Though India is typically perceived as a tea growing and drinking country, coffee was actually cultivated in India before tea. According to legend, the Indian hermit and later Sufi saint, Baba Budan smuggled seven coffee beans from Yemen in the 1670s and planted the beans in a remote mountain region called Chikmagalar.
British colonialists established the first coffee plantations in the 1840s. Less than twenty years later, in the 1860s, coffee leaf rust ran amok in epidemic-level proportions, forcing many farmers and plantations to switch to Robusta or other hearty varietals such as Liberica (an Arabica-Robusta blend).
Indian Coffee and Europe
India is particularly well known for Monsooned Malabar, a unique coffee that was extremely popular in Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The journey from India to Europe took approximately 6 months and the coffee, which sat in the hull of the ship, would absorb moisture from the sea and the humid wind. The moisture led the beans to swell to a larger size and turn a pale brown color. The taste of the coffee became smoother, softer and fuller. Today, though shipping technology has advanced and allowed the control of moisture in hulls, the demand for Monsooned Malabar remains, leading some producers to recreate the conditions of this particular coffee using special setups to take advantage of the monsoon winds.
Arabica beans from India were known in the European market as “Mysore” coffee. However, the turmoil of WWII cut India off from European sales, leading the “Mysore” brand to disappear from public consciousness during that period. Today, coffee is largely marketed as being “from India.”
Indian Coffee Production Today
Today, India is the sixth largest producer of coffee in the world, though the majority of their production, about two-thirds, is Robusta. Most of India’s coffee is grown in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, three southern states in India. With the exception of Tamil Nadu, these states produce far more Robusta than Arabica beans.
A significant portion of coffee is grown in the Western Ghats, which, older than the Himalayas, are registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Western Ghats feature thick tree canopies and a complex forest ecosystem that influences Indian monsoon weather patterns.
Forty-two percent of the coffee growing lands in India are tribal lands, land belonging to indigenous Indians who are persistently threatened with loss of their land by the government for government use. On tribal lands, crops are most often managed in traditional ways, usually organically with mostly shade grown, which is thought to give coffee a unique taste.
Dry-processed or natural dried coffees are called “cherry”. Wet-processed or washed Arabica coffee is called “plantation A” and wet-processed Robusta is termed “parchment Robusta”