The legend surrounding the origins of Indian coffee starts with one man.
Less than five centuries ago, an Indian Sufi named Baba Budan travelled to Mecca on a pilgrimage. During his stay, he was introduced to the addictive taste of freshly brewed coffee.
You might think that bringing coffee home would be an easy task. However, Baba knew that Arabian rulers of the time were extremely protective of their coffee industry. Hence, to be caught smuggling beans would mean grave consequences.
Long before the days of security pat-downs and X-ray scans, to evade the Arabian restrictions, Baba secured seven coffee beans to his chest. Then, he sailed from the port of Mocha and planted these seeds in the hills of Chikmagalur. To honour his legacy, this area has since been renamed the Baba Budan Hills.
Baba’s courage and quick-wittedness is what sparked the launch of India’s coffee industry.
World War Coffee
Fast-forward to the 1940s and coffee production is in trouble.
At the time, prices were low and threats from diseases and pests were not controlled. There were very few export opportunities so, a couple of years after the start of World War Two, The Coffee Board of India started buying beans from planters. They then marketed them to foreign countries in order to save the industry from desolation.
Fortunately, Indian coffee has bounced back and it continues to grow as we progress through the 21st Century.
Contemporary Coffee Culture
Currently, India is the third-largest producer and exporter of coffee in Asia. In 2019, India exported over 300,000 million tons of coffee internationally, and that only accounts for 70% of the total yield. The other 30% is enjoyed on home-turf, in popular coffee houses, restaurants and homes across the nation.
What Baba started centuries ago in Chikmagalur has expanded dramatically. The southern states dominate production. But, 13 different regions, including Assam and Odisha, are home to coffee farms. Throughout these regions, 16 unique varieties are grown.
As a result, the role of the Coffee Board has developed. Now, their priorities include improving technology, enhancing production and conducting research. They continue to promote Indian coffee in both export and domestic markets.
Indian Coffee Farms
One aspect of Indian coffee which is impossible to overlook is the fact that most of it is shade-grown. More on this in a separate post. In short, trees provide coffee plants with shelter from the elements. Farmers do not make space for new coffee crops. Rather, they utilise the vital canopy layer. This conserves the existing ecosystem.
As well as being shade-grown, Indian coffee is often inter-cropped with spices and fruit. This is great for flavour as the coffee gains aromatics from growing with the intercrops, as well as the storage and handling. Further, a study found that intercropping coffee resulted in higher profitability. This is great for farmers who need to earn a living wage. In such a competitive market, farmers’ wages can be shockingly low.
Most Indian coffee plants are grown on small farms. Worldwide, many smallholder coffee farmers are unable to make a fair income from their hard work. So, it is crucial that we research our favourite companies. We must ensure that they pay producers a decent price to ensure them profitability. After all, without them, the industry would surely collapse.
At Coromandel Coast, we source coffee from small farms in the Ghats of the Deccan plateau of peninsular India. In Hindi ghat means “river landing stairs” or “mountain pass” and so the name reflects the coastal mountain ranges found there. It is a spectacular area of the world with peaks reaching up to 8,652 feet and steep valleys whose slopes are sliced with streams and peppered with forests.
Robusta versus Arabica
The differences between Robusta and Arabica beans must be discussed. Arabica plants are more difficult to cultivate but the resulting quality and flavour is better regarded. As well as producing beans more quickly, Robusta plants are less vulnerable to pests and disease.
Generally, Robusta is stronger and harsher in taste. This is partly due to its higher caffeine content. Arabica flavours are often described as softer and milder, combined with a greater level of acidity. Another key difference between the two, is that Robusta is grown at lower elevations. Usually, these farms are found at heights of up to 900 MSL (metres above sea level). In contrast, by and large, Arabica plants are found at 1,300 – 1,500 MSL.
Of course, our climate affects the growth and quality of both species. As the effects of the climate emergency become more visible, both species are under threat.
The Famous 16 Varieties
A wide variety of elements affect the coffee plant, including the unique notes of the soil which nourishes it, the shade tree species which shelters it and the altitude at which it is grown. All of these components combine to create a unique variety of coffee.
The first of the 16 varieties we will cover is ‘Monsoon Malabar’. You may have heard of it, but what does ‘monsoon coffee’ actually mean?
In a nutshell, harvested beans are exposed to the annual monsoon rains for up to 4 months. This gives the coffee lower acidity and a unique earthy flavour.
The practice was discovered by chance, back in the days of the British Empire, when coffee was shipped from India to Europe. Before the days of air travel, these journeys would take months to complete and, unintentionally, the beans were exposed to water. Merchants found that the shipments of beans which sailed at specific times of the year transformed in colour from green, to pale yellow.
Today, it is prepared along the coast, in a much more deliberate manner. This happens during the monsoon season (which occurs between July and September). The modern-day process involves carefully raking the beans at regular intervals to evenly distribute the moisture. As well as changing colour, the beans also swell as they absorb the water.
Once the beans are prepared, they are packaged and shipped to buyers, who roast them like any other bean. Nevertheless, the resulting flavour is far from ordinary as it is chocolatey and sweet with nutty, spicy notes. You can find our monsoon coffee, Chera, here.
Robusta Kaapi Royale
Secondly, we have a Robusta which almost tastes like Arabica. Grown at lower elevations (300 - 1,200 MSL) in Kerala and Karnataka, it exhibits none of the bitterness you would expect from a typical Robusta. These beans are blue-grey in colour, and intensely aromatic in flavour with a big body and notes of chocolate and spice.
Next, we have what some regard as the best quality coffee grown in India. In fact, some label it as ‘nuggets of gold’. This golden reputation stems from its large size and attractive appearance. Five regions across the country are home to this Arabica and it has a bluish-green hue.
If you wish to sample this liquid gold for yourself, you can find our Arabica blend here.
The seven original beans planted by Baba Budan have blossomed into ‘Baba Budangiri’. This full-bodied Arabica bean is grown between an elevation of 1,000 and 1,500 MSL, deep in the Western Ghats. Pepper, cardamom and areca nut are its typical intercrops. If you are lucky enough to visit a plantation, you can often find deer grazing close-by.
This is grown in Tamil Nadu and is mainly intercropped with pepper, orange and banana trees at medium altitudes. As a result, the taste of these beans in the cup embraces an essence of citrus.
Andra Pradesh is the state in which this variety is grown. An Arabica bean, its intercrops include pepper, mango, jackfruit and vegetables. On these plantations, which are found between 900 and 1,100 MSL, beautiful red and green parrots are often spotted flying overhead.
As the great river named Brahmaputra snakes through the north-eastern states, so too do these coffee plantations. The symbol used to represent it includes a one-horned rhinoceros to signify the large number found in this part of the world. Grown at relatively low altitudes, pineapple, pepper, jackfruit and vegetables are often its intercrops.
‘Coorg’ plantations are humming with honeybees. Hence, one can also buy local honey nearby. Pepper, cardamom, orange, banana and areca nut are intercrops amongst a mixture of Arabica and Robusta plants. Farms are found at a moderate elevation (between 750 and 1,100 MSL).
Next, we have ‘Biligiris’, which is grown in the southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This variety grows at some of the highest elevations (between 1,500-2,000 MSL). You will find orange, banana and pepper intercropped with ‘Biligiris’ and its flavour is very sweet and mild.
India’s national bird, the mighty peacock, lives around these farms. Here, farmers grow both Arabica and Robusta beans at middling altitudes. Pepper, cardamom, areca nut, orange and vanilla are its typical intercrops.
Our single-origin coffee, Kadamba, is grown here.
This is the name given to a special blend of Arabica and Robusta coffee grown in Tamil Nadu. These top-quality plants flourish at altitudes of 900 – 1,400 MSL. Pepper, orange, banana, ginger and vegetables are grown amongst them. The flavour notes it often exhibits are chocolate and caramel.
The bold flavour of this Arabica is reflected by the great Indian bison. This beast is usually found grazing in this especially scenic area of the country. Orange, banana and pepper are its intercrops. Farms are found at elevations of up to 1,500 MSL.
These coffee farms are found between Chikmagalur and Coorg at middling altitudes. It is a region known for little streams and gentle rolling hills. This Arabica and Robusta blend is intercropped with pepper, cardamom, orange, areca nut and banana. In terms of flavour, it has a mild acidity.
Another coffee native to Tamil Nadu, more specifically on the southernmost tip of the Western Ghats. It is normally intercropped with orange, banana, pepper, cardamom and various vegetables. This Arabica can be found at extremely high altitudes of up to 2,000 MSL and has a strong citrus aroma when brewed.
Its name denotes both Arabicas and Robustas. Two distinct growing areas form this part of the Kerala region, namely Idduki and Nelliampathys. Idduki is where Robusta is mostly grown at medium-high elevations.
In contrast, Nelliampathys is home to a mix of both Arabica and Robusta plants. The resulting flavour involves a full body with hardly any bitterness. It is often intercropped with pepper, banana, ginger, vegetables and medicinal plants.
Last, but by no means least, we have ‘Wayanaad’. Ginger and yam form part of its intercrops and the region is home to the magnificent tiger, a symbol of bravery. As well as this, it is the largest Robusta producing region in India. The beans themselves are large, blueish green and have a full-bodied flavour with hints of chocolate.
Indian coffee is truly exceptional. Everything about it, from the history to the cultivation, to the flavour notes, is outstanding. This is what makes Coromandel Coast unique as we forge direct-trade partnerships with Indian shade-grown coffee farms. Our coffees taste good and do good.
And, if you ever find yourself in South London, pop by to sample the fruits of Baba Budan’s labour in a truly sustainable way.