A sojourn into Southern India
Sunday, 29th January 2012
A 3:30am wakeup call quickly erased all the romantic notions I held of this, our first trip to origin. Where we were headed would be cooler than the 42 degrees, we’d endured on Saturday so escaping our summer heat was a great motivator.
My travelling companions would be my friends and partners, Harriet from Margaret River KoffeeWorks and Jake from the Swan Valley KoffeeWorks. It was a trip we had talked about doing together for some time, so the early morning climb onto the plane in Perth was a dream come true.
Following a three-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur we arrived early evening in Bangalore. We headed directly into town (if you could call a place that houses 5 million people, a town).
After checking into our hotel, we immediately took to the streets hunting down an Indian meal to start our adventure. While a local, mobile phone salesman couldn’t help us with a SIM card, he proved very useful with a restaurant recommendation and how to get there. We had no idea what the menu said, but we fluked some amazing food, mainly vegetarian, and all for less than eight dollars for the three of us!
With our appetite more than satisfied and our 3:30am start taking its toll, we retired for our first night in India, lulled to sleep by the sound of dogs barking and water hammer from the copper pipes in the roof!
Journey into the Mountains
Monday, 30th January 2012
Up at 7am we tucked into a breakfast of Masala Dosa, a partially fermented pancake of rice and lentil flour, folded, pan fried and served with a seasonal filling of potatoes, lentils and peas. It was sooo tasty and finished off with a piping hot cup of tea. After breakfast we were met by our driver Mr Halesh and began wending our way out of Bangalore to Hassan, the base for Allanasons (the partners of our Australian coffee suppliers HA Bennett and Sons).
What we didn’t realise, until further into our trip, is that there are more than 100 languages and dialects spoken across the various states of India, and of course we didn’t know a single word in any of them. Luckily Mr Halesh spoke five, as well as English and Japanese; not bad for a 25 year old) – we would have been lost without him.
En route to Hassan we arrived at the town of Shravanabelogola (try saying that 3 times quickly). Shravanabelogola is home to the incredible Jain temple set on top of a massive granite outcrop. After narrowly avoided a coconut to the head (that’s another story) we
began climbing what seemed like a million or so steps barefoot to the temple. Built more than 2,300 years ago, the temple contains beautiful inscriptions and intricate rock carvings, as well as the world’s largest monolithic statue. (a massive 57 foot high carving of the ‘handsomely endowed’ Jain deity, Gommateshwara).
After a quick stopover in Hassan for lunch we continued on towards the Western Ghats. Dodging potholes, goats, cows, cars, motorbikes and overloaded buses, we passed Robusta plantations, coconut groves and forests including fields of cardamom, vanilla and pepper. Finally, we rounded the last bend for our first glimpse of Kelagur Heights (the source of one of Yahava’s Specialty Estate coffees).
Photos simply won’t do this place justice – emerald hills are dotted with patterned rows of tea bushes, ‘sentinel like’ stands of Arabica and Robusta coffee trees, interspersed between groves of native forest. Then in an almost storybook fashion, set amongst it all, are beautiful colonial era bungalows of the Kelagur tea Estate. This is a sight I will never forget.
We dumped our bags at the Estate lodgings and headed back down the hill to watch the locals process the days harvest. We were told they had already done three passes through each of the coffee blocks and were now doing a final strip harvest, which meant the workers would be hand sorting the coffee cherries once they arrived back at the processing yard. After the arduous task of hand sorting, the cherries enter water tanks where the over ripe cherries sink and the good cherries are floated off. From here the cherries are pulped and fermented for between 18 and 24 hours. After then being washed, the beans are dried on the Estate patios. Finally, the parchment coffee is packed and stored in Kelagur’s unique wood-lined dunnage box where the coffee develops more body; an attribute that makes the coffee perfect for espresso brewing.
I couldn’t help but notice how happy and relaxed everyone was. The average worker harvests between 90 to 100 kilos of coffee a day, earning about $6.50, and all of them were smiling and chatting away, even as they lugged 50 kilo sacks of cherries up the steps to the receival bin. The Kelagur owners really look after their workers. They provide good health cover and they even have a hospital on the estate. There is both a crèche and a school for the estate worker’s children and scholarships for further education. Despite this, Mr D’Souza, the estate’s General Manager, tells me it is becoming increasingly difficult to find workers as more folk are drawn away to the cities.
Mountains of coffee
Tuesday 31st January 2012
The next morning, we woke early especially so we could watch the sunrise over the tea plantation – another of those treasured experiences that will lodge in my mind for years to come! After breakfast, (more Masala Dosas) we were met by Mr D’Souza for a tour of the tea factory. Tea requires almost as much attention as coffee. We were walked through the processes of wilting, cutting, fermentation, drying and packing.
The Mathais family, are fifth generation owners at Kelagur Heights, but they were the first to introduce tea into the southern highlands of India and their passion for tea continues today.
As we headed back down the hill Mr D’Souza spoke enthusiastically about his estate – he has been working here since 1979 and knows both the land and the workers intimately. He spoke of Kelagur’s absolute dedication to quality in both tea and coffee and about their ability to match the correct coffee variety with each part of the estate to achieve maximum yields and quality. We stopped briefly at Kelagur’s ‘experimental block’, where new coffee plants are being trialled, including crosses of the much sort after Panamanian Geisha.
Finally, after a quick stop at the Kelagur Estate shop to buy some tea and cardamom (also grown at the estate) we headed back towards Hassan for our next appointment with Allanasons. It had been an amazing day; my knowledge of coffee and tea had increased tenfold. That night we met up with Jayadeva, Allanason’s coffee quality control manager in Hassan. Not only is he a coffee expert but he was able to instruct me on the finer points of consuming Indian food, including a few tips about how to deal with the ‘spicier’ dishes!
Wednesday 1st February 2012
It was a lazy start to the day. We were driven to Allanasons processing yard on the outskirts of Hassan. Allanasons is one of the two largest exporters of Indian coffee, shipping more than 30,000 tonnes of coffee through this facility alone (including more than 1,500 tonnes they send annually to the famous Italian roaster, Illy). Of that, about 50% is processed on site with another 50% bought in from smaller processors around India. At this facility was a stockpile of parchment coffee that had to be seen to be believed, it was mountainous. The plant housed a variety of machines busily sorting and resorting coffee – the noise was deafening. By the time I walked outside, I felt like I’d just exited an AC/DC concert.
After hulling and polishing, the coffee goes through two rounds of computer controlled ‘colour sorting’ and a final ‘hand sorting’. This level of thoroughness means a 60kg sack of coffee takes an entire day of sifting to produce. This attention to detail ensures the coffee we receive is beautiful coffee, ready for us to roast and brew.
Jayadeva generously took us through their entire process, from receival to final packing and shipment. Allanasons apply what they call the ‘Illy standard’ to all Tiger Mountain coffee supplied to Yahava. It means that all coffee that leaves their facility is fully ‘traceabe’.
After touring the processing yard, it was on to the ‘cupping lab’ where Jayadeva took us through a cupping of recent coffees, from A grade Arabicas down to AB Robustas. The Allanasons cupping lab is an impressive set up. They have two sample roasters, an Agtron colour scanner, a commercial grinder and a single group La Marzocoo espresso machine. Their professionalism and attention to detail is world class. It was so apparent why their coffees taste so good.
We farewelled Jayadeva and the Allanason’s crew and made our way to Mysore for a day and a half of relaxing and playing tourists.
On to the elephant hills
Thursday 2nd February 2012
The night I arrived in Mysore I felt excited – although it is a large town of around 800,000 people, it is very welcoming. Its bustling centre is packed with restaurants, markets and street vendors, vibrant, noisy and captivating.
Overlooking the town is the Mysore Palace, home to the Wodeyars, the royal family of Mysore. The palace was rebuilt in 1897 after the original palace burnt down during a royal wedding. It must have been a fiery affair. The structure is a fascinating combination of Hindu, Muslim, Rajput and Gothic architecture. The result is spectacular, particularly at dawn and dusk, when it is illuminated with more than 100,000 lights on two evenings each week.
After the palace tour, we shopped for Mysore’s famous silks and wandered through the local markets. The coloured array of fresh fruit and vegetables was mouth-watering. A number of local coffee roasters were demonstrating their skills using interesting if not slightly antique equipment. Even though their coffees were predominantly heavily roasted robustas, it was nice to see the local industry alive and well.
Friday 3rd February 2012
It was a long drive from Mysore to Pollachi, for the second half of our Indian adventure where we were to meet with Pathy, a man who resides in Canberra. Pathy’s family own Thalanar Estate in the Nilgiri Mountains, about an hour outside of Pollachi. Thalanar is famously also home to wild elephant, leopards, pumas, bison, deer, mongoose and the occasional tiger. The road to Pollachi is tortuous. The insanely steep mountain road is so windy that the hairpin turns are actually numbered just so you don’t feel like you are on the road to Purgatory, (five down, only 22 to go)!
In Pollachi we were greeted by Pathy’s cousin Krishna. He was the owner of the hotel we were to stay at. Pathy was due in that evening with Sasa of ONA coffee in Canberra and Bob of Blue Sky Coffee in Brisbane. They would all be our travelling companions for the next four days. We farewelled our trusty Mr Halesh, he would be making the unenviable twelve- hour return trip to Bangalore.
Exhausted from the journey and full of anticipation, I settled in for an early night.
Saturday 4th February 2012
By morning Bob, Sasa and Pathy were all suffering. They had only managed four hours sleep that night. We set off towards Thalanar Estate, passing one of the Indian government’s massive hydro dams. It was a beautiful spot, so I asked Krishna why no one was swimming or doing their washing. “Crocodiles,” he said!
As we wound our way into the Nilgiri hills we ground into the first hairpin bend and I noticed the first of the now familiar signs ‘1 of 40’ – this was going to be an hour I wasn’t looking forward to. As we climbed above 1,500 feet the forest changed into endless tea fields, many owned by the world famous Dilmah company. There were thousands of hectares of tea, which apparently makes up only a small percentage of the Dilmah plantings.
Stopping briefly for a local tea (fine and fragrant but very sweet!) we continued on to Thalanar Estate. As we reached the top of the mountain road, which was effectively Thalanar Estate’s driveway, I glanced at the altimeter on the dashboard. It read 1,550 metres, that’s more than 5,000 feet. We hopped out to take in the amazing views and I almost stepped in an elephant sized pile of dung. “Yes, that is elephant poop, said Krishna, they roam wild through this area of the hills!”
After a quick lunch with Pathy and Krishna’s uncle Ravi we headed down to Thalanar’s processing yard. Thalanar were experiencing a very early harvest, as a result of an unusually early flowering in February 2011, and they were very happy with quality of their harvest. As we were walked through the plant, I noticed that Thalanar beans are mechanically washed after pulping, removing the majority of the mucilage prior to fermentation. The process offers greater aromatics and vibrancy in the coffees at the finish.
Thalanar Estate is quite different to Kelagur Heights and the differences were obvious. The Nilgiri hills are incredibly rocky, full of granite, which means the coffee trees in comparison really struggle to grow. As a result, they are planted at a much lower density (900 trees per hectare). Add to this a lower rainfall at Thalanar Estate (1,200mm compared to 4,000mm at Kelagur) and it became clear that this is a totally different style of coffee, although equally as exciting.
We left Thalanar just on dusk and endured a winding drive back up the mountain pass to a deserted dairy, in the hope of spotting some Bison. We saw two, including an alpha male, which was enormous and weighed nearly 1 tonne, according to Krishna. But the highlight on the way back down was spotting the glowing red eyes of a wild elephant in the inky black night. Elephants are timid animals and rarely seen during the day, but they become very active and roam widely during the night. To see one (even if just it’s eyes) in the wild on an Indian mountain top was a wonderful experience.
Tandoori and cold beer.
Sunday 5th February 2012
Because we arrived at Waterfall Tea Estate during the night, we had no idea of the surroundings. On sunrise we woke and walked out of our accommodation straight into emerald green tea fields, just as beautiful as we saw at Kelagur, further north. The local Indian workers were pumping out some of their Sunday tunes. In the words of Julie Andrews, ‘the hills really were alive with the sound of music’.
Unfortunately, it clearly wasn’t the local Triple J frequency, so it was a relief when they turned the volume down! No offence but it just wasn’t my style of music.
We headed back up the hill, past Thalanar Estate, to look at the Tata Robusta plantation (one of India’s largest companies, with a range of products that constitutes 5% of India’s GDP – if you can believe it!) Looking at Robusta trees, side by side with Arabica, the differences are stark – Robusta dwarfs Arabica and is a much sturdier tree with larger, dark green leaves. Robusta is grown at lower altitudes, where they can produce higher yields with greater disease resistance and with fewer resources. The only drawback is that Robusta coffee is heavier and harsher, and rarely produces the flavour and aromatics that make Arabica coffee the prized coffee it is, the world over.
Walking through the Thalanar plantation later in the afternoon, we spoke with Pathy and Krishna about their Arabica varieties. Much of Southern India was traditionally planted in the ‘Kent’ variety, and later ‘Selection 795’. More recently, and like Kelagur Estate, Thalanar has been selecting varieties for specific blocks on the estate, including new varieties (such as ‘Selection 9’ and ‘HRC’ – Hawaiian Red Caturra), from the Indian Coffee Institute in Chikmagalur. Both varieties deliver more consistent yields, improved disease resistance, finer aromatics and richer flavour. Importantly, the dedication both estates display to consistently improving the quality of their coffee is evidence of even better things to come.
That night we celebrated our visit to Thalanar Estate, with Krishna, Pathy and Ravi, by indulging in an Indian-style BBQ at the bungalow. After finishing all the Kingfisher beer, Krishna pulled out a carton of Fosters – the beer of choice for Australians abroad (but rarely at home). Washing down tandoori chicken with cold beer, we couldn’t help but laugh at the amazing journey our careers in coffee were taking us on!
Monday 6th February 2012
We left the Nilgiri Mountains and headed to Pollachi, breaking the drive at the Thalanar drying yards. Although they are a very simple construction, the yards were spotlessly clean and enabled Thalanar to hold their coffee lots in prime condition before processing. I even took off my shoes to help the local workers as they turned over the parchment coffee, with their feet. This peculiar ‘dance-like’ stomp ensures an even distribution of moisture throughout coffee.
When we finally arrived at the Pollachi Processing Works, it appeared to be a scaled down version of Allanason’s factory in Hassan. The Pollachi Works were just as clean and well organised, but purpose built to process small volume, specialty lots, that included the sought after ‘Peaberry’. I spied the first of Pathy’s ‘Elephant Hills coffee’, packed and ready for shipment to Australia. I could see that Pathy was using the ‘grain-pro liners’ for the shipment of his coffee. These liners regulate moisture levels during the long journey these coffees will make through changing climatic zones. They also prevent any possible contamination en route, ensuring our coffee arrives in top condition and ready for our roaster.
Late in the afternoon we headed to Ambrra River Resort, (managed by Krishna and part owned by Ravi), for our last 2 nights in India. Along the way we past hundreds of Tamarind trees lining the road – these trees are government owned but harvesting them is subcontracted out to locals, providing valuable employment and a source of income.
The elephant walk
Tuesday 7th February 2012
Our second last day was spent in a national park about an hour out of Pollachi. Here I hoped to see more than just the eye of an elephant. As it turned out, I didn’t just get to see an elephant, I ended up riding one! Asian elephants are smaller and less aggressive than their African cousins, but they are still pretty powerful beasts and an intimidating sight for a bunch of Aussie coffee roasters. Worryingly the 53-year-old Elephant seemed to be just as nervous as we were.
After a few false starts and a few awkward moments, plus some gentle nudging from his handlers, the Elephant was harnessed up and allowed us to hop on his back for a walk through the jungle. As we sauntered past groves of bamboo, watching monkeys scuttling out of our way and wild bison grazing in the clearings, I reflected on the last few days with Krishna and Pathy – we had seen beautiful tea and coffee plantations, sunsets over the mountains and now I was astride an elephant. I smiled to myself, just how good is this and just how blessed am I to get the opportunity to see all this?
Back to the land of the flat white
Wednesday 8th February 2012
On my last day in India, to be honest, I was ready to get home to my loved ones and a much-needed flat white. After a very casual start to the day we stopped to do some last-minute shopping in Pollachi and Coimbatore. A trip to India is not complete without sampling Southern Indian sweets from a local cake shop and it was the perfect way to end our stay. The flight left Coimbatore Airport at 9:30pm via Chennai and didn’t arrive in Singapore until 8am the next morning – it was to be a long night!
Thursday 9th February 2012
Our Yahava mates from the Singapore KoffeeWorks were at the airport to greet us. We arrived bleary eyed and very dishevelled but excited to see them. One of their baristas, Fahmi, was competing in the Singapore Barista Championships and we were keen to watch his performance. We breezed through the airport and into a taxi for our 20-minute trip to the Sembawang Hills.
Tsai, the Singapore KoffeeWorks manager greeted us at the door. He had become a good friend after spending much of last year in WA leaning the Yahava ropes. I couldn’t wait to hop behind their La Marzocco espresso machine and knock out some coffees – after eleven days of drinking traditional Indian style coffees, the three of us were looking forward to our preferred double shot flat whites.
We also caught up with the two Yahava Singapore shareholders, HB and Meng, and talked with them about our Indian experiences, along with exciting plans for the future and our renewed enthusiasm for all thing’s coffee. After a delicious laksa with HB, he dropped us back at the airport for our final flight back to Perth. Crammed in at the back of the plane we whiled away the hours drinking beer and playing cards until the lights of Perth signalled, we were almost home – this was a journey I would treasure forever.
Back behind the roaster in Swan Valley I had time to reflect on my Southern Indian adventure. I still shake my head in disbelief, what an extraordinary time I had. We travelled through an incredibly beautiful country, met the friendliest, most hospitable people, all dedicated to growing the finest coffees. I now understand so much more about how coffee is grown and processed and where we fit in the coffee chain – we are but one link in an incredible process. The people and the places that produce the coffees we roast are all part of an extraordinary coffee story. Every bean we roast and every cup we brew is inextricably linked to the memories I have of that journey. It was indeed an adventure in a cup.
Our coffee knowledge improves immeasurably, and we learn valuable lessons, on every origin trip. We share this new-found knowledge with our Yahava friends and of course our customers. But here are a few tips you won’t find in any travel guide;
Lesson 1. Hang on for your life: If you are a nervous passenger, then India may not be for you, because driving like a maniac is not only an Indian tradition but the only way their transport system works. There is no way of explaining how chaotic Indian traffic is unless you’ve been there. Motorbikes, cars, buses, trucks and COWS generally don’t fit on the same stretch of road, but India is the exception to this rule. Take a huge dollop of dust, add the continuous beeping of horns and throw in thousands of 100cc postie bikes (each with four passengers onboard) and you are in for the drive of your life (literally).
Lesson 2. Grow a mo: You are not a man in India unless you grow a moustache. I’ve never been a great believer in the mo’ (Movember being the exception) but these ‘good looking’ moustached Indians’ have certainly caused me to re-evaluate my position!
Lesson 3. Patience is a virtue: NOTHING happens in retail before 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning, if at all. We went looking for a SIM card early in the morning to be told the ‘SIM’ expert wouldn’t be in until 11am the next day. Not much help if you want to get on the road by 7:30am!
Lesson 4. The food is incredible: Even now, a week after getting back, I cannot think of a single meal during our trip that I didn’t really enjoy. Seriously, if for no other reason, go to India to eat! Predominantly vegetarian, the foods are subtle, fragrantly aromatic (not too spicy) and delicious. Not to mention inexpensive – $10 to $15 would easily feed three of us every mealtime.
Lesson 5. Beautiful people: Indian coffee is grown by passionate coffee people dedicated to producing world class coffees. They are constantly refining their processes and trialling new cultivars and new methods. But on top of everything they are wonderful people. The hospitality they gave this bunch of South-West Australian coffee roasters was humbling.