A few months ago, we were honored to be a part of the San Francisco Coffee Festival. We were the only business serving coffee from India amongst 40+ roasters from around the Bay Area. Almost every coffee enthusiast that stopped by our kiosk had similar questions and comments…
- Coffee from India? Who knew?!
- We thought India only produced tea.
- So India is actually a part of the global coffee market?
- [takes a taste] This coffee is actually really good!
Our response: YES! India grows coffee too, and not a tiny amount!!
India is the 7th largest coffee producer in the world with over 80% of the produce being exported. However, the United States, which is the 2nd largest importer of global coffee, gets less than 3% of its coffee from India. This is the main reason that Indian coffee is not well known here. Kaveri Coffee hopes to change that - but first let’s begin by busting some myths or assumptions about coffee from India.
Myth 1 - Coffee must be a newer crop since Indian teas are more well known
Nothing could be further from the truth. Coffee has been growing in India since the early 1600s when the Sufi saint Baba Budan smuggled some beans into India. The plants grew on the hills of a quaint little town called Chikmagalur, in the South Indian state of Karnataka. It thrived as a local crop until the early 1800s after which the British commercialized it. Commercial plantations for tea were also developed around the same time in the North Eastern parts of India for trade through the East India Company. Both coffee and tea were exported to England and Europe on a regular basis until the onset of WW2 which led to the disruption of trade routes. This, coupled with existing competition from other coffee producers, forever changed the coffee export story for India. Today, while it ranks in the top 10 coffee producing countries, the majority of coffee on the global market comes from the top five producers (Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia).
The story of tea is quite different though. India remained a major player in the tea market as the British relied heavily on the production of tea in India. That hasn’t changed very much even today - India is the second largest producer of tea, after China. So, while the global market has multiple larger sources for coffee, it is not the same for tea. Perhaps this is the reason people outside of India identify her as a tea growing nation.
Myth 2 - Oh, I've heard of Monsoon Malabar. Is that the best coffee from India?
Yes, Monsoon Malabar comes from India but that’s not the best, or only kind of coffee. India has over 16 varieties of ‘shade-grown’ coffee including the well known Arabica and Robusta. In fact, India produces some of the best shade-grown Arabica in the world - if we may say so ourselves.
Monsooning, however, is a post-harvest processing method that is truly unique to India. It is carried out with the coffee that is grown along the Malabar coast, in the regions of Karnataka and Kerala. The method itself was chanced upon when the British exported coffee to Europe. In those days, shipping techniques were not sophisticated and the beans were exposed to the elements on their long journey. It was soon discovered that the green coffee beans leaving the shores of India at a particular time of the year swelled up and turned yellow due to the humidity and sea winds. This changed the taste and the pH balance of the beans. They arrived at their destination with a neutrally balanced pH and a full-bodied flavor. These unique attributes are the reason that Monsoon Malabar is well-known and loved all over the globe. Today, the conditioning process is replicated naturally during the monsoon months on the South West coast of India. The process is long and has to be carried out with great care, which results in the Monsoon Malabar Arabica and the Monsoon Malabar Robusta varieties one sees on the market.
Myth 3 - Locals must enjoy the finest coffee that the land has to offer
Funnily enough, the answer to this is NO. There are a few reasons why - perhaps the biggest and the strangest of them all is the fact that Indians love milk. Coffee in India is consumed as ‘filter coffee’/‘meter coffee’ (link to filter coffee blog) OR instant coffee. These drinks involve the use of copious amounts of milk to a point where it is not possible to taste the nuanced flavors that coffee has to offer. Traditionally, in India, if it is not milky, strong, sweet and hot, it does not qualify as a “good cup of coffee”. Coffee in India is ‘shade-grown’ in the forests of the Western Ghats amidst an abundance of other foliage. This allows the coffee to imbibe the flavors of the surrounding plants. These flavors are subtle and to truly appreciate them one needs to taste coffee without overpowering it with milk.
Instant coffee is another reason. The British invented instant coffee in 1771 and called it compound coffee. They exported all the good coffee from India, and imported instant coffee for local consumption which is cheaper, has a longer shelf life and is easier to prepare. These were reasons enough for it to become hugely popular - it still is. Coffee connoisseurs frown terribly on this one, but instant coffee is very much a part of the coffee culture on the sub-continent.
The cost of the product also plays an important role. The lower grades of coffee in India are still significantly more expensive than the cheapest quality of tea commonly used in most Indian households.
There has, however, been a significant shift in the coffee drinking culture in India over the last few years. With knowledge and consumption on the rise, specialty coffee is gaining popularity. There are a lot more craft roasters working with coffee farmers in India to provide high quality coffee, training and information.
Around the world, specialty coffee roasters like us offer you a glimpse of the fine coffee India has to offer. While Monsooned Malabar is a crowd favorite, we choose to bring into the limelight high-quality Arabica coffee straight from the farm (estates) to your cup. Kaveri Coffee is dedicated to increasing the knowledge and popularity of Indian Coffee in the United States.