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Updated Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 03:36 PM

As India gains strength, so does its coffee

By Melissa Allison
Seattle Times business reporter

Workers bring down bags of freshly picked Arabica in December at Badra Estates' Bettadakhan Estate in India.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Workers bring down bags of freshly picked Arabica in December at Badra Estates' Bettadakhan Estate in India. The forested plantation, located in a mountain range called the Bababudan Giris, is no stranger to coffee pests like Indian wild bison, elephants and king cobras.

CHIKMAGALUR REGION, INDIA —

Coffee in India, part two

Part 1: Starbucks is brewing a following in India, where tea is supreme. Read story →

More from this series:

Photos: India's coffee fields

Photos: India's tea plantations

The coffee beans in Jacob Mammen's hand look like they've been processed.

To some extent, the naked gray-green half-spheres have been — by a monkey, who ate the coffee fruit and spit out the seeds, which we call coffee beans.

Mammen fought the monkeys for years. Even now, he has workers walk around a forested coffee plantation firing noise-making "monkey guns" to scare them off.

"It doesn't work," he said. "The monkeys are smart. They know."

Hindu priest Shivashankar, in orange, at a temple high in the Bababudan Giris.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Hindu priest Shivashankar, in orange, at a temple high in the Bababudan Giris. According to legend, the 17th-century Muslim pilgrim Baba Budan smuggled coffee from Yemen, introducing the crop to India. Coffee fields are now visible in all directions.

So Mammen found a solution: He turned the beans into a boutique item, "monkey parchment" coffee, which he sells to roasters in Taiwan and Germany for about double their unchewed value.

His marketing savvy would not have been possible two decades ago, when the Indian government handled all coffee sales and sent a lot of low-quality coffee to the Soviet Union.

The way Mammen and other coffee farmers operate in India is in many ways emblematic of India's development into a global economic power.

Since the Indian government changed its policies and allowed farmers to take control of their own sales in the mid-'90s, India's coffee industry has seen a boost in quality and profits, and has taken a seat in gourmet coffee circles.

Even Starbucks has noticed. After years of buying very little Indian coffee, the chain is using it exclusively in espresso drinks at its recently opened shops in India.

Eventually, the granddaddy of specialty coffee expects to use Indian espresso in other countries, said John Culver, president of Starbucks' Asia-Pacific region. It operates the new stores with Mumbai-based Tata, a conglomerate that is one of Asia's largest coffee producers.

Women sort freshly picked coffee cherries at Badra Estates in December.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Women sort freshly picked coffee cherries at Badra Estates in December. Women often wear men's dress shirts over their saris while working in the fields. Despite benefits including maternity leave and free child care, India's coffee estates suffer from a labor shortage.

A late start

The story of Indian coffee is compelling in ways that farmers in more marketing-prone countries might seize on for a label.

The orange hues of a December sunrise illuminate the misty hills of Karnataka in southern India.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

The orange hues of a December sunrise illuminate the misty hills of Karnataka in southern India. Coffee is grown mostly in the south, including Karnataka, while tea is grown mostly in the north.

Kushma, a coffee worker of 25 years, wears a bindi like many Hindu women.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Kushma, a coffee worker of 25 years, wears a bindi like many Hindu women. She picks coffee at Balanoor Plantations, which also cultivates a variety of other crops including tea, coffee and rubber.

In India, they are part of a centuries-old way of life.

Aside from its romantic-sounding pests — monkeys, king cobras and elephants — Indian coffee is grown not just in the shade, but in forests that from the ground resemble the slopes of Washington's Cascade Mountains.

A baby lies in its crib at a Badra Estates coffee plantation.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A baby lies in its crib at a Badra Estates coffee plantation. Mothers traditionally apply kohl to a child's face to ward off the "evil eye."

Amrutha, 20, washes clothes outside worker housing at Badra Estates.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Amrutha, 20, washes clothes outside worker housing at Badra Estates. The company provides employees with free housing.

Its workers live in free multiroom homes and have government-mandated free child-care and pensions. Some make dinner using electric spice grinders and have satellite television.

"Bird-friendly and ethical coffee, I think we had before you even spoke about it, but we never marketed it," Mammen said. "Even now, we're very poor in marketing."

Coming from a man who sells "monkey parchment," that could be hyperbole.

But it is true that Indian coffee is not as celebrated as some coffees from Latin America, Indonesia and Africa. It is rarely used by U.S. specialty roasters, partly because it is so far away and partly because it is so little known.

Indian coffee also had a late start.

In the 1940s, India began pooling its coffee and paying farmers mostly for quantity, not quality. That continued until the '90s and meant India missed the start of the specialty coffee craze in the 1970s, when roasters from Seattle and elsewhere began searching the world for gourmet coffee.

Mammen recalls being frightened during his first visit to the annual convention of the Specialty Coffee Association of America in 1996.

He could handle questions like, "You grow tea. Are you sure you grow coffee?"

Of course he grows coffee. His great-grandfather bought coffee plantations from British owners.

But "What does your coffee taste like?"

"It tastes like coffee," thought Mammen, who drank Nescafe instant coffee at home. "Indian coffee used to taste like dishwater."

Today, although they have yet to crack the U.S. market, Mammen and others have spent time and money to improve their coffee and sell it to high-end roasters in Asia and Europe, including Illy in Italy.

A Hindu leader engages in puja, a religious ritual, for Balanoor Plantations workers after the workday.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A Hindu leader engages in puja, a religious ritual, for Balanoor Plantations workers after the workday. Balanoor has nine Hindu temples. The temple priests and religious leaders also work by day in the plantations.

Legend of Baba Budan

Despite its youth in specialty coffee, India was one of the first countries in the world to grow it.

Female workers hoist bags of Arabica into loading trucks at Balanoor Plantations in Karnataka.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Female workers hoist bags of Arabica into loading trucks at Balanoor Plantations in Karnataka. The Indian government pooled and sold farmers' coffee until the 1990s, when growers started marketing it themselves, improving quality and profits.

The crop was first cultivated in Ethiopia, and by the 1600s was hugely popular throughout the Ottoman Empire. The Turks boiled or roasted coffee beans before they left the Yemeni port of Mocha to keep them from being grown elsewhere, according to coffee historian and author Mark Pendergrast.

That is why, according to legend, a 17th-century Muslim pilgrim named Baba Budan taped seven coffee beans to his stomach and smuggled them to India.

The hills where he planted those beans are now known as the Bababudan Giris. A Hindu temple sits atop the highest peak, and coffee forests are visible in all directions.

To the west is the town of Chikmagalur, where growers still congregate at a members-only club. The walls are hung with animal heads and skins, and photographs of British coffee barons with tigers they shot at their feet.

When the British arrived in the 1600s, looking at first to break a Dutch monopoly on the spice trade, tea and coffee were "backyard crops" in India. Over the centuries, the British installed plantations. Tea, which is a much larger crop, is grown mostly in the north, while coffee is grown mostly in the south.

East of the mountaintop temple sits Mammen's 375-acre Arabica plantation, where workers shoot "monkey guns" and sometimes see tigers that live on a nearby preserve.

Path to better flavor

Sunalini Menon heads Coffeelab, a nine-person company that inspects coffee quality and advises farmers about how to improve the flavor of their coffee.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Sunalini Menon heads Coffeelab, a nine-person company that inspects coffee quality and advises farmers about how to improve the flavor of their coffee.

For many Indian coffee farmers, the path to better flavor and higher profits started with a woman named Sunalini Menon.

Formerly head of quality at the Coffee Board of India, Menon took early retirement when the government agency downsized in the 1990s. Although the Coffee Board did not focus on quality, Menon had created a small program in which some farmers were paid more for better-tasting coffee.

Now her nine-person Coffeelab in Bangalore inspects coffee quality for cafe chains and advises farmers about how to improve the flavor of their coffee.

Two-thirds of India's coffee is Robusta, the long-maligned sibling to gourmet coffee's preferred Arabica.

Jacob Mammen is managing director of India's Badra Estates.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Jacob Mammen is managing director of India's Badra Estates.

Although Robusta's reputation has improved, it still is not used by many high-end roasters, including Starbucks. It also remains unwelcome in the prestigious Cup of Excellence competition, which has brought high prices and fame to some coffee-producing farms and regions.

"That's so sad," Menon, a judge for the Cup of Excellence, says of Robusta's reputation for harsh flavor.

Robusta can be spicy and buttery if it is processed correctly, she said.

She has pushed India's farmers to wet-process their Robusta coffee as they do Arabica, even though Robusta beans can take twice as long to ferment.

"We don't just strip Robusta off the tree and say, 'Hey, Robusta's not a bad coffee.' It's a lot of work," said Mammen, standing in his new $200,000 Robusta processing facility. Roughly 65 percent of the coffee he grows is Robusta.

Robusta is harder to process and fetches lower prices than Arabica, but it remains appealing to farmers because the trees tend to be stronger and produce more coffee.

Indian coffee farmers also grow other crops, in part to protect themselves from low yields and cyclical coffee prices.

"We can't survive on coffee alone," Mammen said.

Thara, 30, works in Balanoor Plantations' tea fields in Karnataka in December.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Thara, 30, works in Balanoor Plantations' tea fields in Karnataka in December. Workers pluck tea by hand and with shears, then place the leaves in a bag slung on the head with a strap. Tea is manufactured year-round, while coffee is harvested only in certain seasons.

Ethical coffee

Tea is sometimes grown alongside coffee, even in the south.

One year, when both coffee and tea prices were down, peppercorns rescued Mammen.

India's coffee farmers also grow cocoa, cardamom, coconuts, areca nuts and timber.

The silver oak that they often plant for shade is not indigenous to India. Farmers like it because it grows fast and straight and stands high above coffee trees, which rarely reach higher than 7 feet.

Trading those for indigenous trees is one area in which Indian coffee farmers could improve sustainability, said Joke Aerts, manager of South Asia for the Rainforest Alliance's sustainable landscapes program.

They also could stop rinsing fertilizer bags and spraying equipment in streams, Aerts said. "There's always room for improvement."

But compared with some coffee-growing countries, she said, India already has many of the basics covered.

India's coffee always has been grown under heavy shade.

Children pray before eating lunch at Balanoor Government Higher Primary School.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Children pray before eating lunch at Balanoor Government Higher Primary School, built by the plantation in the 1990s for workers' children. The government pays the school's salaries and other expenses.

Poornima, 24, holds her son Ganesh, 2, inside worker housing at Badra Estates.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Poornima, 24, holds her son Ganesh, 2, inside worker housing at Badra Estates. In addition to free housing, under government regulations, coffee workers receive a set wage — currently about $4 a day. (India's average income is $1,490 a year.)

The government mandates a minimum wage for workers, which this year is about $4 a day. (India's average income is $1,490 a year.) Coffee and tea laborers also receive free housing, maternity leave, child care, pensions and other benefits.

Mammen's cousin, Rohan Kuriyan, remembers being proud as a child when his father built a new four-classroom schoolhouse on their Balanoor Plantations, which includes 1,650 acres of coffee and tea near Mammen's Badra Estates.

The extended family still shares ownership of the coffee, tea, rubber, teak and newspaper businesses, but they are managed separately.

Scrambling for workers

Despite the benefits they offer, India's coffee estates are suffering from a labor shortage.

There are so few permanent workers at Balanoor that only two of the school's classrooms are used.

Many laborers, especially young ones, prefer jobs in growing cities such as Bangalore, more than five hours away. Farmers consider the resulting labor shortage one of their two biggest problems, the other being climate change (see sidebar).

More than a third of Balanoor's 464 housing units sit empty. Twenty years ago they were full, and Balanoor's permanent work force was almost double its current 468 employees.

Kuriyan and his father are scrambling to attract more and younger workers by building new housing with indoor bathrooms and plumbing.

Besides field workers, Balanoor needs employees for what amounts to a small village with day-care centers, medical facilities and nine Hindu temples.

The temples are a telling detail amid India's emergence as a modern nation, a sign that the country still retains its rich cultural heritage.

One evening in December, dozens of Balanoor's workers gathered outside one of its temples for a puja worship ceremony.

An 11-year-old boy relentlessly sounded a small gong while two priests honored a goddess before serving fruit and shaved coconut to worshippers.

On such auspicious evenings, the Hindu priests wear saffron shawls. But by day, they work in India's burgeoning tea and coffee industry.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com. Twitter @AllisonSeattle.

Visitors walk near a Hindu temple that sits atop the highest peak of the Bababudan Giris.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Visitors walk near a Hindu temple that sits atop the highest peak of the Bababudan Giris.

Farmers struggle to adjust to recent weather extremes

By Melissa Allison

Seattle Times business reporter

One of the biggest problems facing coffee farmers in India and elsewhere is climate change.

Fluctuations in the weather have always happened, but they come more frequently now and are often more extreme, farmers say.

Like many tropical crops, coffee needs predictable dry and wet seasons and cannot tolerate extreme temperature fluctuations.

"Climate change is hitting us hard."
— Jacob Mammen

"Climate change is hitting us hard," said Jacob Mammen, managing director of India's Badra Estates. Three times in recent years, Badra has lost a third of its crop because of rains at the wrong times. Some rains come too soon, causing trees to blossom early; others come as the trees bloom or are ready to be harvested, destroying valuable blossoms or dropping ripe coffee cherries; still others ruin coffee left to dry on outdoor patios.

To protect coffee from the latter fate, nearby Balanoor Plantations spent more than $20,000 for a large cylindrical drying drum last year.

Ill-timed rains used to be rare, coming maybe once a decade. So did unusually long and hot dry spells, which now come regularly.

A. Sukumar, Badra's general manager, notices a proliferation of pests after the dry spells. Planting shade trees might alleviate that problem, he said, but that also could lower yields because less sunlight would reach the coffee trees.

Another solution might be installing drip irrigation to conserve water, Mammen said. But that is expensive and takes time.

Combined with a labor shortage, "you have a sense of insecurity. Things are slipping out of your hands," he said.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com. Twitter @AllisonSeattle.


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