India is an often-overlooked coffee growing country in the modern specialty landscape. It might surprise you to learn that Indian production volumes regularly land the country in top-ten status for both robusta and arabica.

Coffee first came to India through one of two potential routes. A generation or two after Holland’s Pieter van den Broecke visited Yemen’s port of Mokha in 1616, uprooted, and stole a tree to return to the botanical gardens in Amsterdam, the Dutch successfully planted coffee on the western coast of India, in the late 17th century.

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India Green Coffee

There is an alternate—or perhaps parallel—story of coffee’s journey to India’s Karnataka hills, albeit less formally documented. Legends persist that the Sufi monk Baba Budan, on hajj, stowed away seven coffee seeds on his return to his home country. Budan’s journey would have predated van den Broecke’s by a century or more. The hills in Chikmalagur, Karnataka, where Budan’s seeds were planted are still dotted with coffee trees, and bear his name to this day. 

Our earliest written record of coffee consumption in India dates to 1616 in the court of Emperor Jehangir, where the Rev. Edward Terry reported it by name, and noted it to be “more wholesome than pleasant.” While coffeehouses began to emerge in the late 18th century, Indian coffee’s international relevance would hardly be noticed prior to colonization. India’s Malabar coast supplied the Dutch with trees to plant Java and eventually throughout the rest of Indonesia. However, it would be the infamous dominion of the British raj, which would dramatically escalate coffee production in the mid 19th century following the collapse of the East India Trading Company. Coffee scaled up from smallholder plots to state-run plantations, particularly in the country’s southwestern regions. 

India’s coffee production survived significant setbacks throughout the British raj’s century-long colonial rule. Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was ground zero for the world’s first coffee leaf rust epidemic, and India was hit hard in the late 19th century. In response, the country began planting robusta due to its genetic resilience. 

As British influence waned in first half of the twentieth century and independence movements grew, and as World War II cut off trade relationships briefly with much of Nazi-occupied Europe, coffee production was backburnered. However, new domestic consumption trends began emerging. The India Coffee House chain, operated by the India Coffee Board, began popularizing “Indian filter coffee” or “Madras filter coffee,” a brew of finely ground coffee and chicory, often with boiling milk and sugar added. 

India’s presence as a center of coffee research, spurred by the Central Coffee Research Institute has been of utmost importance in the 20th and 21st century, particularly in the study of genetic resilience, climate change, and crop care. Production volumes have steadily increased in India over the past few decades, fueled largely by consumption in Europe (especially Italy, Germany, and Belgium), Japan, and the Middle East. It remains relatively niche in the US market. 

Indian coffee is often full of body and depth. Roasters add it to espresso blends to create more weight and body to the flavor profile of their blend. It is typically low in acidity and complexity. This profile is popular amongst coffee consumers who favor a more densely bodies coffee with hints of smokey and earthy flavors.   

Tastings notes in a desired Indian coffee exhibits characteristics similar to Indonesian coffees, without the noted herbal or mustiness sometimes seen in wet hulled processing methods. Sometimes we might compare a full bodied Indian coffee that has acidity to a nice Guatemalan coffee. Spicer flavors that present themselves in high grade Indian coffee include cardamom, clove, pepper, nutmeg and at times tropical fruit. Royal cupper impressions frequently note graham cracker, brown sugar, nutmeg, citrus, and nutty flavors.   

 

A uniquely Indian coffee, Monsooned Malabar is intentionally exposed to extreme weather and exhibits a pale physical bean appearance with flavors of musty, earthy qualities, low acidity, creamy texture, and a decidedly controversial overall impression. While some tasters love the nostalgic and idiosyncratic style, others find its dank flavors unpleasant. 

Specialty Indian Robusta coffee exhibits a distinctive cleanliness and nuttiness next to more expected flavors such as buttered popcorn and unsweetened chocolaty bitterness. 

The predominant growing regions of coffee in India are in the Southern region, accounting for 90-96% of coffee production and including the states Karnataka (71%), Kerala (21%) and Tamil Nadu (5%). Karnataka includes recognizable denominations of origin such as Mysore, Chickmalagur, Baba Budan Giris, the Western Ghats, and the port city of Mangalore.  

The traditional regions include the mountain region the Western Ghats, covering the western coast of the country and stretching 1600km. The elevation of this mountain range peaks at Kolaribetta which lies in the state of Tamil Nadu reaching 2,637m. The Western Ghats is one of the eight biodiversity hotspots in the world with over 9,000 species of plants and animals. According to UNESCO the mountain rage is older than the Himalayas. The range influences the Indian monsoon weather patterns by intercepting monsoon winds that move in from the southwest in the late months of the summer. In many of these regions, coffee is typically grown under shade and is often inter-cropped with species such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorn and nutmeg. 

   

Additional coffee-growing regions include the mountainous Eastern Ghats, Andhara Pradesh and Orissa in the central-east, as well as numerous states such as Meghalaya and Assam in the humid northeast along the borders with Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. 

India’s coffee regions are extremely diverse which can cultivate a variety of coffees. Higher elevation regions can accommodate arabica species with the more humid environments better suited for robusta coffees. Volcanic Loam soil is a commonly seen soil in these coffee growing regions. Loam soil is made up of sand particles, silt and clay. Volcanic soil also known as black soil cover west-central India. These soils are rich in magnitude, ferrous and humus and are suitable for a wide range of plant species. Every year the soils are at risk of degradation due to high floods from monsoon season.    

 

 

An estimated 250,000 coffee growers are in India. Approximately 98% of those growers are smaller farms. India contributes 5% of global coffee production and roughly 80% of Indian coffee is exported.  

Apart from Mangalore (Panambur/New Mangalore Port), coffee may also export from one of many other ports throughout India’s vast coastal presence. We occasionally see coffee embark from Mumbai (Nhava Sheva), Kochi (Chochin), Thoothukudi (Tuticorin), and others. 

India’s climate extremes, including monsoon seasons and periods of drought lasting 3-4 months make it difficult for a typical arabica to survive. India’s long history of plant selection, hybrid cultivation, and robusta integration have led to unique coffee growing strategies for farmers. Their four most common coffee cultivars include Kent, S795, Cauvery, and selection 9.

Kent is India’s most iconic legacy cultivar. Selected from a population of Typica on Doddengooda Estate in Mysore in 1911, a single tree exhibited an uncanny ability to withstand rust fungus. It’s named for its discoverer and became wildly popular throughout British colonies in the 1920s and 1930s. However, in the hundred-or-so years since its selection, Kent has “lost” its resistance and is no longer considered well-suited for the virulent strains of rust that have emerged in recent decades.

S795 (CCRI’s Selection 3) was developed in India in the 1940s, bred from two resistant parents – Kent and S228 – as a disease resistant hybrid. (CCRI’s Selection 1, aka S228, is an extraordinary spontaneous interspecific hybrid of West Africa’s native Coffea liberica with Ethiopia’s indigenous arabica.) S795 is sometimes called Jember after a research station in the regency of the same name, located in eastern Java, through which it was distributed to Indonesia.

Cauvery (CCRI’s Selection 12) is the anglicized cognate of Kaveri, the name of a river that flows through coffee lands in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Cauvery is a traditional Catimor type cultivar, which draws genetic material from Caturra (short stature Bourbon mutation) and the Timor Hybrid, a robusta x arabica cross.

Selection 9, from CCRI, is a hybrid cultivar with superior cup quality thanks to the introduction of an Ethiopian selection called “Tafarikela,” crossed with the Timor Hybrid. Unusual for HDT hybrids, S9 is a tall tree, and is regarded for its high cup quality.

FAQ

Yes, coffee is grown in the Himalayan foothills, but the portion of India where Himalayan coffee grows is minimal, and most of the Himalayan foothill coffee is grown in neighboring Nepal.  

Monsson coffee is a popular type of processing in India. It can be quite controversial as its flavor profile is very distinct. The coffee is exposed to the humid monsoon winds for about 2-4 months and then dried out and processed. Monsoon seasons last from June to august and bring massive amount of water with them. Ideally the resulting cup offers a creamy, low acidity, earthly coffee.  

Under the full name “Mysore Nuggets Extra Bold, this selection is one of the most recognizable specialty coffee designations in the country. Mysore (Mysuru) is a city in southern Karnataka, and coffees grown as part of the Mysore designation are generally sourced throughout the entire stateThe Extra Bold designation indicates the largest screen size, while “nuggets” appears to be little more than an iconic marketing name. 

Washed coffee is common throughout India, and natural processing may be frequently found as well. Robustas use designations “cherry” for natural processing and “parchment” for washed. 

By far, India’s most infamous stylistic contribution to the world’s coffee supply is the monsooning of coffees. Frequently identified under the designation of Monsooned Malibar, the coffee nowadays is processed intentionally. Coffees harvested, dried naturally in the cherry, and subsequently milled are then exposed to monsoonal conditions in open-walled warehouses. The best of these conditions result in expanded, low density beans with a distinctive (albeit divisive) musty earthiness, low acidity, and mellow character. The conditioning does introduce a high risk of mold, however, and careful quality control must be carried out to ensure the coffee is defect-free. The process evolved from “accidental” or incidental exposure of coffee to the elements of nature, whose consumption eventually created sufficient demand for the process to be repeated intentionally. 

Both arabica and robusta berries are mostly harvested from November util March., conforming with the typical fall/winter timeframe for a northern hemisphere growing region. Best Shipping periods are from March to June. The landing time for Indian coffee in the U.S is typically in the summer.   

Italy is India’s largest export market they account for 20% of coffee bean exports; the market in parts of Europe favors a profile that is bitter and strong. India’s robusta is well suited to the flavor preferences of European espressos, and this market and makes up a large portion of India’s exports.