Meet the coffee geek

Meet the coffee geek

Sunalini Menon spills the beans on what it means to be the country's first professional woman coffee-taster, writes Sharmila Chand.

As a child, Sunalini Menon was fascinated by her uncle, as she watched him do some fun tricks at a tea estate in Munnar, Kerala. She wouldn’t blink once as he took a swig of tea, playfully moved it in his mouth, rolled up his eyes in concentration, then spit it out, saying, “This is bad.”

She would watch him tirelessly, as he did it over and over again. And before she knew it, she became the country's first professional woman coffee-taster. Today, she is a licensed Q and R grader, certified by the Speciality Coffee Association of America, which has not only strengthened her knowledge base, but has also given her specialisation in the ‘organoleptic’ or sensory evaluation of coffee. 

At 58, Sunalini still thinks it's fun. “You know,” she starts, explaining with a child-like enthusiasm, “my work is exciting, flavourful, demanding and challenging. Every day is an adventurous one, considering that the coffee cup is constantly evolving and changing every time I have a sample of coffee for cupping. The beans come from different regions, from different countries, from different processing methodologies, from different strains and these variants bring about diversity in the taste profile of the cup.”

Sunalini’s profession is interesting and at the same time, challenging, as she sits to decipher the nuances in a cup.

Identifying the positives and the negatives, arriving at the causative factors for these positives and negatives is a daily chore. And every time her evaluation is correct and successful, she feels satisfied and on top of the world. For it’s the result of the training she has undergone in coffee-tasting and the experience she has gained over the years. Of course, she does have that innate acuity for carrying out the art and science of coffee-tasting, too.

“If you want to make quick money, this is certainly not the profession to pick. But coffee-tasting is partially an art and partially a science, and it is a fantastic
profession to be in,” Sunalini says, earnestly.

“A profession which wakes you up every day to a beautiful and flavourful morning. It requires you to be diligent, patient and have an innate sense of taste, to be able to look for certain attributes and profiles in the coffee cup. Just like an artist, it requires you to explore your art, look beyond the obvious bitterness and catch the various levels of intensity, acidity and flavour.”

In 1972, when she first started out, Sunalini found that she was the first woman to enter the portals of government, at the officer’s cadre level, in the Coffee Board of India.

She reminisces, “Most of the staff working under me were years older. They were not used to taking instructions from a woman, let alone from a young woman who had limited knowledge and experience in the profession! Also, at that point of time, I was new to the state of Karnataka and unfamiliar with Kannada, as I had come from Tamil Nadu. But looking back, I think these challenges helped build the person that I am today.”

There have been several enthralling moments in her profession, but nothing to beat her meeting with the famous ‘espresso man’ of the world. “The most memorable moment was the day, in 2002, when Dr Ernesto Illy, of the popular reputed roastery from Italy - M/s. Illycaffe, spent the day with us at our lab in Bangalore,” says this chief executive of Coffeelab Private Limited, Bangalore.

When she is not testing and tasting coffee, Sunalini loves to listen to music, read, visit handicraft exhibitions and talk to the artisans. She also loves to travel and meet people of different cultures in the coffee-producing origins of the world.

Menon plans to carry out blends for many more companies, cafes and coffee roasters. More importantly, she intends to continue training others in the coffee cupping profession, and leave behind a caffeine legacy. But her burning desire is to have at least one super speciality green coffee from India, which will burn bright in the world horizon of speciality coffees.

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