Indian coffee’s first lady

In her more than 40 years in the industry, Sunalini Menon has watched many in her nation of tea drinkers change their attitude towards her drink of choice. At the same time, she’s witnessed the world begin to take coffee from her homeland more seriously. “When I would travel I would tell people I was in coffee and they would turn around and say: ‘You mean tea?’,” says Menon, who started out as a Taster for the Indian Coffee Board in 1972. “Indian coffee was just a filler on the world market, it was just used to fill in the crevices of the coffee cup.” Coffee in India has a long and storied history. Legend has it that the Sufi saint, Baba Budan, brought coffee to the subcontinent way back in the 17th Century when he smuggled seven seeds from Mocha, Yemen, and planted them in the hills of Chikmagalur. However, for much of the time since then, Indian coffee has not been taken seriously on the world stage. Menon, who now runs her own coffee consultancy, Coffeelab, says it was the liberalisation of the Indian coffee industry in the mid 1990s, followed by a crash in world prices, that was the impetus for the nation’s farmers to start to focus on the quality of their products. “That’s when I think farmers realised that they had to look not just at growing coffee, which had been their focus up until that time, but also at how it was processed, and that is when Coffeelab came into the picture.” Now, she says, coffee in India is a cultural force as well as a valuable export. “Indian coffee used to be considered a very dull and boring drink, and today there is such a change in attitudes – coffee is like hip-hop, it’s very happening. Every little corner there is a café opening up and young people now have this space where they can hang out with friends and drink coffee.” When Menon started a project working directly with about 20 farmers around the country, this was unfamiliar territory in her capacity as a Taster.  She was used to evaluating the beans after they had been picked and processed, but now she was working with the coffee as a fruit. “I started reading up and I realised how similar coffee is to grapes and I thought I would try to dabble in the processing and see how we could improve things there,” she says. It was through this experimentation that Menon started to appreciate just how different coffee could be, not just from farm to farm, but even from field to field. “Each individual field on the farm can produce coffee that is different from another field on the same farm, and it’s very interesting trying to highlight the intrinsic attributes of the coffee from each individual field.” Highlighting those unique attributes all comes down to processing, she says: “Processing is a huge Pandora’s Box – once you open it up there is just so much inside. If I do a fermenting time of 16 hours for one farm, it doesn’t mean that I should do 16 hours for the farm next door – in fact, on some farms we do not have to do any fermentation because the flavours of the beans are so good already.” While these discoveries are exciting, the practice of experimenting with a farmers’ crops – and hence their livelihoods – has also been nerve-wracking, she says. “Sometimes I would hope that the farmer would say: ‘I’m sorry, we cannot experiment [with this crop]’,” she says. “It used to make me feel so worried – when we did work on something I used to run back to the lab because I wanted to cup it as soon as possible to see if I was right or wrong.” Given how long and testing this process can be, Menon has learned to work only with the most committed of farmers. “The farmer has to come to this of his own volition,” she says. “I always tell them that it is a very hard journey that is going to cost a lot of money – from overhauling the processing through to evaluation and packaging – I try to dissuade him. But when he says I am still willing to do this, then I know he is serious and I will work with him to get the best out of his produce.” This approach has yielded results. Menon’s work has been instrumental in the development of prominent Indian coffee brands such as Buttercup Bold and Temple Mountain. She has also worked outside of India in training coffee farmers on the technical aspects of quality, inspiring them to build their brands for the world market. Another specialty brand that Menon has helped to develop in recent years is Veer Attikan, which has proven very successful in the Australian specialty market. Specialty, however, is not a word that Menon takes lightly. “I firmly believe that specialty is a word that should come from the buyers, not the sellers,” she says. “When we present a coffee from the farmers we take off the ‘ty’ – I say it is only a special coffee, let the buyers decide if it is deserving of the name specialty.” After more than 40 years in the industry and so many achievements to her name, Menon could be forgiven for taking her foot off the accelerator a little. However she appears to have no intention of doing anything of the sort. “I still remember when I used to set up the Indian coffee booth at international conferences, people would just walk away like our coffee was rubbish and I would think to myself, one day they will come to my booth to buy our coffee and I will turn around and say sorry, we are all sold out!” Now, she has set her sights even higher: “I would like to be able to see one super specialty coffee from India shining on the world market – that has been my goal for the past 40 years. I think I’m on the right path, but I have a long way to go.” GCR

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