An hour and a half away from Chikamagalur, the birthplace of Indian coffee, lies Balanoor estate. Located in the South Indian state of Karnataka, Balanoor is a family-owned coffee and tea farm managed by father-son duo Ashok and Rohan Kuriyan. The farm has been in the family for generations, ever since it was purchased from British planters in the year 1937. Rohan’s great-great-grandfather who bought the farm was a serial entrepreneur before the term even existed, and coffee was one of the businesses he ventured into. Along with tea, Balanoor slowly expanded its plantation area by buying up land from friends and neighbors who were looking to exit the industry.
Sitting high on a hill, Balanoor estate has an altitude ranging from 2500-4800 feet above sea level. The high altitude, cool weather, and plentiful rainfall are the perfect conditions to grow good coffee. Balanoor Robusta coffee is grown between 2500-3500 feet, the Arabica varietals are grown between 3200-4900 feet, and the organic Arabica coffee is grown between 4500-4800 feet. 250 employees work on the estate, primarily on the tea estate since coffee is a more seasonal crop, being harvested only once a year. Temporary labor is taken on as and when required.
The Intersection of Coffee and Community
Rohan emphasizes the tremendous role of his father in defining the philosophy behind operations at Balanoor. “These are our people; without them, we cannot function. If our standard of living can improve, then why not theirs.” is a sentiment passed down to Rohan from his father, and this principle underlines daily life on the farm.
Balanoor prides itself on being a self-sufficient ecosystem, caring for its community and land. Farm workers are provided with free housing and have access to a clinic, school, and crèche on the farm. The farm worker’s children receive free education from kindergarten to grade 10 at the estate school, which is maintained by the estate with teachers being provided by the state government.
All farm workers, including temporary workers, have access to free medical care, with a doctor visiting the estate twice a week to treat minor illnesses and injuries. Medical issues that require more specialized care are referred to the nearest town or city based on the medical officer's advice.
The estate is currently in the process of upgrading the living quarters by demolishing the old dwellings to replace them with modern structures. The old quarters provided only a one-bedroom dwelling for a family of 4, with no attached bathrooms. The upgraded design features a two-bedroom plan with a living room, kitchen, and attached bathrooms.
Throughout the estate, the upgraded living conditions and quality of life are a source of pride for the workers and their children, who are motivated and empowered to give back to their community. The farm is very much alive and full of dreams for the future.
The Heart of Balanoor Estate
Ashok Kuriyan has spent most of his life on Balanoor estate, starting at age 27 and still managing the farm at age 70. Ashok is very active on the farm, with a willingness to experiment and share his successes with growers in the region.
Rohan recalls the time before he worked on the farm and was employed at Ernst & Young. Through the nature of his work, he was accustomed to an environment where corporate secrets were guarded closely. On his first day on the estate, his dad was talking to someone on the phone, explaining fermentation times, financing, and the experiments they do. He was explaining this to another grower and Rohan was perplexed. On asking his father, his dad responded “We’re here to better the industry. If by sharing information, our neighbor can produce better coffee then Indian coffee has a better footing internationally.”
This open book policy is at the heart of the work at Balanoor estate, stemming from Ashok’s openness towards sharing information with those who want to learn.
Growing, Processing, and Beyond
As with most Indian coffee farms, Balanoor features shade growing and intercropping. Both practices are beneficial for sustainability while also bringing in additional income for small farms. Alongside their tea and coffee, Balanoor also grows pepper, areca nut, and Silver Oak, a timber tree.
Silver oak is a valuable green timber crop but poses unique challenges when intercropped with coffee. Silver oak is rich in aluminum and during the monsoons, the falling leaves may land on coffee plants where it causes leaf disease. The massive trees may also over-shade the smaller coffee plants. Despite these drawbacks, intercropping with either timber or spices (or both) is a net positive for small farms as they ensure economic sustainability to counteract the volatile nature of the coffee market. Balanoor is expanding into intercropping with avocados and jungle tree planting of jackfruit trees. Interestingly, the jackfruit trees have enticed a wild elephant to wander onto the farm, which poses its own set of issues.
Most of the coffee processed at Balanoor is washed coffee but things are changing as the Indian coffee scene demands experimentation. Ashok was initially averse to altering the natural flavors of coffee, remarking that “If I’m drinking coffee, then it has to taste like coffee”. However, as demand increased, the farm has had to adapt and now they’ve had over 30 experiments this year alone- playing around with coffee variety, time of fermentation, and even drying under a banana leaf. Balanoor processes special lots, including those that feature yeast fermentation, extended fermentation, naturals, and starter fermentation to alter overall flavor profiles. They are happy to report that their new coffees have been successful and may soon be making their way around the world.
Being on a hill, Balanoor can’t mechanize harvesting (unlike the coffee farms on flat-land in Brazil) but they do use Brazilian and Scottish machines for pulping and dry milling. A majority of their Arabica is still dry fermented and washed coffee but they have been experimenting with processing their Robusta coffee. India has some of the finest Robusta, with clean notes and almost no harshness. Internationally, the specialty Robusta market is growing, particularly in the US, Australia, and Europe, which has not always been open to experimenting with Robusta. Pricing is a key issue here since Indian coffee tends to be a bit more expensive but the quality speaks for itself. A good Robusta-Arabica blend can accentuate the overall flavor of the cup and makes for an excellent crema in your espresso.
Tackling Climate Change
Climate change is a very real threat to coffee farms and we see this at Balanoor as well. It doesn’t get more real than the situation here: over the last few years, the average yield of Arabica at Balanoor has dropped from 110 tons to 60 tons. Many in the region, including Rohan, comment on how dependable the rain used to be, but no more.
The monsoons are far more unpredictable and far more destructive than they ever were. The normal monsoon has shifted ahead by a month and rainfall is highly localized. Rohan remembers a time 3 years ago when the expected rain only fell on the neighboring estate and not Balanoor, showing just how localized the rainfall has become. The uneven rain can cause flash floods and landslides and in 2020, several acres of Balanoor farm were lost to a landslide triggered when over 11 inches of rainfall fell in a single day.
Facing the looming threats of climate change, Ashok, Rohan, and others on the farm are doing all they can to maintain the local ecosystem, soil health, and the water table. Irregular rain has made the estate more dependent on irrigation so they have ramped up their rainwater harvesting, with several dams and tanks that collect fresh rainwater and prevent soil runoff in the process.
The collected water is used for irrigation and pulping. As a result, Balanoor has become water positive, putting more water back into the ecosystem than they use for processing and growing. They also plant two forest trees per acre of land, which are fruiting, native trees that will never be cut. They grow and fall on the farm, where they are left to decompose back into the soil. The cycle of life is well preserved and helps keep the farm sustainable. No hunting is undertaken on the farm and many animals can be seen around the estate including bison, deer, monkeys, snakes, and now an elephant.
Why is Balanoor so committed to sustainability? Because they are looking towards the future and what we can do for coming generations. “We need to do this because we’re not looking to run the estate for one generation but so that future generations can continue the work and make a living”, explains Rohan.
A New Era: Balanoor and Era of We
Balanoor is a natural fit for Era of We. Their focus on transparency, community, and quality aligns perfectly with the Era of We ethos. Rohan echoes this sentiment, focusing on how Era of We is bringing equality to the table for coffee growers around the world.
“The fact that this platform is looking at bridging the gap for all farmers irrespective of size is something motivational.” continues Rohan, “This will give the small farmers who have never exported their product to see where it is going and how it is being appreciated. This will be a driving force for them to push the boundary on quality and to step up their game”. Transparency on Era of We goes both ways and brings consumers and growers together while strengthening existing relationships in the coffee supply chain.
Ultimately, what brings us together is a love for coffee and for those that work with it. Farmers have long been at the short end of the stick in the coffee world, and it’s time for their needs and expertise to be voiced. Exceptional farms like Balanoor remind us of the value of knowing where your coffee comes from, not only for better coffee but simply to unravel the many stories behind every cup.