Indians love hot beverages, as apparent by the subcontinent's craze for tea. A strong cup of tea in the morning with breakfast and a masala chai in the evening with snacks is something all Indian generations have enjoyed over the years.
But India is a land of diversity and paradoxes. And thus, it is somehow also the sixth largest producer and fifth-largest exporter of coffee in the world. 30% of this gets consumed domestically, which begs the question, "How did this tea-crazed nation get so involved in coffee production?"
The Story of Baba Budan
The answer lies, as all good answers do, in a legend. Around five hundred years ago, an old Sufi saint called Baba Budan went on Hajj, the trip each Muslim has to take at least once in his lifetime to pay pilgrimage in the holy site of Mecca.
When Baba Budan was passing through Arabia on the way to Mecca, he came across coffee. Being absolutely taken with the beverage, Baba Budan attempted to take some back home. But he was forbidden to take any raw seeds, as at that time the Arabians had a tight grip on the production of coffee. All the coffee was produced in Arabia, and nearly all beans were exported in roasted form to preserve the monopoly held by the Arabs on coffee. Nearly all beans, except seven.
Seven beans that Baba Budan had either stashed away in his beard or in the slightly more interesting version, had them taped to his stomach, making him the world's only coffee smuggler who is also a Sufi saint. When he eventually reached home after his pilgrimage, he planted the beans on the peak of the hills behind his home and essentially started the coffee industry in India.
The Dutch and the British Take Over Coffee
Soon after the growth of the plants initially sown by Baba Budan, there were thriving coffee farms in Southern India by 1670. The Dutch were the first to grow these crops on a large commercial scale. Not to be outdone by the Dutch, the British set up a massive drive to set up Arabica coffee plantations all over South India. This is where they figured the climate would be ripe for growing the juicy coffee cherry.
One day an ambitious British manager who was working with Parry and Co. exercised his entrepreneurial spirit and petitioned the Mysore government for forty acres of land to create India's first coffee farm. Thus by 1840, the first coffee farm in India was established, on the hill now named after Baba Budan. After noticing the success of his business, others followed suit, and the growth of coffee exploded in India, with farms popping up all over South India.
From Arabica to Robusta
Initially, most of the coffee grown in India was Arabica. But, in the mid-1870s, a decrease in the popularity of coffee resulted in a lot of coffee farms going under due or even replaced by farms of the renowned drink—tea. The surviving players in the market took a massive loss but ended up switching to Robusta, and the coffee market managed to hang on through those dark and challenging times.
Recovering From Hardship
The Indian coffee industry rebounded in time, with exports growing and gradually carving themselves a niche in the European market by the 1930s. However, it was beset by more misfortune as World War II wiped out the logistics network and demand that had helped the Indian coffee industry to grow and survive. At this stage, the Coffee Board of India provided a lifeline to growers by buying coffee from them. They took upon itself the responsibility of marketing and selling the produce.
The next chapter in the problematic growth of Indian coffee took place after India gained independence from the British. With a new nation opening its eyes to the world, Indian leaders rushed to protect them, once again struggling the coffee industry. To protect the local growers and prevent exploitation by foreign corporations, the Coffee Board of India took drastic measures and banned coffee imports. They also restricted the selling of coffee to third parties and pooled the coffee, thus removing incentives for farmers to produce high-quality coffee.
Becoming a Global Exporter Again
But the scrappy Indian coffee industry refused to go away, despite all the bureaucratic hurdles, and it outlasted the red tape. With these restrictions being eased in the 1990s, India opened its market to the world. With growers having the freedom to sell to whomever they liked, the Coffee Board of India enthusiastically helped local farmers and growers bring their coffee to the world.
Nowadays, the coffee industry in India is making another niche for itself in the market, with Indian coffee comprising about a fifth of all Italian coffee imports. Many small players exist in the market. Almost forty percent of the coffee is grown in tribal lands, where traditional methods are employed to plant, harvest, and prepare the coffee.
So, the next time you take a trip to the holy land of India, be sure to check out the coffee farms in South India and sip on some filter coffee as it reminds you of the rich history behind its taste. Pro tip: check out local cafes and coffee makers when you’re in India for authentic-tasting coffee.