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Discovering the BBTC Coffee Varietal

I have mentioned before that I maintain a thorough record of every specialty coffee I try in an Excel Sheet, right? It contains the name of the coffee, the name of the plantation, the name of the roaster, the process the coffee underwent, the roast level of the coffee beans, the tasting notes, and the varietal. This gives me an idea of what I am trying and tasting, and maybe when I get down to it, discover patterns and trends in my observations. Recently, I got to try a new coffee varietal – the BBTC. It was grown at the Balanoor Plantations and was roasted by Alchemist Roasters.

I had interviewed Rohan Kuriyan from Balanoor Plantations earlier last year and if you have missed that interview, you can read the same here:

Quite an interesting interview, isn’t it?

Let’s get back to talking about the BBTC varietal. It took quite some digging and some cool conversations before I was able to find some details about this varietal.

So, what is BBTC?

BBTC stands for Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Ltd. Usually just called Bombay Burmah Trading Company, it was founded by the Wallace Brothers of Scotland in 1863. It is India’s second oldest publicly quoted company. It was established to engage in the Burmese tea business by taking over the Burmese assets of William Wallace. Fast forward to the 1940s, BBTC was purchased from the Wallace Brothers by the Vissanji family around the time India got independence. Fast forward again to 1992, BBTC was acquired and merged in BCL Springs. Further down the timeline, BBTC was acquired by Mumbai’s Wadia group.

BBTC had expansive coffee plantations until recently. As of writing this blog, they are in the process of selling off their coffee plantations.

BBTC, the coffee varietal, was developed by the BBTC, the company. It is a privately developed strain so information in the public domain is hard to come by. BBTC is essentially a cross between the Caturra varietal and the Hibrido de Timor varietal. It belongs to the Catimor family. For the uninitiated, Hibrido de Timor is a spontaneous Arabusta hybrid, meaning, a cross between Arabica and Robusta. It was discovered at the Timor island (hence, the name Hibrido de Timor, meaning hybrid of Timor) and is extensively used in Arabica breeding programs for incorporating leaf rust resistance by most Arabica growing communities around the world. So, BBTC is a cross between an Arabica varietal – Caturra and an Arabusta – Hibrido de Timor. It was originally developed for getting a better crop yield and better resistance to leaf rust, the coffee berry disease, and the nematodes of the Meloidogyne species. More varietals similar to the BBTC in the Catimor family have since been developed, such as Brazilian Catimor, Colombian Catimor, and Ruiru – II.

The BBTC coffee section at Balanoot Plantations, Picture Courtesy: Balanoor Plantations,

The farmers I spoke to about BBTC mentioned that BBTC was a kind of upgrade to the Catimor. The Catimor varietal was introduced to the farmers sometime in the early nineties and BBTC came to them soon after. However, BBTC was usually privately acquired. It is especially prevalent around the Kodaikanal coffee-growing belt in Tamil Nadu. 2005-2010 was the golden period of BBTC where there were a lot of plantations growing this varietal. At that time, some farmers claimed, BBTC had exceptional disease resistance and would give bumper yields. BBTC was a medium-dwarf varietal, somewhat taller than the dwarf plants of the San Ramon varietal, and it was usually planted in a 5×5 or a 6×6 planting scheme. It has been found that there are two types of BBTC generally being cultivated – one with green tips and the other with bronze tips. The green tips BBTC is usually found to be a better performer in the field compared to the bronze tips. However, I did not find scientific evidence to back this, this is more of an observation from the farmers.

However, since then, more varietals have been introduced that offered better attributes, and the interest in keeping up the cultivation of BBTC has dwindled. With time, BBTC’s disease resistance has gone down and it is no longer the knight in the shining high-immunity armor for the planters. It also has significantly high variations between the on years and off years of the plant. For the uninitiated, coffee plants usually follow a bi-annual cycle where one year is the ‘on’ year during which farmers get a bumper yield from the crop, the year following would be the ‘off’ year during which the yields would be low to moderate but less than the previous year.

The BBTC coffee plant at Balanoot Plantations, Picture Courtesy: Balanoor Plantations,

Interestingly, BBTC has generally been observed to not have a very shining cup profile in a lot of cases. It does yield good cups, but not great ones. This is something I discovered in my conversations with the farmers. The balance between crop yield and cup profile for BBTC usually has been found to tip towards the yield more than it does towards the cup profile. However, this is not an absolute finding. A lot goes into deriving the final cup of coffee which gets graded. The BBTC I had from Balanoor and Alchemist was quite flavorful and made for a good cup. Most planters agreed that BBTC has unique flavor characteristics and is usually considered to be quite a unique varietal. Sadly, I discovered that BBTC is no longer the popular sought-after varietal it once used to be. Once the current crop finishes its life, planters are no longer re-cropping the BBTC. Farmers are increasingly mixing their BBTC yields with the other varietals to get better cup scores and better prices for their coffees.

The BBTC coffee plants at Balanoot Plantations, Picture Courtesy: Balanoor Plantations,

How was the Balanoor Washed BBTC?

BBTC was not a varietal I had tried before and the novelty factor of it sure played a contributing factor in driving me to buy this bag of coffee. I also like coffee labels that mention all the details neatly on their labels – I like knowing where my coffee came from. The label for this sure caught my attention and held it long enough till I paid for the coffee in Alchemist’s online store and made the purchase. Coffees from Balanoor never disappoint, so there’s added assurance there, plus, this one was ‘Rainforest certified’ (Coming to think of it, I should do a blog on what all these certifications and labels mean, don’t you think – like what is Rainforest Alliance, what is UTZ, what is organic, what is bird-friendly, etc. What do you think?)

The roaster’s cupping notes were lemon, berry, and mild spices. Well, they had me at lemon.

I have brewed this coffee on a V60, on a French Press, as a cold brew, and on the cupping measures. I’ve brewed it hot, iced, and cold. And, I am happy to say, I haven’t gotten a single disappointing cup yet, even as I near the end of my bag. The cups I got were juicy fresh. Doing my pulse pours with the French Press sometimes even got me more shining acidity than a V60 (This is something I do now, follow pulse pours and agitations in a French Press similar to how you would in a V60, and that has helped me derive great acidity in my cups). Despite the shining citric acidity, the cups never felt unpleasant or unpalatable. The coffee has been well-rounded with a lovely citrus aroma. That citrus note is the first hit I got when I opened the bag, I didn’t even have to poke my nose in to get a whiff, it hit me straight up immediately. I would slightly lean more towards brewing it as an Iced Pour Over and a Cold brew than as a hot brew, but all methods I have brewed it with have gotten me great cups.

So, as I said before, I don’t agree about BBTC not giving great cup profiles. However, take it with a pinch of salt, my experience with this varietal is only a bag of 250g from one plantation and one roaster, so I definitely cannot make an absolute claim from my limited experience here. But take it as something that is an observation from the farmers who have about two decades of experience growing this one. Also, how the cup will turn out, in my opinion, and I am no expert here, does not just depend on the plantation, there’s a lot of other factors, a lot of other skills that go into it. Again, just my opinion.

While digging into more information about BBTC, I got left with more questions than answers. At one time, the BBTC was an award-winning varietal – it has received the best specialty coffee awards from some plantations, and not so long ago, I am talking about the 2010s. From there to here today, BBTC has sure come a long way but haven’t we all. New varietals have been developed, the SLN numbers keep changing. My coffee sheet is highly dominated by SLN 795. How much of a role does the novelty factor pay when a consumer buys a bag of coffee? Would a consumer buy a coffee just because it was a varietal they had never tasted or heard of? Do they even notice what the varietal is when they buy a bag of coffee? If the novelty factor plays a role, does it lead to repeat purchases, or do the decisions become more rational or logical after the first buy? Should there be better documentation that could be easily accessible about these unique varietals, even if they were privately developed? As generations pass, information gets lost and somewhere down the line people wouldn’t even remember anything about a particular varietal? How much does history matter then?

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