Date: July 2004

Column/Title: Mysores and Monsooned Malabars: Coffees of India

Author: Kenneth Davids

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People are often surprised India produces any coffee at all, much less fine coffee, given the country's indelible association with tea. In fact, India is a long-time coffee producer, and a very substantial one (sixth in the world in 2002). Furthermore, Indians drink a lot of coffee, particularly in the south of India, where most Indian coffee is grown. And in the more affluent areas of urban India, hundreds of sleek, comfortable cafes a la Starbucks are springing up to supplement the traditional Indian coffee carts and houses.

Furthermore, India needs no Smithsonian Institution initiatives or consumer campaigns to promote shade-grown, environmentally-friendly coffee. Quite literally, no coffee is grown in full sun in India. It's all grown in shade, usually massive shade, two tiers of it. Black pepper vines wrap their lavish way up the trunks of the shade trees. The result is coffee landscapes that look more like well-tended jungles or botanical gardens as painted by Rousseau than conventional farms.

However, until recently coffee produced by India was not particularly good coffee. Like many other growing countries, India went for coffee quantity rather than quality in the middle years of the twentieth century. Particularly in the latter half of the century, tons of Indian coffee, bulked and anonymous, went to the Soviet Union in barter exchange for manufactured and other goods. However, beginning in 1992 India began a phased deregulation of the coffee industry, allowing producers to market their own coffee directly to buyers by small lot, and changing the Coffee Board of India from a regulating agency to a promotional one.

Together the leading producers and the Coffee Board have performed a remarkable turnabout, rapidly rebuilding India's image as a gourmet coffee origin, particularly in Europe, where Indian coffees won three medals at the recent Grands Crus de Cafe competition in Paris, more than any other participating country.

However, the new wave of fine India coffees have been slower to make an impression in North America, where professional coffee buyers continue to give the better part of their attention to the higher grown, more acidy coffees of Central America and East Africa. Indian Arabica coffees tend to be low-toned, subtler and rounder that the brighter, drier favorites of the-more-acidy-the-better crowd.

Furthermore, India offers a coffee type that not only bores American coffee purists; it outright offends many of them: the oddly named and odder tasting Monsooned Malabar. (See related article: Daddy's Socks or Fancy Cheese: Monsooned Coffees and the Perils of Evaluation.)

Consequently, until the last year or two it was virtually impossible to find a single-origin India coffee offered by American roasters, whether quirky tasting Monsooned Malabar or more conventional sweet, wet-processed Arabica.

This gap in the geographic menu is gradually filling in, though slowly. I turned up twelve India single-origin coffees offered by eight different American roasters, most sourced on the basis of reader and roaster nominations. To these twelve I added two more samples roasted and packed in India by a small Indian specialty company.

How good were these pioneering India entries? I was a bit apprehensive, afraid I would not have enough decent coffees to fill out a review.

As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. In particular, the conventional, non-monsooned coffees were extremely impressive. If these coffees are typical, it is easy to understand why Indias do well in Europe. They are exactly the sort of sweet, complexly low-key coffees many Europeans admire. Many American consumers admire them too, though American coffee roasters with their obsession with high-toned, acidy coffees may not have gotten the word yet.

This month's two highest rated coffees came from lots of India's super grade of wet-processed Arabica - Mysore Nuggets Extra Bold (a mouthful of a grade name usually abbreviated to MNEB). Roasted by Coffeemaria and Paradise Roasters, both small companies that can afford to experiment with unusual coffee origins, these samples were elegantly sweet and delicately and complexly fruity, a sort of sensory essay in what the best India wet-processed Arabica can be. Coffee drinkers who prefer a cup with a higher grown, more acidy character may prefer the Jumboor Estate from Coffeemaria, although I found its sweetly tart fruit character slightly imbalanced by astringency.

The monsooned coffees, on the other hand, are difficult to admire using conventional criteria. Read related article, Daddy's Socks or Fancy Cheese: Monsooned Coffees and the Perils of Evaluation, for a run through the problems a reviewer faces when assigning a rating to these and other unorthodox coffees, coffees that take their distinctiveness more from the acts of culture (how the coffee is dried and handled after fruit removal) than the refinements of nature.

The important point to keep in mind when reading my reviews of these monsooned coffees may be: Consult the fine print if you enjoy intense, ambiguous gustatory pleasures like intensely soft-ripened cheeses or peaty Islay single-malt whiskies. You may well decide you prefer the rougher pleasures of monsooning to the elegant satisfactions of the more conventionally lovely wet-processed Indias like those offered by Coffeemaria and Paradise Roasters.

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