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Brewing her own blend of success

Bindu Gopal Rao, March 25, 2017 0:27 IST

Ace cupper

connoisseur Sunalini Menon

connoisseur Sunalini Menon

Check the juicy notes – you can taste citrus, orange, lemon, green apple, flecks of caramel – the taste has complex undertones. And it is so wonderfully juicy and sweet.”

I am in Coorg at the Tata Plantation amidst verdant greenery, sitting in a coffee appreciation session, listening in rapt attention to Asia’s first woman coffee expert, Sunalini Menon.

And the coffee she is describing is no ordinary kind. This is a microlot of coffee from Block 19 of the Nullore Estate of the Tata Coffee plantations that was selected for the Starbucks Reserve Programme. Sunalini, along with her team, was responsible for ensuring that it made it to shelves of the store in Seattle where it sold out like hot cakes!

Discovering her calling

Doing things differently and challenging norms is second nature to Sunalini. Growing up with her grandparents in Chennai – as her father had a transferrable job – she admits that she was completely disinterested in studies and regularly failed her exams. That was until Class 5.
“One day, I overheard my grandmother talking to my grandfather and she sounded worried about me. But my grandfather reassured her saying, ‘She will do something no one has ever done’. Those words stayed with me, so I studied hard and actually topped the exams that year. But I felt horrible after that as I had raised the expectations and had to continue working hard to top all my exams,” she says with a laugh.

Eventually, she decided to pursue dietetics but a quirk of fate led her to coffee. “I came to Bengaluru after completing my studies as my parents were here, and saw a job advertisement for an ‘assistant cup taster’ at the Coffee Board of India. It rang a bell as my parents had taken me and my sister to visit our uncle at a tea estate in Munnar once, and I was fascinated by the special room they had for tea tasting there. And I loved coffee, so I was in!”

Working with men

However, when she went for the interview, she was surprised that th other candidates were all men with a lot of experience. “I thought I didn’t stand a chance but somehow, I got through the interview. Even though the panel was sceptical, H G V Reddy, the then board chairman, said I was qualified and that my gender shouldn’t stop me from doing my job,” she recalls.

In no time, Sunalini found herself heading a team of far more experienced and older men. “They didn’t like taking orders from a younger woman, and at one point, I was reduced to tears. But my boss told me that I had to learn my subject well first, and I did exactly that. I went from desk to desk meeting people and things started to change. Soon, I became one of them,” Sunalini says.

The board sent her to Switzerland and Germany for training that cemented her experience in the field. Over the years, she gained wholesome experience as a quality evaluator, trainer, coffee blender and judge for coffee competitions too.

Honing her skills

After two decades with the Coffee Board, Sunalini moved on to the private sector. She started her own venture, Coffeelab in Bengaluru, not just to up her coffee tasting skills but also work on issues related to coffee quality.

She frequently travelled to different coffee-growing regions, worked with farmers and let each experience sharpen her craft and teach her about new coffee varietals. This is also why she has done both the Q Arabica and Q Robusta grader licensing programmes.

“I took my Q Arabica grader course and exam in Ethiopia, the birthplace of Arabica coffee, where I was pitted against Ethiopians, who are fabulous cuppers. Also I did my Q Robusta (R Grader) course in Uganda, the birthplace for Robusta coffee. I am fortunate to have had the chance to do these certifications in the perfect place!” she says.

Coffee in these regions have red currant and black currant undertones, she learnt, something that is not seen in Indian varieties.

Drawing inspiration

Sunalini is inspired by Erna Knutsen, who introduced the concept of speciality coffee to the world. She too went through a lot of difficulties being a woman in a predominantly male domain.

“I also owe a lot to my guru Dr Ernesto Illy, who spotted me at an expo manning a stall by the Indian Coffee Board and called me to his office. He taught me so much about coffee and today, I teach Coffee Economics and Science at the Ernesto Illy Foundation,” she says.

With so many feathers on her cap, Sunalini has set her sight on more. “I want to launch a super speciality Indian coffee internationally. I have been working closely with six farmers and I hope to succeed soon. This will be the most sought-after coffee in the world,” she says.

Sunalini’s zest for life is just like the coffee she works with – full of life and flavours, with twists and turns that make the journey fruitful in more ways than one!

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