When you envision lush coffee plantations, you likely wouldn’t think of India. As a famously tea-drinking nation, many think that India doesn’t have a strong coffee culture. On the contrary, India is one of the largest coffee producers worldwide, accounting for 3.5% of global coffee production.
South India, which lies conveniently below the Tropic of Cancer, is the main region for both coffee production and consumption. Coffee consumption is a traditional part of life in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, which is also where most of the coffee growing in India occurs.
India is the sixth-largest producer and fifth-largest exporter of coffee in the world. Countries around the world export 75% of the coffee produced in India, and 25% stays domestic. Italy is the largest importer of Indian coffee, followed by Germany, Russia, and Belgium.
How Did Coffee Reach India?
According to legends, coffee first came to India by way of a Muslim saint named Baba Budan in the 17th century. At the time, transporting coffee beans out of Arabia was illegal. So, Baba Budan famously smuggled 7 coffee beans in his beard. He carried these beans all the way from Yemen to the princely state of Mysore (now part of modern-day Karnataka), where he planted them on a hill. The surrounding area is now named after him, Baba Budan Giri (‘Giri’ meaning hill in the local language).
Organized cultivation soon began and spread to neighboring states such as Wayanad in modern-day Kerala and the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu. The first style of growing coffee in India used Arabica beans. However, due to the local climate and various pests, Robusta gained favor and is now the main coffee strain in the country.
Key Coffee-Growing Regions In India
Coffee growing in India traditionally happens in the hills of the Western Ghats, spreading across the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. Growing coffee in India was widely encouraged by British colonial rule. Post-independence, however, the industry has grown by leaps and bounds.
Karnataka accounts for 70% of Indian coffee production. This is followed by Kerala at 23% and Tamil Nadu at 6%. Tamil Nadu produces most of the Indian Arabica varieties. There are an estimated 250,000 coffee farmers in India and most of them are small growers. Over 90% have farms 10 acres or smaller. The total acreage of land under coffee growing in India is about 350,000 hectares, second only to tea.
The traditional coffee-growing states mentioned above produce a majority of Indian coffee. But over the last two decades many new coffee-growing regions have risen. Most notable among these are the states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh along the Eastern Ghats.
All these regions have one thing in common—they are cooler and receive ample rainfall. These conditions are perfect for growing coffee, hence the predominance of coffee plantations in the southern states.
Shade-Grown Coffee: What Makes It Special
One of the biggest differentiators of Indian coffee is that it’s all grown under shade. India is the only coffee-growing country to exclusively grow under shade.
Coffee farms in India don’t just grow coffee. They also cultivate shade-giving plants like pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. Nearly 50 different types of shade trees are used in coffee plantations to provide a two-tier shade canopy.
These shade trees are important to the local ecosystem. They prevent soil erosion, drive nutrients back into the soil, protect the coffee plants from harsh weather, and provide a habitat for many creatures in this biodiversity hotspot.
The diverse climate in the coffee-growing regions of India allows for the cultivation of many types of coffee. Arabica accounts for a small share of the total coffee produced and grows at higher altitudes. Robusta accounts for 70% of the coffee produced in India and grows in more humid areas.
Shade-grown Indian coffee is usually mild with low acidity, a full-bodied flavor, and rich aroma. This has led to Indian coffee being widely used in espresso across Europe.
Varieties Of Indian Coffee
There are four important varieties of Indian coffee:
Named after a British planter who selected the variety in 1920, Kents is the earliest variety of Arabica grown in India. It is known for its exceptional cup quality but is not widely grown in recent times.
This is the most popular Arabica variant in India. Introduced in the 1940s, this variety has a bold taste, high yield, and modest resistance to leaf rust. S795 is still a favorite thanks to its mocha undertones and full body flavor.
Also known as Catimor, this variety is a descendant of the famous Bourbon coffee variety. It has a medium body, good acidity, and produces a high yield.
This variety is a cross between the Ethiopian Arabica variety called ‘Tafarikela’ and ‘Hybrido-de-Timor’ (a natural hybrid of C. arabica and C. canephora). It retains the superior cup quality of Tafarikela while being more resistant to climate and pests.
“Monsoon Malabar” is another unique Indian coffee. It’s not a separate variety but stands out in the way it is processed and stored.
During colonial rule, green coffee grown in India would be exported to Europe via sea routes. The humidity and sea air would cause the beans to swell and become brittle. This produces a mild flavor that was valued at the time.
Now, this process is replicated by storing green coffee beans in open warehouses along the coast. The coastal climate causes the beans to swell as before, becoming pale and brittle. This process is carried out during the monsoons (June-October) and it produces a coffee that is earthy with low acidity.
The Future Of Growing Coffee in India
Indian coffee is seeing a huge shift in domestic consumption, especially in urban areas. A combination of modern cafes and traditional coffee stalls has ensured a lively coffee culture still prevails across the country. India is also home to Tata Coffee, one of the largest roasters in the world. Renewed interest in specialty coffee and a growing demand for organic coffee is promising.
Most Indian coffee is not organic, despite having all the conditions needed for chemical-free cultivation. Generally, Indian coffee plantations are in the middle of forests. This means they have deep, fertile soil, natural fertilization from animal manure, ample irrigation, and traditional forms of farming that focus on composting and manual weeding. A shift towards organic farming could be the next big thing for Indian coffee.