Market Reports

India’s small lot coffees come of age

Perhaps India’s international reputation as a single-origin heavyweight was sealed when its first micro-lot joined the elite line of coffees at Starbucks Reserve Roastery late last year and sold out shortly after. Tata Coffee Limited’s Nullore Estate, a single origin Arabica grown in Karnataka’s Kodagu district in Coorg, travelled almost 13,000 kilometres to be featured in the American coffee giant’s flagship premium store in Seattle, Washington. Connoisseurs revelled in the intensely aromatic coffee, characterised by notes of lemon, caramel, toasted nuts, and chocolate. “This is quite a breakthrough for India,” says Sunalini Menon, the expert consultant for Indian coffees, who helped the estate redefine its coffee through better processing techniques and quality standards. Menon has worked in India’s coffee industry for more than 40 years, both for the Coffee Board of India and through her Coffeelab consultancy. She believes Nullore’s shelf performance underscores what a growing number of international retailers and consumers are coming to realise about Indian coffee. The country’s micro-lots are commanding increasingly high premiums from markets in Australia, Europe, the United States and Asia. As the world starts to recognise India as a single origin contender, Menon says the journey to elevate its coffee reputation and quality from filler beans to world-prized batches was long and arduous. She believes the turning point was the liberalisation of the industry in 1995, followed by the world market price crash soon after. “I think when the prices dropped the farmers realised they had to look at their own in-house quality,” she says. “They weren’t aware of what quality was all about. They didn’t know where or how to sell their coffee. That was the first time I think they woke up.” Menon says the other challenge was that growers weren’t aware of different nuances in the cup, and that strains should be processed individually to help coffees reach their full potential. “They only started to realise this as more buyers started asking about product differentiation and communicating what they were looking for in their coffee purchase,” she says. Menon has since worked with many estates to help improve quality and unique value proposition in the cup through better agricultural and processing practices. She has also helped develop prominent Indian coffee brands such as Buttercup Bold, Veer Attikan and Temple Mountain, to name a few. “Once more farmers started realising each strain had to be processed separately, they could focus on highlighting the nuances of each coffee through variation in processing techniques.” One of her earlier pet projects to get an international brand makeover is Araku Coffee, a café-store featuring coffee grown by tribal farmers in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Launched in Paris’ trendy upper Marais neighbourhood last February, the joint venture between Naandi Foundation and various private investors is stepping up to spread the brand globally. Araku Valley is located in the Eastern Ghats of India, at an elevation between 900 and 1100 metres above sea level. It is home to around 150 different tribal communities. While introduced to the region by a British man in 1898, coffee cultivation only caught on when the Girijan Cooperative Corporation and India’s Coffee Board saw it as an opportunity to encourage a more lucrative means of employment. Between 1975 and 1995, cultivation soared to 20,000 hectares from next to nothing. “This coffee is one of my babies,” says Menon, who worked with tribal farmers and the Naandi Foundation to set up a process to maintain consistency in quality. She also helped establish the Gems of Araku competition among farmers in the region to help them realise they could fetch serious rewards with better quality. The competition was held for five years, when buyers from around the world were invited to judge the quality of these coffees, resulting in some premium prices accruing to the farmers. Araku Coffee’s Paris store launched with five variants. On its website, a 200 gram tin of Grande Réserve retails at about US$20.69. “I think we started off on a fabulous journey over there, though when I was working with the Foundation and the tribal farmers it seemed a distant dream.” Menon says a number of Coffee Board of India initiatives and increasing local coffee consumption have also helped push a focus on quality. The Flavour of India Fine Cup Award, for instance, was launched in 2002 as an annual competition for producers. It has since inspired some of India’s finest coffee in both Arabica and Robusta categories. “That was a good move because I think that shook (farmers) up a bit,” says Menon. “That spirit of competition transcended down to the quality of their produce.” She says the Coffee Board of India also offered a program that helped farmers replace old equipment. “I think it was a nice combination of the Coffee Board and private sector working together to see how they can improve the quality of coffee.” The journey may have been long, but India’s single origin and estate-branded specialty coffees are earning competitive prices on the international market. Menon says there are several other up-and-coming single origins worth noting, including Taste of Freedom, which sold its first lot to a company whose name meant Liberation in Korea, Ganga, Jal, Sethuraman Sitara, Badra Pearls and Papakuchi Coffee. Menon has also helped a number of other estates prepare internationally-acclaimed arabicas, including Veer Attikan Estate in the mountainous range of Billigiri. Veer is the Sanskrit word for valiant or victorious. It is an apt definition of the coffee’s market performance since the estate started to process its variants blockwise, as per Coffeelab’s suggestions. The brand has found success in Japan, South Korea, Australia, Europe and the United Sates. Temple Mountain is also a well-known single origin Arabica, deriving from none other than an estate in the Bababudan hills – where the 16th century Sufi Baba Budan is reported to have brought and planted India’s seven original coffee seeds from the port of Mocha, Yemen. Named after the temple on the farm’s adjoining mountain, the estate’s coffee can be found on shelves in South Korea, Japan and Europe. But maybe some of the most surprising micro-lots to gain international spotlight are some of India’s Robusta varieties. Menon says the underdog of the coffee industry should not be overlooked. “We’ve been able to look at Arabica and Robusta on an even platform,” she says. The first single-origin coffee from India was a Robusta from a farm in the region of Kutta in 1994. When Menon first tasted the Buttercup Bold coffee, she realised the uniqueness of its cup and its potential, enabling its branding. Today, this brand has established itself as a mainstay in the German market. “I told this farmer that he’s sitting on a gold mine,” she says. Papakuchi is another single origin Robusta from an estate located in the colourful coffee region of Coorg. The coffee grown under fruit trees has enthralled buyers in Korea and Germany. Menon says attention to processing and cultivar is essential to getting the most out of Robusta. Washing is difficult due to the cherry’s thick mucilage, and therefore requires increased fermenting time. With the right care, she believes buyers can expect beans that are very bold with brightness, and flavour notes of chocolate and specks of fruit in between. For the fourth year in a row, the Harley estate of Classic Synergy bagged the title of Best Specialty Robusta in India, in the Flavour of India Fine Cup Award 2016, which was received at the SCAE’s World of Coffee 2016 event. The high achiever is based in Sakleshpur. “India is one of the few countries in the world market that sells high-quality premium-differentiated Robusta,” says Menon. GCR

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