As India gains strength, so does its coffee
Coffee has long been the stuff of compelling legends in India. But the drink itself hasn't been anything special. Now the country's farmers are on a journey toward better flavor and higher profits.
Seattle Times business reporter
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
CHIKMAGALUR REGION, INDIA —
The coffee beans in Jacob Mammen's hand look like they've been processed.
To some extent, the naked gray-green half-spheres have been — by a monkey, who ate the coffee fruit and spit out the seeds, which we call coffee beans.
Mammen fought the monkeys for years. Even now, he has workers walk around a forested coffee plantation firing noise-making "monkey guns" to scare them off.
"It doesn't work," he said. "The monkeys are smart. They know."
So Mammen found a solution: He turned the beans into a boutique item, "monkey parchment" coffee, which he sells to roasters in Taiwan and Germany for about double their unchewed value.
His marketing savvy would not have been possible two decades ago, when the Indian government handled all coffee sales and sent a lot of low-quality coffee to the Soviet Union.
The way Mammen and other coffee farmers operate in India is in many ways emblematic of India's development into a global economic power.
Since the Indian government changed its policies and allowed farmers to take control of their own sales in the mid-'90s, India's coffee industry has seen a boost in quality and profits, and has taken a seat in gourmet coffee circles.
Even Starbucks has noticed. After years of buying very little Indian coffee, the chain is using it exclusively in espresso drinks at its recently opened shops in India.
Eventually, the granddaddy of specialty coffee expects to use Indian espresso in other countries, said John Culver, president of Starbucks' Asia-Pacific region. It operates the new stores with Mumbai-based Tata, a conglomerate that is one of Asia's largest coffee producers.
ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A late start
The story of Indian coffee is compelling in ways that farmers in more marketing-prone countries might seize on for a label.
In India, they are part of a centuries-old way of life.
Aside from its romantic-sounding pests — monkeys, king cobras and elephants — Indian coffee is grown not just in the shade, but in forests that from the ground resemble the slopes of Washington's Cascade Mountains.
Its workers live in free multiroom homes and have government-mandated free child-care and pensions. Some make dinner using electric spice grinders and have satellite television.
"Bird-friendly and ethical coffee, I think we had before you even spoke about it, but we never marketed it," Mammen said. "Even now, we're very poor in marketing."
Coming from a man who sells "monkey parchment," that could be hyperbole.
But it is true that Indian coffee is not as celebrated as some coffees from Latin America, Indonesia and Africa. It is rarely used by U.S. specialty roasters, partly because it is so far away and partly because it is so little known.
Indian coffee also had a late start.
In the 1940s, India began pooling its coffee and paying farmers mostly for quantity, not quality. That continued until the '90s and meant India missed the start of the specialty coffee craze in the 1970s, when roasters from Seattle and elsewhere began searching the world for gourmet coffee.
Mammen recalls being frightened during his first visit to the annual convention of the Specialty Coffee Association of America in 1996.
He could handle questions like, "You grow tea. Are you sure you grow coffee?"
Of course he grows coffee. His great-grandfather bought coffee plantations from British owners.
But "What does your coffee taste like?"
"It tastes like coffee," thought Mammen, who drank Nescafe instant coffee at home. "Indian coffee used to taste like dishwater."
Today, although they have yet to crack the U.S. market, Mammen and others have spent time and money to improve their coffee and sell it to high-end roasters in Asia and Europe, including Illy in Italy.
ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Legend of Baba Budan
Despite its youth in specialty coffee, India was one of the first countries in the world to grow it.
The crop was first cultivated in Ethiopia, and by the 1600s was hugely popular throughout the Ottoman Empire. The Turks boiled or roasted coffee beans before they left the Yemeni port of Mocha to keep them from being grown elsewhere, according to coffee historian and author Mark Pendergrast.
That is why, according to legend, a 17th-century Muslim pilgrim named Baba Budan taped seven coffee beans to his stomach and smuggled them to India.
The hills where he planted those beans are now known as the Bababudan Giris. A Hindu temple sits atop the highest peak, and coffee forests are visible in all directions.
To the west is the town of Chikmagalur, where growers still congregate at a members-only club. The walls are hung with animal heads and skins, and photographs of British coffee barons with tigers they shot at their feet.
When the British arrived in the 1600s, looking at first to break a Dutch monopoly on the spice trade, tea and coffee were "backyard crops" in India. Over the centuries, the British installed plantations. Tea, which is a much larger crop, is grown mostly in the north, while coffee is grown mostly in the south.
East of the mountaintop temple sits Mammen's 375-acre Arabica plantation, where workers shoot "monkey guns" and sometimes see tigers that live on a nearby preserve.
Path to better flavor
For many Indian coffee farmers, the path to better flavor and higher profits started with a woman named Sunalini Menon.
Formerly head of quality at the Coffee Board of India, Menon took early retirement when the government agency downsized in the 1990s. Although the Coffee Board did not focus on quality, Menon had created a small program in which some farmers were paid more for better-tasting coffee.
Now her nine-person Coffeelab in Bangalore inspects coffee quality for cafe chains and advises farmers about how to improve the flavor of their coffee.
Two-thirds of India's coffee is Robusta, the long-maligned sibling to gourmet coffee's preferred Arabica.
Although Robusta's reputation has improved, it still is not used by many high-end roasters, including Starbucks. It also remains unwelcome in the prestigious Cup of Excellence competition, which has brought high prices and fame to some coffee-producing farms and regions.
"That's so sad," Menon, a judge for the Cup of Excellence, says of Robusta's reputation for harsh flavor.
Robusta can be spicy and buttery if it is processed correctly, she said.
She has pushed India's farmers to wet-process their Robusta coffee as they do Arabica, even though Robusta beans can take twice as long to ferment.
"We don't just strip Robusta off the tree and say, 'Hey, Robusta's not a bad coffee.' It's a lot of work," said Mammen, standing in his new $200,000 Robusta processing facility. Roughly 65 percent of the coffee he grows is Robusta.
Robusta is harder to process and fetches lower prices than Arabica, but it remains appealing to farmers because the trees tend to be stronger and produce more coffee.
Indian coffee farmers also grow other crops, in part to protect themselves from low yields and cyclical coffee prices.
"We can't survive on coffee alone," Mammen said.
ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Tea is sometimes grown alongside coffee, even in the south.
One year, when both coffee and tea prices were down, peppercorns rescued Mammen.
India's coffee farmers also grow cocoa, cardamom, coconuts, areca nuts and timber.
The silver oak that they often plant for shade is not indigenous to India. Farmers like it because it grows fast and straight and stands high above coffee trees, which rarely reach higher than 7 feet.
Trading those for indigenous trees is one area in which Indian coffee farmers could improve sustainability, said Joke Aerts, manager of South Asia for the Rainforest Alliance's sustainable landscapes program.
They also could stop rinsing fertilizer bags and spraying equipment in streams, Aerts said. "There's always room for improvement."
But compared with some coffee-growing countries, she said, India already has many of the basics covered.
India's coffee always has been grown under heavy shade.
The government mandates a minimum wage for workers, which this year is about $4 a day. (India's average income is $1,490 a year.) Coffee and tea laborers also receive free housing, maternity leave, child care, pensions and other benefits.
Mammen's cousin, Rohan Kuriyan, remembers being proud as a child when his father built a new four-classroom schoolhouse on their Balanoor Plantations, which includes 1,650 acres of coffee and tea near Mammen's Badra Estates.
The extended family still shares ownership of the coffee, tea, rubber, teak and newspaper businesses, but they are managed separately.
Scrambling for workers
Despite the benefits they offer, India's coffee estates are suffering from a labor shortage.
There are so few permanent workers at Balanoor that only two of the school's classrooms are used.
Many laborers, especially young ones, prefer jobs in growing cities such as Bangalore, more than five hours away. Farmers consider the resulting labor shortage one of their two biggest problems, the other being climate change (see sidebar).
More than a third of Balanoor's 464 housing units sit empty. Twenty years ago they were full, and Balanoor's permanent work force was almost double its current 468 employees.
Kuriyan and his father are scrambling to attract more and younger workers by building new housing with indoor bathrooms and plumbing.
Besides field workers, Balanoor needs employees for what amounts to a small village with day-care centers, medical facilities and nine Hindu temples.
The temples are a telling detail amid India's emergence as a modern nation, a sign that the country still retains its rich cultural heritage.
One evening in December, dozens of Balanoor's workers gathered outside one of its temples for a puja worship ceremony.
An 11-year-old boy relentlessly sounded a small gong while two priests honored a goddess before serving fruit and shaved coconut to worshippers.
On such auspicious evenings, the Hindu priests wear saffron shawls. But by day, they work in India's burgeoning tea and coffee industry.
ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES