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Coffee from India: Full of Spice, Intensity, and History

22 September 2021
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You may know India as a tea-drinking nation, but you’ll be amazed to find out about the country’s rich history when it comes to coffee.

The drink’s origin dates back to 1600 AD when Baba Budan, a legendary merchant and 16th-century Sufi, went to Mecca on a pilgrimage and smuggled seven coffee beans from Yemen into Mysore, India. Upon arriving in Mysore, Baba Budan planted the seeds in Chandragiri – a hilly region located in the Indian state of Karnataka.

It seems like a strange tale, but that’s how India’s coffee culture was born.

Where and How It’s Grown

a person scooping up coffee cherries with her hands
India’s coffee farms are pretty small; most are less than 10 acres in size. Photo from Rodrigo Flores.

Today, many aren’t aware that India is one of the world’s largest coffee producers. Ranked sixth internationally, India accounts for more than four per cent of global coffee production.

Coffee farms are found in eight regions, mainly in the southern states. Wet-processed or washed specialty coffees are grown in mountainous areas, such as Baba Budan (yes, Chandragiri became known as Baba Budan thanks to the incredible origin story), Nilgiris, and Shevaroys.

Robusta is a lot more common than Arabica (it’s 30 per cent versus 70 per cent currently), but this wasn’t always the case, and the shift happened when there were huge infestations of coffee-leaf rust, a devastating fungus.

India’s coffee is usually grown under a heavy shade of leguminous trees, and farmers traditionally intercrop it with various fruits and spices, from pepper to cardamom and nutmeg.

Taste Profile

teaspoons of powdered spice
The spices used in Indian coffee provide an explosion of flavours. Photo from Pratiksha Mohanty.

Coffee from India is generally mild and well-balanced. It’s also relatively low in acidity, but you can sometimes expect some spicy notes (due to the spices and fruits in the processing stage) and full-bodied flavours.

An interesting signature coffee to highlight is the Monsooned Malabar, which comes from the Malabar coast of Karnataka and Kerala in the southwest areas of India.

An intensely flavourful option, the Monsooned Malabar is created through a unique process: before they are roasted, Malabar beans are intentionally exposed to seasonal monsoon conditions in India. The coffee beans are harvested when they reach maturity, and the cherries are dried out under the sun. Then, the beans are sorted into grades and stored until the monsoon season.

This is where it gets interesting: During the season, instead of keeping the beans away from harsh conditions, they are stored in open-sided warehouses and left exposed to violent winds, which are moisture-saturated and contain copious amounts of sea salt. The beans absorb moisture and swell up during this entire process and also turn from green to off-white.

As a final step, the beans are packaged before being shipped off to consumers and buyers. Monsooned Malabar tastes unlike any other coffee; it lacks acid, is slightly grainy, and is also spicy, smokey, earthy, and somewhat sweet – all at the same time.

Best Brewing Methods

The most famous brewing method in India is inarguably filtered coffee, and in South India, this is brewed with a metal device similar to that used to brew Vietnamese coffee.

You get a cylinder divided into two parts; located at the bottom is the tumbler used to collect the coffee, and as for the top half, it has a perforated disk with a handle in the centre. The brew is then loaded in the top cylinder and tamped with the perforated disk before hot water is added and poured over, with the final result left to drip into the tumbler below slowly.

Try it Yourself

a cup of masala chai coffee placed on a table
Masala chai coffee is a deliciously spiced drink that is enjoyed by people around the world. Photo from Tea Creative │Soo Chung.

Want a taste of Indian coffee? Follow this recipe for a masala chai coffee, aka Indian spiced coffee.

Ingredients:

  • 120ml freshly brewed coffee
  • 120ml cream or milk
  • 1 tbsp dried spice mixture (see recipe below)
  • Cardamom coffee syrup (optional; see recipe below)
  • Sugar, to taste

Dried spice mixture

  • 2 tbsp ground ginger
  • 2 tbsp coriander
  • ½ tsp ground cloves
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground cardamom (optional)

Cardamom coffee syrup

  • 30g whole cardamom pods
  • 65g sugar
  • 235ml water

Directions:

  1. Combine the spices for the dried spice mixture and store them away in an airtight container (you can do this ahead of time).
  2. If you’re adding the cardamom coffee syrup, add the pods to the water and bring to a boil. Add sugar until dissolved. Strain and throw away the cardamom pods.
  3. In a small pan, add cream or milk to the dried spice mixture.
  4. Using a De’Longhi automatic drip coffee maker, pour 120ml of freshly brewed coffee into a cup.
  5. Combine with coffee and sweeten with cardamom coffee syrup (or sugar).

This article features Automatic Drip Coffee Makers

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