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How coffee came to India?

I love my morning cup of coffee. I am one of those people who shouldn’t be allowed to meet or talk to anyone until the caffeine kicks in. No, that’s not true. But I know a lot of people who can’t live without their cups of coffee. It is a cool beverage loved by people of all ages. Love coffee as much as you like, you have the Ethiopians to thank for it. But thanks are also due to one more person. The man who smuggled coffee to India.

The history of coffee dates back to the 15th century, with many reports and legends about its first use. The earliest evidence of its consumption has been traced to the Sufi monasteries of Yemen in the 15th century. From there, it soon spread to Mecca and Medipol. Over the years, the sale or transport of coffee from these regions was banned by the religious leaders n Mecca and Cairo. Later on, even the Catholic Church banned its movement. However, it was smuggled out and spread to Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

Coffee came to India long before The East India Company. In the seventeenth century, an Indian Sufi saint – Baba Budan went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. He made his journey from the port of Mocha (If this is not a sign, I don’t know what is!) overlooking the Red Sea, in Yemen. At that time, Mocha was a trading hub of coffee. Besides being a trade hub, it was also the source of these Mocha coffee beans. While in Mocha, Baba Budan discovered coffee in the form of a dark, sweet liquid called Qahwa. He found this Qahwa to be very refreshing. At that time, coffee, which had been discovered over a century ago in Ethiopia, was being kept as an Arab monopoly. Export of coffee was only permitted as roasted coffee, raw coffee beans, and seeds were not allowed to be transported out of the territory.

But did I tell you Baba Budan was an awesome Indian Sufi saint? He probably realized that the world needs to be introduced to this awesome beverage. This is what I think, I don’t know why he decided to do what he did. So, our awesome Baba Budan hid seven coffee seeds in his beard (Not a huge fan of big beards but well, it got us coffee, didn’t it!) and brought them back with him to India. Now there are different versions here. Some say Baba Budan hid the seeds in his beard, some say he hid it in his chest. I don’t know where he hid them, and I feel its more important that he smuggled those seeds out. As a pilgrim on his haj, he was spared an overt examination (Thank God!). He was probably smiling all along his trip back to India (again, speculation, my Lord), thinking how he had just pulled off quite a coup against the Arabs. He came back to his hermitage in the hills of Chikmagalur. It was here, in these hills (now called Baba Budan hills) that he planted these seeds. Now we don’t know how many of those seeds germinated and exactly what happened after that.

This is the first time raw coffee seeds came to India, but not the first time coffee itself came to India. In Hazel Colaco’s book ‘A cache of coffee’, it has been said that coffee first emerged along the Malabar coast of India thanks to the Arab traders. There is also evidence of its presence in the Mughal India, seen from Edward Terry’s quote in the court of Jehangir in 1616 AD –

“Many of the people in Mughal India who are strict in their religion drink no wine at all. But they use a liquor more wholesome and pleasant, they call it coffee… it is very good to help in digestion, to quicken spirits and to cleanse the blood.”

However, the coffee trees were first grown in Chikmanglur by Baba Budan, which is why Chikmanglur is considered to be the birthplace of coffee in India. With time, coffee grew from backyard plantings to full-fledged cultivation in India. Coffee cultivation in India thrived during the British times and beyond. Even other colonies in India – like the Dutch colony in the Malabar region began to grow coffee.

The British led a relentless effort to set up Arabica coffee plantations in India. The hilly areas of South India were perfect for coffee cultivation. The commercial coffee plantation started in India thanks to an ambitious British manager named JH Jolly who then worked at Parry & Co. He felt that the coffee beans growing in the Chandragiri plantations had a lot of potential. Consequently, he sent a petition to the Maharaja of Mysore to provide 40 acres of land to grow the coffee. When this plantation became successful, other people also felt encouraged to invest in growing coffee.

Monsoon Malabar or Monsooned Malabar Coffee

During those colonial times, the coffee beans were transported from India to Europe via sea routes from the Malabar coast of India, all around Africa, further on to ports of Europe. During transport, the humidity and the salty sea winds caused the coffee to ripen from fresh green to a more aged pale yellow. The ships used during those times were usually wooden, and in the monsoon, it would take almost six months to sail all way around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope. During this time, the environmental conditions of the sea would change the size, texture, and appearance of the coffee beans, leading to a very different coffee when it finally reached the consumer’s cups. When transportation improved and eventually when the Suez Canal was constructed, the beans were protected from the humid and salty sea weather, and the transportation times also shortened. The coffee would not taste as it used to when transportation was via the old wooden vessels via the longer route. That typical depth of flavor was lost. The consumers in Europe demanded the same old sea-treated coffee. Producers eventually worked to develop an alternative process to replicate the sea conditions to yield the same old flavor of the coffee. This coffee is produced and sold even today. It is the Monsoon Malabar or Monsooned Malabar Coffee.

The Monsoon Malabar Coffee generally never scores as high as all specialty coffees. As a thumb rule, during coffee cupping following the standard rules, any coffee that scores above 80 is regarded as specialty coffee. The Monsoon Malabar coffee often doesn’t follow these rules. However, owing to immense consumer demand, this coffee is still produced and sold as specialty coffee in India and abroad.

Today, coffee is home to not one or two but SIXTEEN unique varieties of coffee. The coffee crop has adapted to the Indian climate and has its unique characteristics. Indian coffee is grown in thick natural shade in the Western and Eastern Ghats in the states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. However, it is not limited to these regions. Coffee is also grown in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh. India is the sixth-largest coffee producer in the world today. 65% of India’s coffee production comes from Karnataka while 15% comes from Tamil Nadu and 20% comes from Kerala.

Indian shade-grown coffee is unique. Most other countries do not use cultivate coffee in the shade of thick canopies of trees. Both Arabica and Robusta coffee is grown in shade in India. The heavy shade contributes to the unique flavor profile of Indian coffees. The flavor is also influenced by the terroir, the weather, the spices grown around coffee, and the fauna living around coffee. Increasingly, Indian coffee estates are shifting towards sustainable coffee cultivation and preservation of biodiversity. Indian coffee is generally exported to Europe, Japan, and the Middle East.

I would strongly urge everyone to buy coffee from Indian coffee estates to support Indian coffee growers. If you need any help with buying coffee, drop me a line in the comments or reach my Instagram @banjaranfoodie, I will be happy to help you.

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