, except one — Starbucks — and we have been buying from him ever since.

In Sumatran culture when you buy something, you don’t leave a tip, you leave “coffee money.” Coffee is so embedded in the culture and a part of everyday life.
Green coffee drying in the yard of a Sumatran farmer.

Once in the mill, the prized beans go through several rounds of categorization. Specialized machines vibrate a flow of jumping and dancing coffee beans along a conveyer belt that sorts the beans by density — we look for the densest beans where the quality and flavor is most abundant. Another machine sorts the beans by size to ensure Starbucks gets the largest, evenly-sized beans that yield a perfect and consistent roast.

But even those quality filters are not enough. In order to reach perfection — and it literally is about perfection — we need Starbucks beans to be “triple picked” and “zero defect.” That means only the beans of the right density, size and color are right for us. And in Sumatra that means hand-sorting.

In a hand sort, every single bean is scrutinized by an actual person to remove any beans that are chipped, broken, or off-color.

A woman who sits on the end of the line is the final quality check at the mill. She regularly scoops up coffee from the sorting line and pours it out on the table. If she finds a single defect from any of these samples, they hold the whole line and re-run it. And just in case, she’s backed up by a woman behind a curtain who literally has the same sample. She’s shielded from view so the other workers won’t be tempted to influence her assessment.

Sumatran women raking green coffee drying in the sun.

This is the coffee we buy: 100% Arabica, Grade 1, Triple-Picked Sumatran coffee. But what is amazing to me is not what we are doing, but that we are doing it with a soul.

Women are the backbone of the coffee industry in Sumatra, and much of the rest of the world. They are the ones who plant the crops, harvest the coffee cherries, and bring the beans to market. When we asked the farmers what other resources they needed for a sustainable livelihood, they said they needed help with maternal health. This makes sense, as the children represent the future of the farm.

This is something no customer will ever see, but even when no one is looking, we are striving to do the right thing.

To support their vision, we helped them build free health clinics and schools across Sumatra. At these clinics, women can get free healthcare for themselves and their children. At the schools, children are given access to the education that will open up new opportunities for them and their families. Through these efforts, and by engaging them in trade and commerce, we are helping improve the lives of farmers in Sumatra.

But really these efforts are not the most important thing that we do for the people of Sumatra. Our ongoing commitment to them means that our success in selling Sumatran coffee is the key to ensuring the long-term sustainability of this amazing agricultural society. The more we sell, the more farms and families prosper. This is something no customer will ever see, but even when no one is looking, we are striving to do the right thing.

To bring coffee from the backyards of Sumatra to your morning cup is a herculean task. It’s a miracle that Sumatran coffee has reached our customers for more than 40 years. But the toil and hard work are worth it. Because, it is bigger than coffee. For us, it is tradition, culture and livelihood, contained in a tiny bean.


Full-bodied with lingering flavors of dried herbs and fresh earth.

Body: Full
Flavor: Earthy, herbal
Acidity: Low
Processing Method: Semi-washed
Complementary Flavors: Cinnamon, oatmeal, maple, butter, toffee, cheese

Availability: Select stores and online.