Unveiling the Richness of Indian Specialty Coffee: An In-depth Guide

Everything you need to know about Indian specialty coffee 

Known for its rich tea plantations, India has been slowly carving out a space over the years in the specialty coffee industry as a sought after origin for many roasters.

The peninsula’s unique terroir, helped in imparting distinct flavors and aromas to the beans, from nutty and chocolatey, spicy and bold to fruity and floral. The coffee-growing regions of India, such as Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh and more recently the Northeastern regions offer diverse microclimates and altitudes, contributing to the wide array of flavors and remarkable spectrum of tastes, so distinct from Indian coffee.

In recent years the country known for its commercial production and sale of robusta exported all over the world, has been putting an emphasis on producing high quality specialty coffees. With the burgeoning coffee culture developing in the country and internationally, Indian coffee producers have been focusing more of their efforts into perfecting the process of producing specialty coffees and have been investing into getting the proper facilities to increase their production without compromising the quality of the coffee bean.

Although India has been trying to share more lights on its rich specialty coffee offering, many roasters and specialty coffee importers are still unaware of the fact that they can source these exceptional coffees. Lack of information and a difficulty to discover and connect directly with Indian producers has made it difficult for the world to experience the richness of Indian specialty coffee. 

This blog will be your ultimate guide to the history of coffee and specialty coffee in India and how to source it in the most sustainable & seamless way possible.

The origins of Indian coffee

The origins of coffee in India finds its beginning in a mystic legend that would forever change the landscape of Indian agriculture. Forbidding the sale of the precious coffee seeds, the Arabs wanted to gatekeep the trade of coffee. That was until Baba Budan an Indian Sufi saint returning from his pilgrimage from Mecca and passing by Yemen smuggled seven coffee beans in his beard before planting them  Karnataka, where the Baba Budan Hills became the birthplace of coffee cultivation in India. 

In the 19th century during the British colonial era, coffee plantations were established on a larger scale. The British recognized India's favorable climate and fertile soil that was ideal for coffee cultivation, with the cultivation of Robusta gaining prominence due to its resilience and suitability for the subcontinent weather conditions. Ideal climate, fertile soil, and high elevations provided the perfect conditions for coffee plants to thrive across the regions of Chikmagalur, Coorg, and Nilgiris, leading to the establishment of large scale producing estates. These estates played a crucial role in shaping India's coffee industry, laying the foundation for its global recognition.

India's coffee industry flourished with the cultivation of two primary varieties of coffee beans - Arabica and Robusta. Arabica, grown in the hilly regions, offered a smooth and aromatic flavor, while Robusta, cultivated in the lower altitudes, had a stronger and more robust taste. 

Post-independence, the Indian government took several initiatives to boost the coffee industry. Established in 1942, the Coffee Board of India emerged to regulate and promote coffee production. 

Supporting research and development and implementing quality standards, it introduced various schemes to support farmers, and encouraged exports, helping India's coffee production to expand in other regions, such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh, enhancing the Indian coffee diversity of flavors and profiles. In more recent years, the Northeastern regions (Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura and Mizoram) have been added to the list of producing regions.

It’s only between 1980s-1990s that the Indian subcontinent began to focus on specialty and premium coffees, catering to the growing global demand for high-quality and unique coffee offerings, resulting in some very famous coffee,  known and sought after worldwide.

The classic names of  Indian specialty coffee: 

From the delicate and nuanced Arabica beans to the bold and caffeine-rich Robusta, India specialty coffee presents a delightful spectrum of flavors and aromas each singular of their region of origin, we’ve listed the most famous ones below : 

  • The Monsooned Malabar

Unique to India, Monsooned Malabar Arabica beans undergo a distinctive curing process. Carefully handpicked at the right ripeness level, the outer skin of the coffee cherries is then removed during the pulping process. The beans, still covered in their mucilage, are then transferred to fermentation tanks or barrels where they are left to ferment for around 24 to 48 hours, allowing the natural enzymes to break down the mucilage layer. After fermentation, the coffee beans are thoroughly washed before being  spread out on large open patios or raised drying beds, left to dry under the open sky for several weeks. Once the initial drying phase is complete, the beans are transferred to special warehouses or curing yards that allow exposure to the moisture-laden monsoon winds, spread out in thin layers and left to absorb moisture from the humid air. The process takes several weeks, and during this time, the beans undergo physical changes, increasing in size, becoming pale yellow, and developing a unique flavor. 

The extended exposure to the monsoon winds and humidity during the curing process is what gives Monsooned Malabar coffee its distinct flavor profile, characterized by a mellow and low-acidity taste, earthy and musty notes, and a unique complexity. This process has been traditionally carried out in the coastal regions of Karnataka and Kerala, where the monsoon winds are most prominent.

  • Mysore Nuggets Extra Bold: 

Hailing from the Baba Budan Giri region of Karnataka, Mysore Nuggets Extra Bold stands out as a premium coffee variety. After harvesting, the coffee cherries are processed to extract the beans by removing the outer skin. Still covered in their mucilage, they then undergo fermentation where they are placed in fermentation tanks or barrels, allowing natural enzymes to break down the mucilage. This  fermentation period typically lasts around 24 to 48 hours, after which  the beans are thoroughly washed to remove any remaining mucilage. Spread out on large drying patios or raised beds to dry, they are exposed to sunlight and air for two weeks, during which the moisture content of the beans reduces significantly, before the outer parchment layer is removed through a process called hulling.

Renowned for its large size, this specialty coffee is a full-bodied cup, paired with pleasant acidity, and distinctive hints of chocolate and spices. 

  • Robusta Kaapi Royale:

Primarily grown in the Chikmagalur region of Karnataka, the Robusta Kaapi Royale is made from high-quality Robusta coffee beans that are carefully handpicked and processed, going through the same process method as the Mysore Nuggets. 

Standing  out for its exceptional quality and unique flavor characteristics, this rich specialty Robusta coffee has a bold and intense flavor profile with a full-bodied texture. Known for its strong, earthy notes, hint of dark chocolate, and a pleasant bitterness, Robusta Kaapi Royale is often used in espresso blends due to its ability to provide a rich crema and strong coffee base. 

  • Araku Valley Coffee: 

Recently added to the list of classics, the Arabica Araku Coffee is a specialty coffee produced in the picturesque Araku Valley.  Located in the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh, known for its unique microclimate, elevation, and fertile soil, which contribute to the exceptional quality of the coffee grown there. The region's altitude, ranging from 900 to 1,100 meters above sea level, provides favorable conditions for growing high-quality coffee, mainly Arabica coffee beans.

The most common processing methods used in Araku Valley include both the washed (wet) process and the natural (dry) process; once done the processed beans are then sun dried for several weeks. 

Known for its bright acidity, Araku coffee displays delicate floral and citrusy notes, with a clean and refreshing finish, singular of the rich biodiversity and sustainable farming practices of the region.

Although labeled as “specialty” the coffees above, do not quite fit into the definition of specialty coffee and the standard to qualify as such set by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA)

For a coffee to be labeled as specialty it must score above 80 on the SCA grading scale

The growing demand for specialty coffee is pushing more and more Indian producers to shift from the production of commodity coffees and concentrate most of their efforts in producing exceptional quality specialty coffees. Most of the time, if not all the time, roasters and importers are unaware that India is home to remarkable specialty coffees and overlook India as a potential sourcing origin. Lack of education about Indian specialty coffees, lack of access to the market and difficulty importing directly from producers, are all added challenges that make it a hassle for the precious beans to leave the subcontinent and become a roaster’s favorite. 

The Eteakol Advantage: leveraging the platform’s discovery and sourcing solutions 

Boasting an extensive network of coffee producers, selected for their sustainable and ethical production methods, Eteakol enables both producers and global buyers to connect and start meaningful relationships. By shedding more light on Indian specialty coffees, the platform aims to connect producers and buyers contributing to the socio-economic development of coffee-growing communities in India. By helping them diversify their customer base when joining the network of partner producers, they increase their revenue, which in turn leads to investment in better infrastructure, helping them be as competitive as their South-American & African counterparts in terms of quality and SCA score. 

By having a local presence in India Eteakol is able to partner with small scale coffee producers and cooperatives, acting as the exporter on record and facilitating trade between roasters and Indian producers. Since mid-2022, the discovery & sourcing platform has been able to onboard family run estate such as Anai Kadu,  female run coffee estate such as Madhu Plantation & Rasulpur Coffee Estate and more recently Ratnagiri Estate which focuses mainly on Arabica specialty coffees (87.75 SCA). 

In conclusion…

As the demand for specialty coffee continues to grow, Indian producers are shifting their focus towards producing exceptional quality coffees. This shift, coupled with platforms like Eteakol, holds the potential to elevate the Indian specialty coffee industry to new heights, allowing it to compete with renowned coffee origins from South America and Africa.

The specialty coffee community must actively challenge its biases and recognize the exceptional coffees produced by Indian coffee growers. It is imperative not to overlook the immense talent and dedication of these producers. Roasters and importers should seize the opportunity to explore the incredible offerings Indian producers have  and appreciate the unique flavors and profiles they bring to the table. By embracing Indian coffee origins, roasters and importers can uncover hidden gems and forge meaningful partnerships that contribute to the growth and recognition of these exceptional coffees. 

It is time to break free from preconceived notions and embrace the revolution brewing in Indian specialty coffee.

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