India Coffee Research Journey
We headed north for more than four hours after spending two wonderful days at Palthope Coffee Estate in the National Tiger Reserve. We then arrived at Chikmagalur district, and stayed a night at a 160-year old club, of which its exclusive members are all coffee farmers! Here we found an old picture of one of their renown past club presidents, Mr L.P. Kent, who was responsible for developing the famous Indian Typica variety: Kent! And the surprises for any coffee nerd did not just end there.
The next day, we visited a Hindu temple that sits on a 2000-metre mountain top situated in the Baba Budan range of the Western Ghats of India. Legend has it that Baba Budan, a 16th-century Sufi (also known as a Muslim saint), introduced to India its first coffee plant by smuggling in seven coffee seeds, hidden in his walking stick, from the port of Mocha, Yemen. At this peak, we could overlook the entire mountain range covered in greens, many of which are trees towering over coffee plants that were invisible to us due to their need for shades in this dry climate.
It is baffling to think that we might have touched ground at the very first coffee origin of India. And some of these coffee plantations that were in view belong to our host Jacob Mammen, owner of Badra Estates. The 56-year-old family business cultivates some of India's best shade-grown estate coffees and has been working closely with Dr Steffen Schwarz (the organiser of this trip) from Coffee Consulate and Amarella for over ten years.
Coffee Consulate came with a team of scientists (experienced microbiologist and chemist) to conduct intense experiments on different coffee fermentation effects with well over two hundred types of yeasts. They went right to work once they had reached the processing plant of Badra Estates, setting up a temporary research lab with rigorous control over the environment, equipment, and other variables over their subjects of coffee cherries during harvest. As part of the learning experience, we had the privilege to partially document and gain deeper insight into their experiments
Scientific coffee experiments as such are bound to their stringency, it is more than just pouring yeasts, wine, liquid gas, or orange juice into the fermentation tank and taste if there is a difference suitable for a new marketing gimmick. It has to have a clear direction with minimised noise, and also considered for the different physical and chemical characteristics of the different species and varieties in their subjects; species and variety play a huge role in India's coffee industry due to their quality and plantation requirements, in order to administer the right yeast (details of the experiments will be omitted with respect to the confidentiality of the project).
One of our missions on this trip was to collect visual materials for coffee education and to learn about the current conditions and challenges that the Indian coffee industry is facing. With the connection to Badra, we got to visit the Central Coffee Research Institute (CCRI) run by the Indian Government. CCRI is the country’s leading research facility in coffee. Our host Dr N. Surya Prakash Rao gave us a brief introduction to the history of how coffee developed in India, and how they have collected vast amount of knowledge and experiences while combating coffee diseases and drought, giving birth to some of the most unique varieties that can strive in India’s hostile conditions, such as SLN 9, SLN13, S. 795 and etcetera. Over the years, they have collected and categorised 290 different Arabica varieties, 73 Canephora varieties, and 17 miscellaneous species of coffee, all for the study of how to continuously improve coffee cultivation in the nation.
Aligned with Coffee Consulate’s consistently down-to-earth approach to coffee, we have learnt that this science project was never to discover or create a niche specialty coffee (plus or minus a few points in the 90 range) with minute sensorial distinctness so that it can be auctioned in the market for an astronomical price. It is to find, within the hundreds of fermentation experiments, methods that are both feasible and repeatable in order to effectively improve overall coffee quality and productivity at a greater scale. The goal is to find sustainable solutions to aid the deteriorating economic and climatic situations that coffee farmers from around the world have to face every day.