NEW SPECIAL SERIES: When it comes to coffee history, few countries are more fascinating than India. Long one of the five or six biggest coffee growers in the world, India is also one of the world’s very oldest coffee producing nations, yet to many in the industry that’s a little known fact. In this new special series the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal’s veteran coffee writer Maja Wallengren aka SpillingTheBeans takes an in-depth look at India’s exciting coffee industry, from the harvest outlook for the current crop to the country’s key producing regions and the extraordinary 350-year-old history behind the Coffees of India.
BY MAJA WALLENGREN
The story of coffee in India is a story of great folklore and epic fables. It all started with seven coffee seeds smuggled from Yemen into India during the 17th Century almost 350 years ago. From these seven seeds one of the world’s earliest coffee industries would blossom into become one of the largest coffee producing nations across the globe. And despite still being better known for growing tea, coffee is expanding on all fronts in India. From production of both Arabica and Robusta beans to exports, from local manufacturing of soluble coffee to domestic consumption, India’s coffee industry is growing along with the country’s economic growth which the World Bank expects to overtake that of Asian giant China in 2016.
“Coffee production in India has been rising steadily for many decades but it was in the late 1980s when the private sector expanded the planted area that production really started blossoming,” said Jawaid Akhtar, Chairman of the Coffee Board of India (CBI). After a disappointing harvest in the now completed 2014-15 cycle, where excessive dryness damaged flowering in a significant part of the Arabica regions and cut the initial hopes of a record crop of as much as 6.0 million bags short, early predictions for India’s next 2015-16 crop are looking upbeat.
“The initial flowering has been very good in both Arabica and Robusta areas even though it’s still too early to project the size of the next harvest,” Akhtar told the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. The 2014-15 harvest had initially been projected to produce a total of 3.86 million bags Robusta and 1.66 million bags Arabica beans. But the follow-up rains, known as the “blossom showers” in India, never came in most of the regions. The blossom rains have to follow a flowering between 9 and 10 days after the initial flowering in order to allow the buds to turn into flowers. These rains then have to be followed by the “backing showers” within 20 to 25 days of the flowering in order for the flowers to develop into the cherries that produced the coffee beans. If rains do not occur as such it will lead to “pinking” where the flower buds turn pink and dry on the branches.
The CBI recently revised its final figure for the last harvest down to a little over 5.0 million bags, with the drop in production almost exclusively owing to a smaller than expected Arabica crop. Bad weather aside, the rise of the Indian coffee producing sector in the last two decades has been progressive. Today, India represents one of only a handful of coffee growing countries in the world with the potential to significantly expand both yields and planted area, thanks in part to a competitive low cost of production for labor here compared to most other parts of the world.
In the early 1990s, just after the break down of the International Coffee Agreement on export quotas and minimum prices, annual coffee production in India was registered at 2.8 million bags. But the 1990s would see these figures almost double thanks to a combination of market-friendly policies, subsidized replanting and the fact that producers were motivated by higher prices in the now un-restricted world market, to which exports previously had been limited by the quota agreement.
“Traditionally all our coffee has been in the south with the three states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu making up for between 95 and 98 percent of India’s total annual coffee production. The rest of the regions are all very small in output but during the last 15 years we have gradually added 60,000 hectares of coffee in our new non-traditional regions, especially the Araku Valley in the state of Andhra Pradesh in the Eastern Ghats,” said Akhtar. And it’s new coffee from these regions that are starting to show up in the export and production figures in the last 5 to 10 years, he said. Smaller volumes of coffee is also grown in India’s extreme northeast, where nudged in between Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar and known as the “Seven Sister States” marginal Arabica regions have been established across Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.
From the earliest coffee history after first being discovered in Ethiopia sometime around the 6th Century to the new regions in Andhra Pradesh, India has been part of the story longer than most producing nations. At the time coffee arrived in India only the Dutch had achieved to get coffee to grow successfully in their colonies at Dutch Ceylon, where coffee was introduced around 1658, according to historical research.
“The story of coffee in India began about 350 years ago when according to the legend a saint named Baba Budan brought seven magical beans back from a trip to Yemen and in 1670 planted them in the Chandragiri hills of Karnataka State,” tells Akhtar.
From elevation as low 400 meters in the lowest lying tropical areas for Robusta as high as 2000 meters altitude for the prime Arabica regions, 100 percent of India’s coffee is produced under heavy shade. Unlike most of the world, it’s not uncommon to find Robusta coffee growing at altitudes between 1000 and 1200 while most of the Arabica crop is cultivated at altitudes between 1200 and 1500 meters. All India’s farmers use multi crop practices and grow coffee together with pepper, fruit and spice crops.
Spread out over more than 400,000 hectares, coffee is cultivated across 12 states and the Coffee Board has over the years established cupping profiles for a total of 13 different producing regions. From gourmet Robustas to the highest quality beans of Arabica coffees, Indian coffees are today becoming increasingly known in the market for their complex cupping profiles.
“We have so many wonderful different micro climates in India and the growers have worked so hard during the last 10 years to improve growing practices and the quality of the coffee they produce so it is very nice to see them starting to get more recognition in the international market,” said Sunalini Menon, who for years headed the quality department at the Coffee Board before setting up her own Coffeelab Limitted consultancy business in India’s commercial southern capital of Bangalore.
Menon spent two decades as part of the coffee board team that first started working with growers on improving quality from seed to cup and she was instrumental in carrying out the first coffee census of farmers in India’s coffee producing sector. She recalls walking for hours track down one tiny farmer on a remote hillside of a mountain in the tribal coffee state of Tamil Nadu.
Long overshadowed by its two bigger producing state neighbors Karnataka and Kerala, Tamil Nadu is only home to between 6 and 8 percent of India’s annual coffee output and is known for its colourful culture dominated by small-holder tribal coffee communities which in many years have succeeded in producing some of India’s finest beans. Visiting farms here during the flowering season, the smell of faint jasmine is reaching everywhere and the little young plants are bearing an impressive carpet of new buds.
“In the last 15 years I’ve not had less than 800 kilograms of clean coffee per acre (or 1.98 metric ton green value) and last year in the 2013-14 harvest I even managed to get 14 tons of clean coffee from my 18 acres of coffee (7.3 hectare),” said Veera Arasu Natarajan, a woman grower who manages her small farm “AL Plantation” jointly with her husband in the Pulneys region of eastern Tamil Nadu.
From the arid plains and valleys in Andhra Pradesh, across the tribal lands of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, a trip through the Indian coffee regions is a never ending story of exotic flavors, breathtaking sceneries and beautiful coffee farms.
But at the center of India’s coffee industry, it’s all about Karnataka. Home to as much as 70 percent of the total annual crop this is where all the biggest coffee regions and farms are found, from small holder farmers to generations-old estates. This is where India’s coffee history started and from where the expansion has continued through four centuries and it’s here in the hills of the Baba Budangiri Mountains in the heart of Southern Karnataka that the first seven coffee seeds were planted at around 1500 meters altitude in India in 1670. Located in the district of Chikmagalur – which alone has over 89,000 hectares of coffee – Karnataka is also home to many other famous regions and coffee brands such as Mangalore, Hassan, Mysore and Coorg. Coorg is locally known as Kodagu.
“Coffee has been grown in Karnataka ever since it was first introduced in Chikmagalur but it was after the British, who had observed how well coffee was doing in the northern parts of the neighboring state of Kerala, in the 1820s and 1830s started to introduce coffee to Coorg that large-scale plantation grown coffee really took off,” said Bose Mandanna, a passionate grower himself in Coorg and part of the Coorg Planter’s Association. The star of India’s coffee industry, Coorg District is the biggest single producing district in the country in any given average harvest, boosting 105,000 hectares of coffee of which 28,000 are planted with Arabica and 77,000 hectares are Robusta.
“This district is one of the smallest in the state of Karnataka and yet Coorg produces 40 percent of the national crop. We have 280 different types of trees and 109 species of birds. The local micro climate is one of the best for growing coffee in the country, we have very good and stable rainfall and we generally get high average yields,” Mandanna told the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal during a visit to these dense forests where coffee trees compete with rose wood and red cedar for space under the heavy shade in the golden afternoon sun.
After last year’s disappointing Arabica crop in Coorg, which in addition to excessive dryness also was badly affected by an outbreak of the white stem borer pest, flowering for the new harvest is looking good. Despite lower output, local purchasing prices did improve because of the higher prices in the world market following last year’s drought disaster in Brazil and producers remain optimistic about the next harvest.
“Last year we only got 10 (50-kilogram) bags of cherries, it was very poor because we never received the blossom showers but we had some of the highest prices in years,” said Ameena, an 82-year-old women producer in the small village of Gargandur. Despite being located right next to the Hardoor River she is one of the many small growers who don’t have access to irrigation and entirely relies on nature to feed the 1000 coffee trees on her family’s 1-hectare farm.
“We have 70 percent of production here in the hand of small holders and it’s very difficult for them when it doesn’t rain because they don’t have the opportunity to irrigate,” said Vinod Kumar, Head of the Entomology Department at the Central Coffee Research Institute (CCRI) in Balehonnur, Chikmagalur. India’s first field outpost for coffee research, the library at the Coorg station goes back to 1925 and holds thousands of books worth of historical coffee data. In an old planter’s Chronicle dated 1913 local growers complain about the “labor problems” they have with workers unwilling to come because of the high rate of Malaria in the forests.
To this date, the issue of labor continues to be a concern to industry officials but even so, Kumar says India’s coffee industry is poised for further growth. With the coffee lands all under private ownership and India’s 1.27 billion people home to the world’s youngest agricultural population, there is plenty of sources to draw on …
To read the FULL article and see all the additional statistics, pictures and history for FREE see it HERE; Coffee in India
Maja Wallengren has been writing about coffee for more than 20 years from over 45 coffee producing countries across South-East Asia, East and West Africa and across Latin America. She can be reached at