Growing up in a South Indian family, I took to coffee like a fish takes to water. I never realized back then that India is perceived as a chai country. It still is. From the purest aroma of Assamese tea to the roadside stall that serves a sweet milky chai, India is essentially known globally for its tea. And yet, three states in South India stand out for coffee production and consumption – Karnataka, followed by Kerala & Tamil Nadu.
India produces around 5% of the world’s coffee. It’s unique too as it’s the largest production of coffee under shade. Much of this coffee is the ‘Arabica’ variety which is known for its high quality.
Karnataka(the hill tracts of Coorg & Chikmagalur) alone produces nearly 70% of Indian coffee and most of these are by individual growers. The beans are sold to bigger corporations and wholesalers who blend the different varieties and sell it as a brand. 80% of the coffee produced is exported to various parts of the world.
A huge commercial enterprise today, one could say. But where did it all start? Let’s rewind a few centuries.
In the 16th or 17th century, an Indian sufi saint Baba Budan had been on a pilgrimage to Mecca. While returning from Yemen, he smuggled seven beans of coffee(hiding them in his beard), to grow them back home in India. In those days, coffee beans were strictly regulated and weren’t allowed to be exported as Yemen had total monopoly over its coffee.
However, thanks to Baba Budan, the seven coffee beans successfully grew in the hilly tracts near Coorg. The coffee story was however small, grown near Baba Budan giri (hill) until the 19th century when the English, who settled in the hills & made a big business out of it.
Stories of the hill being denuded of its trees & wildlife for coffee plantations makes an interesting narration in colonial books. However the plants couldn’t survive pests such as borer beetles & hence the hills were replanted with trees to make the Indian coffee the largest kind grown in shade.
“The quality of Indian coffee is good – so good that it is appreciated by the Arabs & Turks” states the Sanitarian, a 1900s NY Publication “devoted to the Preservation of Health, Mental and Physical Culture”. It further explains that the English & French are its biggest consumers.
History aside, a drive through the hills often has a picturesque scene on either side with acres of coffee plants (actually, they are trees that have been stunted for easy pickings) interspersed with silver oak and other straight trees which pepper climbers entwine. The scene is especially pretty in summer when the coffee flowers are in bloom. The coffee flower is white in color and quite fragrant and doesn’t smell anything like the coffee aroma that one is used to!
But it is during the harvest season, that the charm of the coffee processing sets in.
There’s a huge processing equipment in Balur plantation in Chikmagalur which we were fortunate to visit. The friendly manager, Rakesh, takes us through the plantation field. I have been here during both the flowering season and the picking season.
Unlike the coffee bean, the fruit is actually sweet. The ripe coffee beans are picked by workers between November to March. Arabica & Robusta are the two kinds of coffee plants, Arabica being of superior quality & also higher maintenance, says Rakesh.
The processing machinery is immense. The picked berries are brought in and poured into a shaft which then sends it for washing & depulping. The cherry-like fruit is sorted while in water with bad or unripe fruits being removed. The ripe ones are sent further for depulping i.e. the fruit & skin is removed for the coffee bean inside. The final bean is dried in the sun.
A quick online search shows this process as the ‘wet process’. Balur also has dry processing i.e. the coffee fruit dried in the sun – an older labor intensive method.
The size of plantations vary from very small to very big growers in the Coorg – Chikmagalur area. However they all face similar challenges – labor shortage, unseasonal rains, coffee diseases etc. Coffee cultivation can be lucrative if all things go right or can be a huge loss if the right stages of coffee production does not happen. An unseasonal rain or coffee disease can run up huge losses.
The coffee produced in such plantations are bought by corporate brands who then mix & match to create their brand’s flavor & acidity. Chicory that is added to our South Indian coffee comes all the way from Uttar Pradesh & Gujarat. The production of Chicory is now an altogether another story!
For now, smell the aroma & savor your South Indian Coffee.