A taste of India
Spirituality food colours silk jewellery welcoming and coffees!
It was time to travel again and get to know the length and breadth of Indian coffee farms during a two week trip. My trip had a twofold purpose; first to be one of the jury for the annual cupping award of Araku Coffees, and also being immersed fully in the East Ghats, Gems of Araku with the “Advasis” also called Tribal farmers; and the second to travel to the traceable estates of West Ghats in Karnataka – and cup the most specialties single varietal Arabica and Robusta coffees.
Rumour is that coffee was brought into India 500 years ago by Baba Budan, a Sufi saint who brought back no more than seven coffee beans from his pilgrimage to Mecca and planted them on the hilly slopes of what is now called the Baba Budan Giri range of the Western Ghats in Chikmagalur, Karnataka. It is the birthplace of Indian coffee and the core coffee production district. Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are the three main regions where 90%of the coffee is produced. Two others coffee areas are Andhra Pradesh and Orissa located in the Middle West of the country (northern Araku Valley), where 10% of the volume is grown (mainly Arabica).
I started my journey in Bangalore where I joined Mrs Sunalini Menon and a group of international roasters to cup Arabica and Robusta from five different farmers. I had been invited by Sunalini (Coffee Guru) to be one of a jury for these new specialty coffees prepared carefully by producers following the advice of our favourite India Coffee Guru. All Estates are located in Karnataka Region but then spread within different districts from Chikmagalur, passing by Majarabad to Coorg. I cupped some of the brightest Arabica coffees from India I have ever come across with sweet peaches and Banana notes. I was also stunned by the quality and diversity of the Robusta coffee too. I also cupped a Honey Paradeniya (Robusta), considered as one of the oldest varietals originally from Sri Lanka.
The taste of this coffee was far removed from what you imagine of a Robusta. It had a nice creamy mouth feel with chocolate nutty flavours and a hint of sweetness. There was no bitterness, leather or toasted corn tastes present in the cup. In a nutshell, each coffee was standing out and they were all distinctive from one another. Starting with the main common varietals S795, SLN9, Cauvery to the new ones experimented and implemented in India such as Catuai, Caturrai, Sarchimor or SL7(hybrid of Catimor with Catuai).
After two intensive days of cupping, I headed West of Bangalore to Chikmagalur to visit the Robusta Sethuraman Estate, located in Mangudi (N13 16 531 E07528753), owned by Nishant Gurjer who is the 6th generation farmer. When I arrived on the estate, located between 800 to 1,200 masl, I had the biggest treat I could have had – the Estate was in full flowering mode. Blossoms appear between 7 to 10 days after the first rains fall. I was astonished by the beauty of the millions of tiny jasmine like blossoms on the farm; it looked like snow on the trees! The smell was as Jasmine, so intense! The magic of this blossom can predict a successful next harvest as each flower leaves behind a node, which then become cherries. On one branch, I could see 8 flowers that will give 800 cherries, which is equivalent to one kilo of parchment! Sethuraman is the only Robusta Coffee certified by “Coffee Quality Institute” on the “R” Certification. Nishant’s knowledge and care of the farm make the perfect combination to grow the best Robusta coffee.
After Sethuraman Estate I moved to two different estates located in Majarabad district, both beautiful and very well maintained. My first stop was at Harley Estate (N1256069 E07543538). At 1,050 masl and a size of 200 ha, they grow both Arabica and Robusta. They process 100% of their coffee on site with their wet mill and the specialty dried on raised African beds which give a more uniform drying. When I walked into the plantation, I had the chance to see the oldest Robusta tree planted on their estate – planted by the British in 1940’s. As with most of the coffees in India, it is grown under a two-tier mixed shade canopy of evergreen leguminous trees, often interspersed with spices and fruit crops including pepper, cardamom, vanilla, orange, jack and banana trees. It makes the plantation so wild and lively, with vibrant green and different colours. I had also the opportunity to see the workers cleaning the plantations and spraying fertiliser just before the irrigation for enhancing the flowering. With the coffee Harvest well and truly over, awaiting for next season, it was time to harvest the pepper! It was fascinating to see pickers climbing on a bamboo ladder to pick the green or red pepper grapes!
Travelling further through India
I continued to travel from one farm to another and staying with the producers, learning about their farm life and also their challenges. One such challenge is the lack of labour; as fewer people want to remain in agriculture and prefer to travel to the cities to eke out a basic living. Some of the workers are coming from Orissa (South Delhi) and live all year on the farms.
One of the other problems they are facing is the white stem borer disease which is spreading rapidly. A lot of training and warning to producers on the importance of keeping a good and heavy shade on all the Arabica trees has been done. Due to this problem, many of the farmers decide to switch from Arabica to Robusta as there is developing market in Specialty Robusta and even though the value of the coffee is less than Arabica the cost of production is still half that of Arabica.
From there, I returned to Hassan where our exporter Allanassons has his ‘currying plant’, known as a dry mill to the rest of us. They have new milling installations and have increase their production capacity per single shift. They receive delivery of parchment or cherries from the farmers and are paying them “at the gate “at the time of delivery. All bags delivered are sampled when entering to the mill to ensure the quality and every sample is cupped in their lab before and after the dry milling process. I had another cupping session and I worked on some interesting blends, a Monsoon AA, washed Robusta Peredinya and Washed Arabica – which gave a beautiful cream, an incredible sweetness and stone fruits to the espresso! On this note, it was time for me to go back to Bangalore and enjoy the nice South Indian Food flavours before taking a flight to Vizag
Tribe heritage growing coffee by respecting and enhancing the power of the nature
Coming from South India, I landed in Vizag and stopped for lunch in on the fanciest hotel in town! Here everyone was throwing multicoloured powder at each other as they celebrated the end of winter and start of summer in the “Holi” Festival! After seeing how the Indians like to party, it was time to go up in the mountains to reach our final destination of the day: Araku Valley in Andrha Pradesh. As we drove through the beautiful scenic hills, the devastation caused by the “hudhud” Cyclone on 12th October 2014 was more apparent, numerous trees had been uprooted. More than 20% of the bean – bearing plant has been damaged and 15,000 ha of coffee plantations devastated and we were told that the cost of the damage to the area was estimated at £50 million
In Araku coffee region, the organic coffee cultivation program started in 2001 and covers around 900 tribal families covering 7 out of 11 Mandals. Here the Coffee Board of India has implemented a major effort to plant coffee as a cash crop and assists with the cultivation for the 15 tribal groups in the area representing a population of 575,000 people.
Sadly, tribes have been shifting cultivation for many years leading to degradation of topsoil, erosion and barren land exposure to the natural elements. All these practices have had a negative impact on their standard of living with barely any income. At the end of 2011, Naandi Foundation began efforts to improve the quality of life and livelihoods of the people. Today, Naandi lead a new organisation called SAMTFCAS (Small and marginal tribal farmers mutually aided cooperative Society) registered in 2007 with the vision of evolving into a dynamic sustainable tribal farmers cooperative. 11,500 farmers, holding less than 1 ha, within 7 mandals (regions) are members of this organization. The purpose of The Araku Organic Coffee Project supported by Naandi Foundation is to raise coffee quality standard to ensure higher prices and betterliving. But also, to ensure sustainable farm practices using the biodynamic. David Hogg an organic and biodynamic expert, who is the Naandi chief sustainable officer, will train more than 2,000 farmers with the help of Mr Vinod Hegde, asst. General Manager, who is on the ground to make them autonomous and ecologically sustainable, focussing on their environment. Their goal is to train the totality of the 11,000 farmers which will be a challenge but feasible – when you ask a tribal farmer what makes them tick, their answer is knowledge! Biodynamics is a complex agricultural practice which begins with bio- fertilisers (cow dung) again shades trees and awareness of the cosmos calendar and the importance of recycling all the energy around us. For instance, at Araku, methane gas is extracted from the cow dung and the dirty water used in the wet mill is re-used after a pre-equalization and equalization of water (lime powder and green leaves to make extraction of the gas).
After getting an understanding of this concept, it was time to travel to the most remote tribal village where we source our coffees from. The first stop was in Musri Gondiguda village (N1817396 E08243674) in Dumbrigulda mandal where 60 families live only from coffee as a main cash crop. I met the head of the village Joyyo who has been trained carefully to ensure a good harvest with a strict vigilance for allowing the best crop they can have. After having an exchange with the farmers which was a challenge as 3 different dialects are spoken… , (can you imagine working and living together with a different language, religion and culture in one village.. ??! ) This is an awesome example of living in a community with peace and tolerance! We headed off to the farm after climbing 1hour to 1,200 masl where all is wild forest plantation with shade trees such as silver oak, banana and jack fruits. We stopped for few minutes to contemplate the splendour of the green fluorescent paddy terrace! One can’t help but marvel at the majesty and beauty of our place and how important it is to respect it and live in harmony with it rather than destroying it just for a profit!
The next day, we drove even further as we had to reach another remote village “Bankhebuda” where coffee grows on an island. Once arrived at the village, we were given a really warm welcome by the families. They hung flower garlands around our necks, stuck rice to our forehead and placed a cerise mark between our eyebrows. This was followed by a traditional dance called Dimsa which they usually perform for their God – but we were treated to it as we were only their 6th foreign visitor in 20 years. We then had a short walk to reach the Mapsyadebba Lake were a canoe was waiting for us! We reached the island in a brief 20 minutes of paddling – much more and we may have sunk, the canoe was full of water! Once we reached the island, we could see some of the flowering of nice trees that Ramurthy(the village leader) is taking care of. Mainly Sl7,Sl9 and S75 were grown, but sadly we could see that the trees had been affected by the cyclone.
Therefore, a program of Agroforestery is in place and being supported by Nanandi, since the “hudhud”cyclone struck. They aim to replant more than 3.4 million tree for next year, including silver oak, coffee and mango (which they want to make the second cash crop income after coffee) plus bamboo etc.. It will be the new “Amazon”! In regards to coffee, they also plan to experiment with planting new varietals in Araku such as Red Hawai Caturai, Catuai etc… Progressive farming (and farmers) is the key to success.
We participated to the annual award cupping session of 18 new harvest samples with each of the coffees having their distinctive cup profiles. Some tasted like banana pancakes for the naturals, orange lemon for the Honey and Snickers bars for the fully washed. It was a real festival of flavour four our palate. The quality was superior to the previous season and SCAA scores were anywhere from 82 to 92! We selected the best ones, even though; it was difficult to make a choice! It was a real privilege to be the first to cup all of the lots and even more to be the only one to get some of the lots as some lots represents only 5 bags. After this intensive cupping, we visited one of the primary schools where Naandi sponsor 285 girls (out of 580) by paying the school fees, uniform and also the materials that they will need. All the girls’ parents are coffee producers who cannot afford to send their girls to school as they (regrettably) invest in their sons first. We had a great opportunity to spend some time with the children and tell them about our origin and also what we are doing with their parents’ coffee in our market.
The final days
On my final day I went to visit their Central Processing Unit (CPU), located in Araku Village; where it was confirmed that the quality of the coffees is encouraged to achieve excellence! The wet mill is extremely well maintained and so beautiful built that it seems like a Roman Villa! Each delivery of cherry that arrives is 100% red ripe fruit and then processed through the siphon (to remove the floaters) and then in to the de-pulper (to remove cherry pulp) and fermentation tank. They have a good knowledge on processing and playing with fermentation time as well as drying time to get the best out of the bean. They produced 90% Fully Washed and the rest between Honey and Natural. All coffees are dried on African beds for an average of 15 days. Since last year, the CPU also has a tiny dry mill where they cure their own coffees for the really small lots (5 to 10 bags). It has a capacity of 400kg per hour. All coffee is stored in parchment in their warehouse and then cured in their partner’s currying plant and packed in 30 kilos grain pro bags.
It was then time to attend the Araku award ceremony which happens every year. It is to celebrate the end of the harvest but mainly it is the time to award the Grand Prize. Firstly, we awarded the best 3 biodynamic farmers (judged by 4 biodynamic experts) and then I had the privilege on behalf of the cupping jury to give the award to the best village coffee of 2014/15 season. More than 2,000 farmers were attending the ceremony which involved a logistical nightmare of organising 50 trucks to the CPU in a morning – what a mass of people! I felt so emotional, especially at the time when I had to speak to all of them on the stage! This annual ceremony means a lot for the farmers and keeps them motivated for the future and I am so privileged I and DRWakefield have been part of it!
I feel like I could speak about my trip to India forever, but I can definitely say that Indian coffees are going to take their place in the specialty coffee world. Westerns Ghats where many plantations have a deep knowledge of farming practices and putting in place all the different techniques, processes, varietals, and maturity of the beans as well as the knowledge they learn from buyers, the coffee board or the India Coffee Guru Mrs Sunalini Menon are seeing the fruits of their labour. The only worry is that farmers need to keep their investment until they can find a market, which can add financial strain.
Another challenge is fighting the stem borer which reduces constantly the volume of Arabica coffee each year; the coffee board is working hard on new varietals that could be less impacted by this disease and also training farmers for keeping a good shade cover to alleviate some of the risks. Time will tell.
Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh has a great vibe and atmosphere since working with the Naandi people who are incredibly passionate and committed to this long term project supporting Tribal farmers. Put simply it is just fantastic. Since we have been buying Gems of Araku year after year, the new project that is in place and the quality of the coffee keep increasing. I am excited about getting the new season of the Gems in store and now I can relate to some of the village and farmers that we visited – including Musri Gondiguada which has to be one of my favourite villages without noticing that we have been buying their coffees for the past 4 years! Now for the next step, we will begin working on different process with them to achieve excellence and keep developing a rewarding relationship with all involved.
Keep your eyes open for this coffees coming in a few months.
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