March 17, 2021

Micro lots & Monsoon Malabar: India’s future as a coffee origin

India is home to more than a billion people, 22 languages, and some of the world’s most culturally and ethnically diverse cities. It occupies the largest geographical area in South Asia. It is also the seventh-largest coffee producing country in the world by volume.

Today, somewhere between 70% and 80% of all Indian coffee is exported. Common destinations include Italy (which accounts for almost 30% of Indian coffee exports), Germany, Russia, and Spain.

Coffee has played an important role in India’s economy for hundreds of years. However, it was outstripped by a mass switch to tea production in the late 19th century thanks to British colonial influence. 

However, in recent years, domestic economic growth as well as international consumer interest in “new” specialty coffee origins has brought on a change. Some recognise that there is serious potential for the quality of Indian coffee to increase. To learn more, I spoke to three professionals from across the coffee supply chain. Read on to find out what they said.

You may also like our article on Ethiopian heirloom coffee varieties

Baba Budan & the beginnings of Indian coffee production

Of all the ways to transport coffee beans, carrying them in your beard is one of the least conventional. Yet this is supposedly how Baba Budan, a 16th-century Sufi, smuggled coffee beans from the Yemeni port of Mocha to India more than 400 years ago.

Impressed by the drink he’d tasted while on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Budan decided he would bring some back with him. After safely crossing the border, he supposedly planted beans on a hill in the Chikmagalur district, thus marking the beginning of coffee production in India.

While cultivation continued on a small-scale basis, the first coffee farm can be traced back to the mid-19th century. From there, it grew at scale, and despite being outstripped by tea production near the end of the 19th century, it has been an important part of the Indian economy since.

Today, India is the seventh-largest coffee producer in the world. Coffee is mainly grown in three main regions: Karnataka (comprising more than 70% of all Indian coffee), Kerala, and Tamil Nadu.

Both robusta and arabica are grown at scale in India, but as coffee leaf rust is a real issue, producers seek out disease-resistant varieties of both. S795, Kent, and Cauvery are all popular among Indian coffee farmers.

The growth of Indian specialty coffee

Compared to coffee from recognised specialty origins like Colombia and Ethiopia, Indian coffee has historically been considered “inferior” in quality. It has traditionally been used in blends, rather than roasted and sold as a single origin.

However, this is changing. Damian Durda has been in the coffee industry for more than a decade. He currently works as the Director of Green Coffee and QC at Nemesis Coffee in Vancouver, Canada.

Damian tells me that he first noticed the potential for India’s specialty coffee when sourcing coffee as a green buyer. To do so, he partnered with Ashok Patre, the Managing Partner at Ratnagiri Estates. Ratnagiri Estates is located in the picturesque Western Ghats, a mountain range that runs parallel to India’s western coastline.

“India’s market is fascinating because it’s so huge,” Damian says. “There are over a billion people living there, so the domestic market has massive potential. 

“But within the last three years alone, I’ve seen considerable growth in the promotion of Indian coffee across Instagram, which is an approach that’s new for them. In Central America, they’ve been doing this for years.”

Damian says that in particular, he feels there is particular potential for micro lot Indian coffee. “When I visited, I spent three or four hours walking around a farm with my GPS watch, sampling different cherries,” he tells me. “Whenever I found extraordinary quality, super sweet, ripe cherries, I would record the spot on my GPS.

“I was finding coffee that consistently scored 85 to 86 points, which for a blend is absolutely amazing quality. I came away realising that [Indian coffee] had a lot of potential.”

Damian is so enthusiastic about India’s higher quality coffees that he plans to introduce an Indian single origin as one of the “headline offerings” at Nemesis. He says they have become more popular among North American roasters in recent years as an “alternative” single origin. 

But it’s not only North American roasters who have taken an interest in the increasing quality of Indian coffee. Many roasters in Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other major consuming markets are already sourcing specialty coffee from India.

Hamsini Appadurai works at the Sangameshwar Coffee Estates, a group of coffee farms also located in the Western Ghats. She says that their natural processed single origin coffees have been incredibly popular.

“We have a lot of washed coffees, but we offer naturals too, which is my passion,” Hamsini says. “They have been a great success in Australia, South Korea, and Japan… I must say, our coffees have lovely homes in these countries.”

Hamsini adds that Indian producers continue to experiment with different processing methods, from carbonic maceration to anaerobic fermentation.

What is Monsoon Malabar?

For some roasters, Indian coffee is a more intriguing or unusual alternative to familiar specialty origins. But there is one unique coffee that India has been exporting for centuries, long before the existence of specialty coffee: Monsoon Malabar.

Monsoon Malabar is a processing method unique to the Malabar Coast of Karnataka. Monsoon Malabar coffee itself is now protected under India’s Geographical Indications of Good Acts, meaning that coffee can only officially be sold as Monsoon Malabar if it comes from this region. 

The process dates back to British colonial rule, when coffee was transported by sea from India to Europe. After harvesting, the beans are exposed to monsoon rain and winds along the Malabar coast for three to four months. 

The beans swell, lose their original acidity, and turn a pale golden colour, in contrast to the typical colour of green coffee. The result of this process is a coffee that is often described as heavy bodied, pungent, and dry, with a chocolatey aroma and with flavours of dried spices and nuts.

Kari Wilger and Mmuso Matsapola are co-owners of The Coffee Mafia in Louisville, Kentucky. They introduced Monsoon Malabar to their list of offerings early last year. Kari tells me about how the process was first discovered.

“It started during [the British Raj],” he says. “When coffee was being shipped to Europe from India, they found that the weather conditions caused the green beans to swell and change in colour, producing this delicious coffee in the cup.

“We now see producers putting the beans through a very intensive process in India, where they will soak and rotate the beans to imitate what naturally took place onboard the ships.”

For Mmuso, it’s this unique story that is one of the biggest selling points.

“I am a huge fan of beautiful accidents,” he tells me. “When the beans arrived in Europe, the people that first saw them wondered why they’d become so wide and pale yellow. Then years later, everyone ends up having a craving for this style of coffee. I just think that that’s perfect serendipity. It’s a great story.”

Kari and Mmuso both say that the flavour profile of the coffee is very different to what people normally expect from Indian coffee. While it is also very different to flavours that specialty coffee drinkers typically enjoy, it can be appealing for those who like less acidity in the cup.

“There’s a kind of a spice to it,” Mmuso says. “All of the typically sought-after characteristics are sort of muted, especially compared to Colombian or Brazilian beans, for instance. 

“The wetting process that the beans go through almost neutralises the pH, which creates a very mellow cup.”

What are the challenges?

Hamsini says that there are some deep-rooted issues holding India back from becoming a country that is recognised for consistently producing quality coffee.

First: its climate. Hamsini notes that the unpredictable nature of India’s seasonal weather in these producing regions means that one harvest season can be completely different to the next. Over time, she says this has led to an air of uncertainty around Indian coffee production – and less confidence from buyers as a result.

As the climate in these regions is prone to sudden, unexpected changes, this can have a hugely detrimental effect on entire crop cycles, especially for arabica plants. As a result, the harvest quality can vary significantly from one season to the next – a gamble that many green coffee buyers aren’t willing to take.

Another major challenge for Indian specialty coffee production is finding skilled labour. Damian says that it’s tough to sometimes find trained, experienced pickers who can consistently pick the ripest coffee cherries.

”We selected 45 people and we created a team of skilled, experienced workers,” he explains. “We spent three days teaching them how to pick the ripest cherries. In the peak season [this farm typically hires] 100 to 130 pickers, but we knew that not everyone was eager to switch their methodology.”

Hamsini echoes this, noting that the training and manpower necessary for harvesting quality coffee is lacking for many Indian coffee farms.

“The labour-intensive production of our coffee, including hand-picking cherries, needs a lot of training for our workforce,” she says.

Despite preconceptions, unpredictable seasonal weather, and issues with labour, it’s clear that there’s a lot of potential for India to leverage its scale as a coffee producer and become a more prominent specialty coffee origin. 

A rich and storied history of coffee production, covering everything from Baba Budan and Monsoon Malabar to discerning green coffee buyers picking out micro lots, means that Indian coffee has a lot to offer. And while we may have to wait some time before Indian coffee farmers overcome their challenges, the first signs suggest the future is bright.

Enjoyed this? Then read our specialty coffee shop tour of Gujarat & Rajasthan.

Photo credits: Nemesis Coffee, Sangameshwar Coffee Estates, Ratnagiri Estates, The Coffee Mafia

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