How Coffee Came To India

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Baba Budan, the seventeenth-century Sufi saint brought seven seeds to India and replanted them. Thus began the coffee saga.

The saga of coffee in India began with an act of defiance. In the seventeenth century, a Sufi saint from India went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Coffee, discovered in Ethiopia a century (or more) ago, was being kept as an Arab monopoly. It was exported only in roasted form; the seeds were kept within the country.

But the saint, Baba Budan, circumvented the checkers. He returned by Mocha, Yemen, with seven seeds strapped to his chest under his clothes. Being a pilgrim, he was spared an overt examination. Probably smiling, he made the long trip back to India, where he is said to have planted the first coffee seeds in Chikmagalur, in the year 1670 A.D.

The legend of Baba Budan is well circulated, but is not the first time coffee reached India. In Hazel Colaco’s book ‘A Cache of Coffee’, we can see how it emerged first along the Malabar coast courtesy the Arab traders. And a quote by Edward Terry in the court of Jahangir, 1616 A.D demonstrates its presence even in Mughal India:

Many of the people there (in Mughal India) who are strict in their religion drink no wine at all, but they use a liquor more wholesome than and pleasant, they call coffee… it is very good to help in digestion, to quicken spirits and to cleanse the blood.

Soon, coffee was spreading across the world, with the Ottomans leading the charge. In India and abroad, Sufi mystics like Baba Budan favoured it – for the strong concoction that could keep them awake as they chanted devotional songs through the night.

It was not until the seventeenth century that European colonization approached the coffee trade. The Dutch set up plantation in the East Indies, followed by the French. In British India, early attempts failed at establishing plantations in Madras. But the British began to take coffee cultivation seriously in the nineteenth century – by the end of which they were growing over 300,000 hectares (according to a 1926 study by Munroe).

But it was around this time as well that the British were getting more fascinating by tea – and making India an export hub of it. Where coffee remained a forte of the South (particularly the then-Mysore state and its Coorgi regions), tea began to be grown in the hill stations of the North. And, a plantation blight called ‘coffee rust’ had begun to affect the plant’s growth – prompting the import of strains from South America as well as the attempted evolution of resistant strains (Colaco, 2016).

By the start of World War I, coffee acreage had declined by 100,000 acres due to disease and pestilence. It prompted a new breed of coffee-growers; informed, aware and adapted to plantation life.

The Great Depression broke the coffee market, prompting the government to intervene. The Coffee Cess Committee was formed in 1935, to brainstorm over a way to get coffee demand up again. They didn’t want to repeat Brazil’s example, where to force prices up, millions of sacks worth of coffee were burned.

To sell coffee, the board turned to the advertisers – Walter Thompson. They suggested setting up coffee shops across the country – and the quintessential Indian Coffee Shop was born in each major city.

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As the story of coffee meandered on in the next few decades, a strain was decided on as the best, s795 Arabica – the first of its kind that was immune to rust. Indian coffee grew with the Green Revolution and advances in irrigation. But a period of stagnation set in by the 1990s. This also coincided with the peak production of ‘organic’ coffee. Growers struck by the slowdown appreciated the low input costs that growing organic afforded them. And, their customers loved the new taste.

By 1999, 60,211 tonnes of organic coffee was grown in India each year. But there was one big problem – Indian coffee-drinkers had yet to evolve into paying extra for organic. So farmers were growing smaller yields for the same amount of money per bean. And to top matters off, demand in the West was outpacing supply – but getting a coffee certified as organic was too expensive for the average coffee farmer.

The result? From a high of 109 small and medium farmers in Kodagu in 2005, it dropped to ten by 2016. Organic coffee production was just 84 tonnes in 2012-13. Kodagu, which produced more than a third of India’s coffee in a hilly region famed for its biodiversity, was not getting its coffee adequately certified. Some reports suggested branding it as ‘shade grown’ or ‘bird-friendly’ coffee to make the grade.

But another challenger was approaching, from the Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh.

Before the tribal groups of India’s Eastern Ghats got into the artisan coffee trade, they were setting forests on fire. Podu, better known as ‘slash-n-burn’ cultivation was how the tribes regenerated the soil as they moved from patch to patch. It’s a form of cultivation practised since neolithic times – responsible for large-scale deforestation.

With the prodding of a few government research centres and NGOs, the Araku tribes have been growing organic coffee since the 1950’s. But it was only in 2017 that they got international recognition – with a gourmet coffee shop set up in Paris. Plans to expand to New York as well as to retail stores across India are underway.

Indian coffee drinkers today are torn between the instant-coffee market, the filter-kapi consumers and those who prefer the branded coffee shops from India and around the world. Everyone has their own version of the fix, from the roadside vendor to the imported coffee-press. As a popular adage goes, “Life’s too short to be drinking bad coffee.”

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