A few weeks ago I spent a few days in the area around Chikmagalur in Karnataka, which is one of the major coffee-growing regions in India. 73% of India’s coffee is grown in Karnataka.
While tea is popular in North India, South Indians love their filter coffee. I have never liked the taste of coffee. But after trying South Indian coffee I quickly became hooked. It has a milder and less bitter taste. It is always served Indian-style, with lots of sugar and milk!
The fresh air, rolling hills and fields painted bright green by the monsoon were a nice break from the city. I stayed on a coffee plantation owned by Ajoy whose family has been in the coffee-growing business for over 100 years. It was the tail end of the monsoon and it poured rain almost non-stop for the three days I was there. This was exceptional for this time of year and Ajoy was concerned about his crop. If the rain persisted, his crop would be ruined.
Above: the coffee plantation
One morning the rain let up and Ajoy showed us around his 275-acre estate and explained the coffee production process. The plantation grows a mix of Arabica and Robusta coffee bushes. The more valuable Arabica is a more delicate plant which needs sprays and fertilizers and thrives in high elevations. The Robusta, like its name, is hardier and grows well in low elevations. This variety is used mainly for instant coffees.
Most of the coffee berries were still green and would eventually ripen, turning a bright red in the next few weeks before being harvested in November. Coffee plants need some sunlight but not too much otherwise the productivity of the plant would be affected. A variety of trees are grown around the coffee plants to provide shade, but branches are regularly trimmed so that the plants get some needed sunlight. The bushes are also trimmed to keep them at an ideal height for harvesting. A mature bush can yield 8 to 10 kilograms of coffee beans.
After harvesting, the skin of the red coffee berries is removed. The beans are then washed before being spread out on coir mats and left out in the sun to dry for about 7 days. The beans are then sorted using a sieve according to size and quality. The leftover ‘bits, cuts and blacks’ are used for instant coffee. The coffee is roasted only after export.
Coffee is the second most highly-traded commodity in the world market. So coffee-growing must be a highly lucrative business? It certainly can be, explains Ajoy, but it is also volatile. Last year he lost 70% of his crop because of excessive rain. Also, running a coffee plantation is becoming increasingly difficult. His main problem is finding labour. He needs at least 300 workers to harvest the coffee. His workforce has traditionally been made up of farmers who migrate to the region during the coffee harvest, but labour is no longer easily available. With socio-economic changes, people are moving to cities and towns and do not want to stay in rural areas. Ajoy is the fourth generation of coffee-growers in his family but he is not sure whether his sons will take over the family business in the future.
When the crop is good, he manages to sell all of it. Nestle and Coca Cola are regular buyers. He also has regular visits from representatives of international coffee companies who come to taste his coffee and buy up some of his crop.
With the proliferation of popular cafés like Barista and Café Coffee Day and the growth of ‘coffee culture’ in India, coffee consumption has been steadily rising by 8-10% a year. 60% of the coffee produced in India is consumed at home, while the rest is exported. But if demand continues to rise at current levels, it will exceed production in 4 years. Does this mean that India will cease to be coffee exporter? Or will it have to import coffee to meet demand? Only time will tell...