Spilling the beans on a rare brew

Spilling the beans on a rare brew


Spilling the beans on a rare brew

It’s not just the fortunes of farmers that ride on the monsoon, but also of those dependent on the rare variety of coffee called the Monsoon Malabar. This brew, which is favoured  in Scandinavian countries, was a serendipitous find, writes Ronald Anil Fernandes

The aroma of Mangalore’s coffee has been savoured for the last 150 years, but not in Mangalore. Ironically, Mangalore coffee has delighted those who love a hot cuppa in Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and Norway. Germany has joined the list too recently.

Out of the 5,000-odd tonnes of Monsooned Malabar coffee exported to Scandinavian countries annually, nearly 4,000 tonnes belong to the Arabica variety while about 1,000 tonnes are of the Robusta variety. Interestingly, nearly 60 per cent of the total export is made by the 145-year-old Aspinwall & Company Limited alone. The remaining 40 per cent is exported by other companies in the region.

Monsooned Malabar is an Indian variety of dry processed coffee beans. The harvested and processed beans are exposed to monsoon rain and winds for a period of about three to four months, causing the beans to swell and lose their original acidity, resulting in a smooth brew.

Speaking to Spectrum, Aspinwall (coffee division) General Manager K D Thimmiah said unwashed coffee beans are procured from coffee plantations between January and April, and the same are stored in warehouses. “These beans are exposed to moisture-laden monsoon winds in well-ventilated warehouses from mid-June to mid-September (90 days).” Stating that the monsooning process involves careful handling, repeated spreading, raking and turning around in regular intervals, he said that the beans absorb moisture, get significantly large, and turn from green to golden brown in colour.

Soon afterwards, the product is polished and graded and shipped to Scandinavian countries in food grade gunny bags, he adds. The point to be noted here is that, not all the grades of coffee are suitable for ‘monsooning’. Only grade ‘A’ and ‘AA’ are selected for monsooning.

Unique variety

What is unique about this product is that this variety (Monsoon Malabar) received GI (geographical indication) tag in 2007-08 and the product can be called Monsoon Malabar only if the coffee beans are monsooned in the west coast region between Thalassery (in Kerala) and Mangalore (in Karnataka). “If the product is processed in any other region, it cannot be called Monsoon Malabar,” said Aspinwall General Manager M Shekhar Pujari and added that the name Monsooned Malabar is derived from exposure to the monsoon winds of the Malabar coast. Pujari added that the Monsoon Malabar brand commands 10 to 15 per cent premium in the export market compared to normal coffee. On the contrary, there is also a risk involved. If the monsoon fails, then there is a possibility of heavy loss as the entire process depends on the monsoon alone!

However, it may be noted here that the process requires only a monsoon weather (humid) and not necessarily the heavy downpour, he added.

To a query on why the brand is popular only in Scandinavian countries and not anywhere else including the place of its origin (Mangalore), Pujari said efforts have been made to market the same in other parts of the world, but to no avail.

It was sheer serendipity that led to the discovery of the Monsoon Malabar brand. This variety dates back to the time of the British Raj, when the beans were transported in wooden vessels by sea from India to Europe, taking almost six months. Legend has it that when the coffee beans were exposed (for six months) to constant humid conditions, the beans changed in size and colour and the unique aroma became an instant hit with the Europeans, paving way to the birth of a new coffee.

With the opening of the Suez canal, there was a drastic cut in the transportation time to the destinations. As the products reached the Scandinavian countries in a relatively short time, consumers missed the unique aroma.

Over a period, it was discovered that a typical ambience could be simulated along the coastal belt of southwest India during the monsoon months thus bringing about the same characteristic transformation to ordinary coffee beans. Thus was born the ritual called monsooning.

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