Have you ever wondered how coffee gets its taste? Sure, it depends on brewing methods, sweetening, and other processes. But at its root, the flavor comes from the cherry. Coffee growers use certain selected breeds with quality potential and commercial value.
Coffee made its debut in India way back in 1600 AD. If you are a coffee lover, you should thank Baba Budan for bringing your favorite drink to your country. Baba Budan was a Sufi pilgrim making his way to Mecca. He was in love with the coffee he tasted in Yemen but couldn’t bring it to India.
So he smuggled the Seven Seeds of Mocha, seven raw coffee beans all the way from Yemen to India, hiding them wrapped in his garment! He planted them in Chikmagalur, Karnataka, now known as Coffee Country. Later, the Dutch and the British spread commercial coffee cultivation far and wide across the Indian land.
There are two main varieties of coffee beans- Robusta and Arabica. Arabica, though superior in quality, is vulnerable to pests and diseases. The first outbreak of coffee leaf rust in the 19th century brought a lot of bad attention to Arabica coffee. Most farmers around the globe switched to other crops. But then Indonesian cultivators introduced robusta coffee. So today, Arabica and Robusta are the two chief varieties of coffee in the market.
Arabica boasts of superior quality and a complex aroma. It is mild in caffeine but has a delicate, sweet flavor. It is grown between November to January at the height of 600 to 2000 meters in subtropical, cold, and moist climates. It thrives in large, shaded plantations with soil that is rich in nutrients. Arabica growers work hard to deliver superior quality beans and protect them from pests.
The common varieties of Arabica are classified into Bourbon, Typica, and Heirloom. We also have crosses and hybrids between different families of Arabica and between Arabica and Robusta. Let us look at some breeds that are popular in India.
Kent gets its name from an English planter named Mr. L.P. Kent, who discovered it in 1920. Kent was working on a selection program to develop a coffee leaf resistant plant. Kent coffee made its way from Mysore to Kenya and Tanzania in the 1920s, owing to its survival capacity. It comes under the Typica family. Kent has a fruity flavor profile with spicy notes and a sharp acidity element.
Launched in India in the 1940s, S.795 is a hybrid of Arabica and Robusta. It was selected by the Balehonnur Coffee Research Station in India. It is popular in many regions of SouthEast Asia. S.795 is known for its bold beans that give diverse flavors ranging from spicy to chocolaty. It has a high yield and is considered an exotic variety.
Popularly known as Cauvery, this one is a cross between Caturra and Hybrido-de-Timor. In other words, it is a hybrid of Arabica and Robusta. Catimor gets its high yield and superior quality from Caturra and leaf rust resistance from Hibrido-de-Timor. It is widely cultivated in low-lying regions with high natural rainfall. Catimor has a flavor profile closer to that of Bourbon. It has brisk acidic notes and a sweet aftertaste.
Selection 9 is a hybrid of Tafarikela, an Arabica variety from Ethiopia and Hibrido-de-Timor. It has tall plants with drooping branches and dark bronze leaves. Selection 9 plants are adaptable enough to survive drought-like conditions, owing to the resistance inherited from Hibrido-de-Timor. Tafarikela gives it a superior aroma and quality. Selection 9 won the Fine Cup Award for the best Arabica variety at the Flavor of India Cupping Competition, 2002.
Robusta, the cheaper option on market aisles, has twice the caffeine content of Arabica. It gives larger produce, is easier to grow, and makes stronger coffee. But it lacks the distinct aroma of Arabica. Instead, it has a grainy texture and a bitter aftertaste.
Robusta is grown between December and February at 500 to 1000 meters in hot and humid climates. Robusta is less fussy about its environment. It puts up better resistance to pests compared to Arabica. Today, Robusta accounts for 30% to 40% of the world’s coffee production. Here are some popular Robusta varieties
S.274 comes from a Sri Lankan collection. It was the first robusta selection that was released by the Indian Coffee Research Station in the 1940s. It grows into sturdy bushes with round, bold beans. They have a hint of chocolate, caramel, nuts, and spices.
C x R
C x R is a hybrid of Robusta and Coffea Congensis. It has smaller bushes than most Robusta plants. The beans are bold, full-bodied, and low-acid. They have an intense aroma and give a soft, neutral cup.
Apart from Arabica and Robusta, there are other, less popular varieties, like Liberica and Excelsa. For example, Kapeng Barako, a type of Liberica, is a strong coffee grown in the Philippines. A caffeine-free species, Charrier Coffee, is found in Cameroon in Central Africa. However, these species are not commercially viable.
Indian coffee plantations are mostly stretched over the Western Ghats. Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka are treasure troves of coffee cultivation. Eastern Ghat patches like Andhra Pradesh and Orissa are new locations on the coffee map. Lastly, there are plantations in the seven sisters of the North East. There are thirteen Indian locations that are hot spots for coffee cultivation. Let us look at some of them.
Chikmagalur, with its dense forests and charming peacocks, is famed as Coffee Country. It is home to the Central Indian Coffee Research Institute. Chikmagalur has both Arabica and Robusta plantations.
S.795, San. 5B, Sln.9, and Cauvery are the main Arabica varieties. Peridenia, S.724, and C x R are the main Robusta varieties grown here. They are intercropped with pepper, cardamom, areca nut, orange, and vanilla. These beans have a medium body and light acidity with a medium to the intense aroma.
Baba Budangiri (Karnataka)
Named after the person who introduced coffee to India, Bababudangiri literally means Baba Budan Hill. It marks the birth of Indian coffee. Bababudangiri lies at the height of 1000-1500 meters and is endowed with 1750-2200 mm of natural rainfall. It is known for full-bodied Arabicas with a sweet flavor close to chocolate along with ample acidity. The beans mature slower than other Arabica varieties. They are picked carefully and processed through natural fermentation.
India’s largest coffee-producing district, Coorg, produces about 24,000 MT Robusta and 69,000 Arabica. The region enjoys 1000-2500 mm of natural rainfall at the height of 750 to 1000 meters. The Arabica varieties include S.795, Sln.6, and Sln.9. Robusta varieties are S.274 and C x R. The main intercrops are pepper, cardamom, orange, banana, and areca nut. The Arabicas are slightly acidic, while Robustas are softer with a hint of chocolate.
Nilgiris (Karnataka/Tamil Nadu)
Nilgiris, meaning White Hills, gets its name from the clouds and mist covering these peaks all around the year. Nilgiris plantations enjoy a high altitude ranging between 1500-2000 meters and 11000-1200 mm of natural rainfall. It is known for the S.795, Sln.9, and Cauvery varieties. Coffee is alternated with orange, banana, and pepper. It is grown under the shade of silver oaks and fruit trees.
Anamalais (Tamil Nadu)
The Anamalais plantations are at the height of 1000-1400 meters and get high natural rainfall between 2500 to 3000 mm. The main varieties that thrive in this mountain range are S.795, Cauvery, and Sln.9. These are all Arabica varieties. They are intercropped with pepper, orange, and banana. They have greyish green beans that give a strong aroma with citrus notes.
Araku Valley, Andhra Pradesh
Araku Valley is nestled in the Eastern Ghats of northern Andhra Pradesh and southern Orissa. It lies at an altitude of 900-1100 meters and gets 1000-1200 mm of natural rainfall. Known for colorful parrots, Araku valley is not a traditional location for coffee. But the local tribes greatly benefit from coffee as an alternative in the shifting cultivation system. Coffee is alternated with pepper, mango, jackfruit, and some vegetables. The main varieties grown here are S.795, Sln.4, San.5, and Cauvery. Araku valley produce has an intense aroma with medium to sharp acidity and spicy notes.
The Brahmaputra river flows across Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, nourishing coffee plantations in all eight states of the North East. The elevation is relatively low, around 800-1200 meters. But the region has good rainfall levels between 1500-2000 mm.
The Brahmaputra region is known for S.795 and Cauvery plantations. The crops are alternated with pineapple, pepper, and jackfruit. They have mild acid notes and a distinct fruity flavor. Being a non-traditional location for growing coffee, the production levels are low.
With such a wide variety of cultivars to choose from, no wonder India serves so many exciting coffee drinks. From the South Indian filter coffee to the hand-beaten Pitti-Hui coffee, Indians have found several distinct preparations for their cup. So don’t hold back, go out there and explore!