How far would you go to get a good cup of coffee, or to learn about coffee? I traveled 21000 km, a journey that spanned over 100+ days, a solo ride on a motorcycle, to find more about coffee that grows in my country, India. That’s when I realized that there is a lot of information I didn’t know, even though I was already part of the country’s coffee industry. I can only imagine the gap that lies between the coffee producing and the coffee consuming community.
Every time I researched on the internet or spoke with locals or friends from other countries, they always H 75 C Story / Binny Varghese Photo / Kerehaklu Estate talked about the same old information regarding coffee production in India and how most of it is exported. And this exported coffee is mainly commodity grade. But I also found that the numbers associated with the export, consumption within the country, and the people’s consumption preference regarding coffee origin, seemed to be not updated. That’s why I wanted to try and find out first-hand what people, from various parts of the country, thought about coffee and what they preferred to consume. This led to amazing discoveries, meeting some great coffee lovers, storytellers and more importantly coffee appreciators.
The Indian Coffee Industry in Numbers
India is the 7th largest coffee producer in the world, and the 6th largest exporter of the world. I guess most of you didn’t know that. But wait there’s more, India also exports 70% of its production. And even though that remaining 30% is what the country consumes domestically, it makes India one of the highest coffee consuming — coffee producing countries. India comprises around 392,000 small-scale coffee growers, which makes up 99% of all the coffee producers. Coffee provides livelihood for about 1.5 million families.
According to a legend, coffee came to India in the 1600 A.D. by Baba Budan, a 16th-century Sufi and the first man to break the Arab coffee monopoly of the time. India is not well known around the world as a major coffee producer and when talking about specialty coffee, an Indian Single Origin is hardly mentioned. Places where Indian Coffee is known are either just for the washed Robusta or the Indian Monsoon Malabar, a special coffee processing method near the seashore, where there is higher atmospheric humidity. I believe that India as a coffee origin country can be a lot more than these two coffee types, both for the local people and the ones abroad.
Indian coffee is exported to a lot of countries, but amongst the top 10 are — Italy, Germany, Belgium, Russia, U.S.A., and in total India had exported coffees to 127 countries during the period of 2021-22. Chances are, a lot of people from these countries have drank coffee from India, but without actually knowing it. Most of the coffee that is sourced from India goes into blending, so the roaster down the road in Italy, would have Indian Robusta in their espresso blend.
I would like to talk to you about a couple of particularly major challenges for Indian coffee, amongst the common big challenges that exist in the coffee producing industry worldwide like climate change, staffing shortages and volatile prices. The first challenge is the understanding of specialty coffee, and the second is the return of investment and risk. Speciality coffee is a gray area; the term has no unanimous understanding worldwide, aside from the Speciality Coffee Association’s (SCA) scoring guidelines.
It all starts at the farm and the conditions in which the coffee is grown. Most producing countries aspire to have a biodiversity-friendly environment and this is something that India has in abundance. For a coffee farm in Brazil to achieve this environmental condition, they usually try to obtain a certificate from organizations that tell them they can get premium prices for their coffee if the farm meets their standards.
India fulfills this condition already but the coffee is rated at the same standard as elsewhere, something that doesn’t help the producers. In fact, certification would not make sense for Indian coffee plantations as it is not cheap for farmers and is followed by a long bureaucratic process. India produces some amazing tasting coffees, but the coffee that gets exported is not the same as the unique tasting coffees that are available within the country. The quantity of what we know today as specialty coffee is not much and is mostly consumed within the country.
The Meaning of “Specialty”
India has a steep growing rate when it comes to consuming specialty coffee. There is an increasing trend of specialty coffee shops and chains opening across the country. And many coffee producers in India expect a premium in price when they sell what they consider as specialty coffee, but this is where things get tricky. Interestingly, “specialty means different things to different people.
Mr. Iyer, a small coffee farmer, described it to me as coffee that has taken more work, labor, and money to produce and hence specialty coffee is expensive coffee, regardless of the taste. Pranoy, who is a 5th generation farmer says that specialty to him is all about taking special care of the coffee from the planting till the time it is brewed, and he wishes to add as much care and value he can in selecting, processing, drying and brewing the best quality beverage he can.
On the other hand, for a roaster, specialty means it is a coffee that has scored above 80 on a 100-point scale. According to Siddharth of Gshot Coffee Roastery in Goa, there is also a really small percentage of roasters, for whom specialty means knowing the bean to cup journey of their coffee, and recognizing the amount of care that has gone into it.
While chatting to Praveena a friend and roast at Dryft Coffee in Alabama, U.S.A., she explained that the price the roasters would pay for a large quantity of “specialty coffee” from India is similar to what they would pay for a specialty lot from let’s say Brazil or Tanzania, but the challenge is when the expense of freight and transport and duty is all added, Indian coffee tends to be a little expensive, if not as expensive as the coffee from other well known coffee producing countries.
This presents a dilemma for roasters: why not source from a well-known and more popular coffee producing country than risking with Indian coffee? However, they are open to buy a lot of commodity coffee from India, as Indian commercial coffee is a good mix for blend. It can even replace Colombian/ Brazilian coffees in a blend if needed so that the blend flavors remain similar throughout the year.
As we speak, there are some amazing farmers and exporters from India, and some really cool coffee roasters who are collectively pushing their limits to get single origin Indian Coffee in the USA, UK, and Australia. There, coffees from India can be kept on the shelf right next to a Kenyan or an Ethiopian. But for the producers, the challenge remains the same: why produce “specialty grade” coffee if it doesn’t get the expected premium price when exported? For them, it’s better to play it safe with commercially graded coffee and keep the specialty coffee process for domestic consumption, as the prices received for domestic consumption are the same they would receive for exporting.
Indian Coffee producers are also pushing the boundaries with coffees and are at par with processing like any other country. Farmers are producing exceptionally good, clean, washed coffees, fruity naturals, boozy-barrel fermented coffees, all the way to thermal shock, koji and extended fermentation, carbonic macerated coffees and more, all done here within the country as well. However, most of the experimental lots are produced by well-known, bigger farms who can afford the risk of failing. India is fairly new to this “specialty” coffee, and the processing methods often associated with such coffees are also limited. And like everywhere, coffee education is either too expensive or too scarce, but mostly both.
A Time for Education
There is a huge imbalance of knowledge that exists in the country between the producers, consumers, and intermediaries. Unfortunately, more often than not, the producers are at the bottom of it. Most sources of coffee knowledge are either too expensive for small-scale growers to afford, or the source of the education is just too complicated and far-fetched for them. Most growers don’t see the value in the knowledge and effort when compared to the returns that they get from selling the coffees.
Whereas the intermediaries and roasters and traders are often in a state to avail such education, which creates power imbalance to dictate what and how the coffees should be processed. The knowledge dissemination that happens in the country is availed via two different ways:
1) From the Coffee Board of the country, which is run by the government and needs to follow a long chain of command. Compared to private organizations, it takes a lot more time and efficiency to get the knowledge disseminated.
2) The formal education, such as SCA courses, is mostly not available within the country and if they do it is super expensive for an average small growing planter.
On the other hand, Ganga, the Co-founder of Coffee Mechanics in Bengaluru, says that there is a great amount of research in coffee that is being conducted in the country, and we are home to some amazing scientists who have dedicated their lives to coffee. This research needs to be an education material for more people in the value chain. A bigger challenge also lies in the fact that when it comes to the pace at which the coffee industry is moving, regarding the way coffees are processed or grown or traded, our country is still trying to play catch with other industry players.
Out of Reach
A very important factor that needs to be kept in mind is the fact that Indian coffee was centralized up until 1992, which meant that all the coffee that was being produced up until 1992 was technically a property of the government. The farmer could only sell the coffees to the governmental coffee board and there was no free trading that was allowed. It was only post-1992 that coffee as a commodity became decentralized, and coffee became free to trade.
A farmer could then sell his/her coffees to anyone, directly. Considering this fact, the growth has been immense. Ajoy Thiapiah of Kerehaklu Estate remembers that before coffee was decentralized, the focus was not much on the quality of coffee, but was only on quantity, and there were instances when farmers kept higher moisture in their green coffee 80 C to get higher weight (quantity) to make more money. But with the decentralization, the focus on the quality increased, as the buyers would demand better quality, better tasting coffees.
During colonial rule, when coffee plantations were run by the Dutch or the British, coffee was never an accessible product for most of the Indians. Coffee was always something that was beyond the reach of a common man/woman. They were only allowed to work at coffee plantations as laborers but could never afford coffee. This is what gave them the idea that coffee was always a premium product, out of reach for a lay person. Hence the popularity of the drink also took a real slow curve going upwards.
Coffee itself has a dark history, and such was the case in India as well. I remember meeting one such small coffee grower who now owns a small coffee estate, and they hosted me while I was on my motorbike journey; they said they could never buy coffee when they worked at a coffee plantation under British rule. Not just because it was expensive, but they were not allowed to buy coffee. They used to collect the coffee waste from the plantation, like the broken green beans, the blacks and the defects, or the cherry skin (cascara as we know) and they used to bring this waste product home and dry it in their backyard.
Once dried, they used to take this waste material and roast it at home in their kitchen with clarified butter. But since this was mainly coffee waste and discard, it never tasted like anything, so to make it palatable, they used to add spices like cinnamon, black pepper and cloves into the roasted coffee waste and grind them together, then brew it with hot water. In the current day they can afford to buy coffee or grow and use their own coffee, but the tradition of roasting them at home and adding spices to it continues. This results in a remarkably beautiful and spicy coffee drink. This is just one of the many stories that lies within our vast country filled with hidden history gems.
A New Age
But speaking of specialty coffee, which is relatively new to us, a lot is happening here, and one can only imagine the positive future that lies in our coffee industry. There is a new wave of specialty coffee education that is being spread. There are courses that our national coffee board conducts, there are seminars that take place in different locations, but the information to such sources of education doesn’t spread as much or as fast as needed to.
This will take time and slowly and gradually it will spread to more people.
There are also some new-age coffee consultants that are present in the community who take pride and initiative in spreading the knowledge. In the recent past, companies like Blue Tokai, have started an initiative to specifically help new and small coffee growers to get access to the new age coffee processing methods and information. New coffee houses and chains are opening around the country and are focusing on specialty coffee and they will eventually need more specialty coffee.
With this collective growth we can expect more amazing coffees around the nation. Especially now, people are slowly becoming more accepting of coffees from origins that are not the typical ‘Single Origin’ nations, I am sure we will see more Indian coffees as single origins in various places around the world, and people will realize that India does indeed produce some good coffee.