India has a long and deep coffee culture. Coffee was first brought to India in around 1600 by the Muslim pilgrim Baba Budan, who smuggled seed out of Mecca. Coffee growing for export was not started until 1840 by the British, however. India now claims to be the fifth largest producer of coffee in the world, after Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Ethiopia.
Much of India’s production is consumed at home, and India has never achieved a reputation as a fancy coffee origin among North Americans. However, mainly through the efforts of Joseph Johns of Josuma Coffee, a specialized importer of India coffee, India has made some impact on American specialty menus of late.
India has eight main coffee growing regions, all in the southern part of the country. Those with the highest elevations — Baba Budan, Niligris, and Shevaroys — produce the most admired specialty coffees. They are all wet-processed or washed coffees; Arabica Plantation A is the highest grade.
Josuma has had particular success with an estate coffee from the Sheveroys district called Cauvery Peak. It is a high-grown, rather bright coffee with intriguing spice and nut tones.
Aside from Cauvery Peak and a few other high-grown estate coffees, India arabica tends to be full, round, sweet, occasionally spicy or chocolaty, but usually a bit listless. Relatively low growing elevations and the use of disease-resistant hybrids that often have been back-crossed with robusta probably contribute to this full but often inert profile. Nevertheless, India coffees’ sweetness and full body recommend them to espresso blenders, who may use them as a base component in Italian-style blends.
Monsooned Malabar. India’s most unusual coffee is the famous Monsooned Malabar, a dry-processed coffee that has been exposed for three to four months in open-sided warehouses to the moisture-laden winds of the monsoon. The monsooning process yellows the bean and reduces the acidity, imparting a heavy, syrupy flatness to the cup together with a sharp, hard pungency. Monsooning was originally devised by Indian exporters to produce a cup similar to Old Brown Java coffees, which were similarly transformed in taste by exposure to salt air and moisture in the hulls of wooden sailing ships on the voyage from Java to Europe. Monsooned coffees are considered a delicacy by many, perhaps because of the romance of the name, the history, and the exotic process.