When coffee buyers in the United States think of Indian coffee, there are basically four types that come to mind. For arabicas it’s Monsooned Malabar, Mysore Nuggets, and (for the sophisticated) Chikmalagur Karnataka – the Baba Budan giri – and of course robusta.
The stereotype of homogenous flavor profiles and the tendency for most coffees to be offered as faceless, nameless regional blends – plus India’s shaky specialty quality reputation based on its quantity of robusta and dubious-tasting monsooned coffees – have led many American buyers to write the entire country off (much like folks do with Brazil) as monolithically mediocre.
Maybe it’s because I started my sourcing career in Brazil, or due to my incorrigible root-for-the-underdog mentality – whatever it is – I just can’t seem to stop myself from trying to find a diamond in the rough. The truth of the matter is my experience has largely been that good coffee finds me long before I go looking for it on my own. Perhaps this is an acknowledgment of the privileged position I find myself in at this node of the supply chain, representing Royal Coffee’s purchasing interests and network of buyers means that I’m not exactly an invisible actor in this industry. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously.
So, when Kamalanathan Ramamoorthy reached out and asked for advice on coffee qualities from a place I’d never heard of in southern India, I was both excited and a bit nervous.
Kamal is soft-spoken, and our first mid-pandemic masked in-person meetings were awkward affairs as we exchanged cautious pleasantries and I explained my cupping analysis of the samples he’d provided me with. Of the seven samples, he first showed me, only one cupped as specialty; it wasn’t a strong showing.
I’ve learned to be caged about my expectations when it comes to sourcing coffee from new locations. The first try rarely works out well. In this case, Kamal was inexperienced and many of the coffees he’d shown me would take far more effort to correct than I felt was worth the time to put in. I told him as much, as gently as possible.
Kamal told me his plans: his father lives in Tiruchirappalli, India (often abbreviated “Trichy”) a city of almost a million people that sits on the southern bank of the Kaveri River. Kamal intended to purchase a coffee farm, for his retired father to manage for a few years, eventually to be joined by Kamal himself, returning to his hometown. He’d already scouted several potential locations and hoped to have coffee to sell in the coming year.
I was skeptical based on the qualities I’d seen in the original samples, but almost exactly a year after we first met, to his credit, Kamal had put in the work. He’d assembled size-graded and quality-vetted samples from about 10-15 smallholders and medium estates in a growing region near Kodaikanal known as the Panali Hills on the southeastern edge of the Western Ghats Mountains.
The coffees were good! And even more refreshing, Kamal’s father’s small farm produced one of the top-scoring lots! We’d crossed the first hurdle; Kamal’s dedication to the project he’d set out for himself had paid dividends.
Step two would be the cost. Royal agreed to pay above market rate for a blended container load of AA, AB, and PB grades, plus premiums for two high-scoring microlots from single estates. Kamal accepted the bid.
Now, the tough part. Kamal needed to get those samples milled and blended, prepared as Preshipment samples for our team to approve, and then onto a boat. While Royal initially recommended Mangalore as our primary port of embarkation, Kamal did a little digging and found good rates and availability at an alternative, Thoothukudi (formerly known as Tuticorin). Once again, despite a lack of experience in international logistics, Kamal rolled up his sleeves and put in the work. With lots of help from folks on our Inbound traffic team (shout outs to Jodi Louws, Amy Pereira, and Alex Taylor), the vessel left port on June 19 and landed in Oakland the second week of September, a remarkably normal shipping timeframe in an otherwise unpredictable logistics environment.
I’m thrilled with the quality of the landed coffees. It’s so rare to find exploratory quality ventures that produce meaningful results in such a short timeframe. The AA blend and AB blend are clean and somewhat simple, our team noted a good amount of brown sugar sweetness, fruit notes of apple and lime, and supporting flavors such as nutty, tea-like, savory, and spicy.
What’s unique about these “regional” blends is that Kamal has taken an effort to retain traceability information. We have the names of the seven farms: Siu Malai, Gopi, Thangam, Dinesh, Thandikudi, Kishore, and Sonmary. These range in size from 3.2-8.9 hectares and are growing coffee between 1375-1500 meters above sea level. As is common in the region, the farms are intercropping with shade, and also harvesting avocado, areca nut (palm nut), bananas, oranges, and peppercorns. The farms fan out from the region’s centrally located town of Kodaikanal in a radius of about 15 miles in a region designated as the Palani Hills.
It’s the microlots that I’m really excited about, however. While there wasn’t enough of Kamal’s farm to single out (it was blended into the larger bulked lots) we did identify and pay premiums for two traceable coffees.
The first is from a very typical small farm in the region, in size about 10.5 hectares, called Periyamalai, which basically just means “bigger hill” or “tall mountain.” Coffee on Periyamalai is intercropped with crops like citrus and peppercorn. The farm is located in Kanalkadu, a few miles east of Kodaikanal – the town at the center of the growing region. The landed lot is nearly sold out, but I enjoyed its cleanliness and it reminded me a bit of a fresh s’more off the fire, with hints of spice and a little brightness to the acidity. Roaster Doris Garrido noted chamomile, light herbs, and English tea.
The second microlot, my personal favorite, comes from a much larger farm called Poopalang Kodaikanal Estate. Uma Kataria runs the multigenerational enterprise, inheriting the farm from her father Navaratham Kesavamurthy. The farm is located centrally in Kodaikanal and is 49 hectares in size at an elevation of 1250 meters. Kamal showed me photos of the farm and the shade trees planted for coffee also act as support for peppercorn vines, which wind up the trunks towards the sky. From sourcing to arrival, this coffee impressed me as elegantly sweet and slightly juicy. I tasted plum, mild citrus, and honey; Doris noted lemon, caramelized sugars, and a good body.