Behind every great cup of coffee there is a story - one that traces the journey of the bean from the tree to the cup. At many specialty coffee cafes, buzzwords like 'fair trade', 'organically grown' and 'sustainable production' are bandied around like badges of honour - but few in the specialty coffee movement that has swept through Singapore know what an origins trip is all about. Perhaps it's time to find out.
The quest begins in Saribu Dolok, an obscure but colourful market town in the prime coffee-growing region of Simalungun in northern Sumatra. Here, on a plateau near the northeastern tip of Lake Toba, farmers and sellers bring the fruits of their labour to market each Wednesday - on foot, in bullock carts and on the back of rickety pick-ups.
They've all come to see the Parchment King, so named because he is a major buyer of pre-processed coffee beans (known as 'parchment' for the thin and crumbly outer skin that covers the beans) from growers in the area. This is where you find the two highest grades of Arabica beans that account for a mere fraction (around 1 per cent) of Indonesia's total coffee production.
Once the beans are sold, they're delivered to Medan (a bustling port town a full day's drive away), where the beans are processed and exported (Indonesia is the fourth largest producer of coffee in the world, with Sumatra the country's biggest producer).
With the largest volcanic lake in the world as a picturesque backdrop, small, family-run coffee farms dot the landscape above Lake Toba at elevations of between 1,200 and 1,500 metres, the preferred height to grow top-grade coffee. The roads are poor and economic progress equally bumpy - although satellite dishes are a common sight - but thanks to rich volcanic soils and a helpful microclimate, Sumatra coffee has long been highly rated in international coffee-drinking circles.
However, increasing demand for specialty coffee - including Sumatran coffee - has not translated into tangible gains or better prospects for the people at the heart of the supply chain: the growers themselves. A new joint venture - with links to Singapore - is hoping to change that.
Australian coffee wholesaler Five Senses, Sumatra coffee producers Leo and Lisa Purba and CUM Talenta, a Simalungun-area, church-run credit union representing some 7,000 coffee farmers, have joined forces to set up the Tiga Raja coffee mill in Permatang Purba, a small town just up the road from Saribu Dolok. Five Senses built the mill and gifted the farmers a stake in it. Giving the farmers a sense of ownership - and paying for a better quality crop - is a vital first step in improving overall quality.
It's the first project of its kind in Indonesia and a business model aimed at shortening (and improving) the supply chain from farm to consumer. The all-inclusive system allows for transparency and traceability - following the coffee bean trail all the way into the cup.
Tiga Raja works with about 600 farmers belonging to the Talenta group, giving advice on farming practices, collecting cherries (coffee fruit) and processing them at its mill and exporting the beans to Five Senses for roasting and packaging.
So far, the year-old mill has completed two harvests and produced two container-loads of specialty-grade beans. Controlling the entire coffee-producing process while cutting out the middle-men and maintaining stringent quality control ensures that Sumatran beans bearing the Tiga Raja brand are consistently high-quality product.
"Tiga Raja is a private enterprise that is part community project, part sustainability initiative and all about quality in the cup," says Leo Purba, a US-educated Simalungun-area native and certified coffee grader who negotiates prices with farmers, often paying slightly more than the market rate.
Farmers in the Tiga Raja programme know they have a guaranteed buyer at a good price, and getting them to improve their coffee-growing methods is also a step in the right direction, says Mr Purba.
Making sure that farmers get their fair share is a major goal. "There's fantastic coffee at our doorstep, and if we can work with people who follow best practices, we will be flying the flag high for specialty coffee," says Harry Grover of Singapore-based Common Man Coffee Roasters (CMCR) - a popular local café and wholesale roaster - which is also part-owned by Five Senses.
"This is a first for a specialty roaster like Five Senses - to back a mill and also provide expertise," says Mr Grover. "A Singapore roaster going to origin and producing coffee that they can trace is a big thing. People forget that things are chaotic in Third World countries, and coffee by definition is not a very sustainable enterprise."
The Tiga Raja mill project is an eye-opener for retailers in Singapore, says café owner Cynthia Chua, an early believer in sustainably produced specialty coffee.
In 2010, she and Mr Grover opened hip neighbourhood cafe Forty Hands - they teamed up with Five Senses to open Common Man Coffee Roasters in 2013 and are currently looking to expand further. Says Ms Chua: "The specialty coffee scene here has ballooned in a short period of time but we are the first in the region to be completely quality-controlled at source - hopefully we can influence others to follow suit."
Tiga Raja started innocuously enough when Five Senses coffee expert Richard Austin was frustrated with the poor quality of the Sumatra beans he was getting from an existing supplier. "Unsustainable practices and the lack of quality was directly linked to farming practices," he says. "We've always wanted to continue working with smallholders, improve their lives and improve the supply chain so that we know where our money is going."
There are over 100 varietals of Sumatran coffee, which has a distinct taste profile, says Mr Austin. "When you taste Sumatra coffee, it's unmistakable - it's earthy, sweet, relatively full-bodied and works really well with milk drinks. It is also a coffee that can divide people."
Tiga Raja is proud of its quality and adamant about attaching the Simalungun name to its products. Coffee from the same region had previously been broadly categorised under existing trade names such as Mandheling or Lintong, but getting recognition for Simalungun - the biggest regency in north Sumatra - is a major objective. "We want Tiga Raja quality to be good, but we want Simalungun quality to be good too," says Lisa Purba.
The Purbas brought local knowledge and a Western mindset, while Five Senses contributed financing - everyone had a common desire to improve the quality of life for local farmers. "The key thing is we're paying for coffee in a sustainable way, directly to our partnership group," says Mr Austin. "Previously, the practices were blurred - we've only just started, but we can only see this project growing bigger."