Judges at the recent Fine Cup Award for India coffees experienced the jolt that has become usual
at such competitions: Among the many excellent coffees that perfectly fulfilled their expectations
of what a wet-processed India coffee should be — low acid, sweet, mild, perhaps with just a hint
of flowers — two coffees broke through the stereotype completely, with powerful, complex, high-
toned fruit and wine character more typically associated with the best coffees of East Africa.
In fact, this stereotype-breaking surprise has become routine at international coffee
competitions. Wherever these competitions occur, whether in India, Brazil, Panama or Nicaragua,
judges often find themselves surprised, not only by the quality of the entries, but as by their
When I returned home from the Indian competition I was curious to find out how many
equivalents of the excellent coffees I had cupped there might be available to consumers here in the
United States. Hence the theme of this month’s cupping: single-origin Indias.
As it turned out, it was difficult to even find India coffees offered as single origins in the United
States. Second, those that were available for this cupping hardly matched the potential revealed
by the competition coffees in India.
True, the timing of this article turned out to be inopportune. The new crop of Indias is
just arriving in the States, and those roasters who do handle Indias as single origins often were
stuck sending me samples of last year’s crop. And Indias, like many relatively delicate, lower
grown origins, do not hold up very well to long storage.
Direct from India
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to conclude that America’s specialty roasters should be doing better
by India coffees.
When it became clear that I would not have nearly enough samples to fill out a cupping, I
emailed the Coffee Board of India asking them to send me some additional India coffees, roasted
as they would be for retail sale in India’s own growing specialty industry.
The Coffee Board graciously sent me eight roasted samples, including four, as it turned
out, that were prize winners as green coffees in the Fine Cup competition. I had my assistant
assign these eight coffees, plus seven more sent to me by American roasters, arbitrary three-digit
numbers. These fifteen samples were then cupped blind, identified by number only, by me and
by Chris Palmer, my co-cupper for this article and Product Development and Quality Assurance
Manager for Neighbors Coffee.
Chris Palmer had expressed interest in doing a co-cupping with me of Indias because, as he put it,
he didn’t know much about the origin and would like to know more. I had considered seeking a
co-cupper who is already an authority on India coffees — my distinguished Indian colleague
Sunalini Menon, for example. But I feared that any confirmation of the quality of the India
coffees expressed by someone already identified with those coffees might be passed off as
partiality. What I preferred to happen was something like the encounter I had witnessed in India
between India coffees and cuppers who were extremely experienced but largely innocent about
So how did it all turn out?
Winners: Available Only in India
Good for India and not quite so good for the American specialty coffee industry. Neither of the
cupping’s two top-rated coffees are available for sale in the United States, either as green or
roasted, despite their exceptional quality and distinction. Chris was so impressed by the exhilarating Badnekhan Estate India that he
awarded it a rating of 96.
The two coffees from Nandipura Coffee, rated third and fourth in the cupping, are available via the Nadipura website (www.nandipuracoffee.com). The highest rated India in the cupping from a general American specialty roaster is the agreeable
Plantation A Kents from Coffee Express. Interestingly, this coffee fulfills the expected norm for
India coffees: low-key, sweet, round, agreeable rather than authoritative.
India’s Exotic Blending Coffees
In addition to its wet-processed coffees, India produces two exotic coffee types that are often
used in blending for espresso: wet-processed “Parchment” robustas, among the finest robustas in
the world, and Monsooned Malabars, dry-processed, fruit-toned arabica coffees that are exposed
to several months of moist monsoon wind in open-sided warehouses, turning the beans fat and
golden in appearance and heavy bodied, expansively low-toned, and (usually) sharply musty in
Neither wet-processed robusta nor Monsooned Malabar appear to make successful single
origins, at least from an American perspective. Even the best robustas drunk straight are flat,
lifeless, grainy and cloying. And Monsooned Malabar’s weakness as single origin was modestly
confirmed by this cupping; two single-origin Monsooned Malabars, one from an American
roaster and one from an Indian, both were dominated by thoroughly unpleasant rubbery, musty
tones. Neither appears in this review.
On the other hand, Monsooned coffees and high-quality, wet-processed robustas
contribute valuable body and rough heartiness to espresso blends and, occasionally, to dark-roast
blends intended for drip brewing. One such robusta- and Monsooned-Malabar-containing blend, a
Viennese Roast, was submitted for this cupping by Coffee Express.
At Crossed Palates
Despite its 77 rating from Chris, I decided to include the Coffee Express Viennese Roast in our
report because the conflicting nature of his reaction and mine illustrates the difficulty of applying
rating systems odd-profiled coffees. I immediately recognized the grainy robusta and musty
Monsooned Malabar tones in this blend, but, as a dedicated drinker of single-malt Scotch
whiskies, I also acknowledged something wildly and wonderfully lush, rough and quirky about it.
Unlike the sharply musty, rubbery single-origin Monsooned Malabars in the cupping, this blend
exhibited depth and complexity, albeit a rather unorthodox depth and complexity. So I had a
choice: either follow my instincts and give it a modestly high rating, or follow what I knew to be
cupper consensus and give it a low rating. I ended by giving it an 85, although I easily have
mounted an argument for a considerably higher or lower score.
The point to be taken from this cupping in regard to consistency among cuppers would
seem to be the following: When confronted by exotic but cleanly structured coffees like this
month’s highest rated Badnekhan Estate and Jumboor Estate, professional cuppers from all over
the world will exhibit an impressive degree of consensus. The international jury assembled in
India preferred these two coffees over competing Indias, and so did Chris and I. Furthermore, the
international jury’s ratings for these two coffees were very similar to ours.
But, when faced with odd but potentially interesting profiles like the Coffee Express
Viennese Roast, cupper consensus may not be so clear.
All Hail Those of Pure Palate
On the other hand, all hail to cuppers of pure palate like my colleague Chris Palmer, whose
clarity and rigor I assume is one of the main reasons that I find myself giving Neighbors coffees
high ratings in cupping after cupping. Maybe the last thing we need are coffee buyers lurching
down unorthodox paths in pursuit of lush strangeness.
Emerging from the wilds of relativity, the main two points to be taken from this cupping would
seem to be: 1) last year India produced at least two coffees of startling and classic distinction
together with a whole bunch more of very, very good coffees, and 2) even the very good coffees
apparently failed to make it to the warehouses of American coffee roasters or to the palates of
American coffee lovers. I hope this situation changes soon, and we see more fine and surprising
Indias on specialty menus.