It was the 17th century. An Indian priest, Baba Budan, went on a pilgrimage to the Middle East. He had had coffee and was so enamored of the drink that he wanted to take it back home with him to India. But the coffee bean and the plants were carefully guarded. Any beans sent outside the Middle East were boiled and sterilized so no coffee could be harvested.
Risking his life, Baba Budan strapped seven beans to his chest and smuggled them to the foothills of the Western Ghats in South India. The beans were planted and the bushes thrived. The area of Chikmagalur became the birth place of Indian coffee.
It was a very good thing that Baba Budan did not have to go through an x-ray machine at Customs because coffee then spread to the rest of the world from India.
But the story of coffee goes back another 500-600 years. Legend has it that a goatherd observed his flock eating some red berries after which they became very energetic. He took some of the berries to the village priest. The priest boiled the red berries in water and had a sip. Coffee was born.
Today, while Indian coffee is very popular in India, especially in the South where it is grown, it is virtually unknown outside of the country. About 75% of Indian coffee is grown in the Southern state of Karnataka in Chikmagalur, Sakleshpur, and Coorg. India mostly exports coffee to the Eurozone and very little finds its way into the US.
Even with a sizeable domestic market, the life of coffee planters is not secure. Fortunes are made and lost with huge fluctuations in the coffee market. When Vietnam ramped up its coffee production, prices for Indian coffee dipped low. My aunts and uncles who live in Sakleshpur and have coffee estates say that another big problem today is that labor is very hard to get despite offering high wages and other benefits.
Many spices, such as pepper, vanilla and cardamom are grown along with coffee. This gives the estate owner some additional revenue. But the market for spices is not a stable one either. The prices for vanilla for example, a labor intensive spice as it has to be fertilized by hand, have gone as far up as 15,000 Rupees per Kg down to just a couple of thousand Rupees per Kg.
Coffee estates are beautiful and are a lot of fun to visit especially during harvest time. The coffee from my family’s estates is shade grown. This means that there is a diversity of tall trees providing cover to the coffee bushes below. The trees of course attract all kinds of birds. We’ve even spotted peacocks!
While coffee tourism has started, it is in its infancy and there are only a few coffee estates that offer home stays and tours of their estates. So if you are ever in South India, I’d encourage you to get off the well-worn tourist track and visit one of these estates to learn more about one of the world’s most popular brews.
p.s. I’m back after traveling in South India for almost 6 weeks. I hope to get posting more regularly again.