Brewing coffee and culture: From bean to cup

Brewing coffee and culture: From bean to cup

Brewing coffee and culture

Coffee cherries and flowers. Photos by Author and Adithya K A

Coffee pervades the lives of people in Hassan, Chikkamagaluru and Kodagu districts. From the decades-old jaggery coffee to the current flavoured ones, coffee as a product has seen a huge transformation. What has remained unchanged is its association with almost anything momentous in our lives.

The journey of coffee to India is well- documented and etched in our memories through the story of Arab traveller Bababudan bringing seven coffee beans to Chikkamagaluru in 1670 AD. He sowed these seven seeds in Chikkamagaluru’s Bababudangiri hills (Chandradrona Parvatha). Today, India is world’s third-largest producer of coffee.

The earliest and most prominent coffee planters of the yesteryears in the country were the British. They introduced the system of check-rolls which is an attendance register of the labour. They maintained a diary which explained the daily activities in the estate to which the owner signed every day. These rather important systems are intact and in place even today, and any estate that you visit here will show you daily records from as back as 50 years ago!

These documents serve as important pieces of information for future generations. The British were particular about closing the accounts by the end of March wherein the savings and loans availed by the labourers were tallied. This tradition continues to this day.

Other customs that we have inherited are the practices of maintaining lush green and colourful gardens at our homes, rearing about half a dozen hunting dogs and possessing rifles and pistols for safety from wildlife.

Blossom shower

Coffee plantations receive blossom shower (rains) around March every year. Coffee estates that blossom with white flowers are a sight to behold. While this is a visual treat for us, this also guarantees a good crop for the coming year. The joyous mood is also seen before coffee picking when the entire family thanks god and prays before picking the berries.

The book Bettadindha Battaligey by H N Nagegowda beautifully traces the history of coffee in India and also the culture associated with it.

Coffee estates coexist with thick and lush green forests in these Western Ghats districts. These estates are also home to a rich variety of endangered flora and fauna. Each year, hundreds of varieties of birds migrate to coffee estates. These plantations nurture forest species which act as nesting grounds for these birds.

Estate owners take an active interest in increasing the number of trees that they have on their lands. Artificial lakes and tanks in the estates quench the thirst of animals including elephants and tigers.

The vibrant culture of coffee land in the state could also be traced to the presence of major rivers such as Cauvery, Tunga, Bhadra, Nethravathi and Hemavathi.

A majority of the labour force in Karnataka’s coffee estates hails from Dakshina Kannada. Of late, a healthy influx of migrant labourers from Assam can be seen in the estates. The estate owners provide accommodation and healthcare facilities to the labourers.

The monsoons of 2018 and 2019 played unimaginable havoc in the lives of growers in the core coffee zones of Kodagu and Chikkamagaluru.

They lost all their lands overnight to mudslides and torrential rainfalls. Despite this, they are trying hard and not giving up in their quest to rebuild everything that they lost.

However, their spirit to endure and rebuild is shattered due to the failure of markets. Coffee growers are going through their worst crisis ever where they are not able to make ends meet because coffee prices have crashed to record lows.

Prices have collapsed to as low as what it was 26 years ago while the cost of inputs like fertilisers and machinery has skyrocketed.

Also, the price of spices like pepper which are grown as intercrops has fallen to 60% lower than the price received half a decade ago. As a result, the growers are saddled with neck-deep debts.

Key driver

There is a misconception that the consumption of coffee leads to health problems such as gastritis. This problem arises when one consumes coffee that is blended with a high quantity of chicory.

As per the Coffee Board of India statistics, coffee is grown in 4,00,000 hectares of land in the country. Karnataka grows 70% of the country’s total coffee production, with its annual production of up to 2.75 lakh metric tonnes. About 65% is robusta variety while 35% is of the arabica variety. The country exports 75% of the yield. India is home to 2,20,825 coffee growers of which 98.5% are small-scale growers. The economy of Kodagu, Chikkamagaluru and Malnad regions of Hassan district is heavily influenced and dependent on the coffee industry. It is the key driver of the economic activities of these regions.

Karnataka Growers’ Federation (KGF)which was formed in 1985 brings the coffee growers in one platform and works towards their welfare while also representing them in international platforms. This apex organisation is well networked with 21 regional organisations. KGF is headquartered at Sakaleshapura, Hassan district with a membership of 50,000 women and men.

U M Thirthamallesh, president of Karnataka Growers’ Federation said that the coffee price crash is mainly due to the surplus supply of coffee into India from international markets. Southeast Asia, he claims, has unfair market practices, low labour standards and excessive state subsidy which are all in violation to World Trade Organization norms while Indian Coffee growers follow all international norms by the book.

Coupled with this is excessive addition of the additive chicory into coffee which results in the substandard taste of the coffee. Labour shortage and disease are other problems that have affected the coffee industry.

Value addition

In an effort to overcome challenges, the coffee community is also paying attention towards the value addition of coffee. In the process, some brands have become popular. They’re involved in the preparation, marketing and sales of coffee powder; garlands made using coffee beans; coffee chocolates and coffee-based wine. In some areas, specialised coffees, like organic coffee and tribal coffee are also being tried.

Copsy Coffee Powder which is produced at Arehalli Co-operative Society and 7 to 7 Coffee which is produced by a group of women at Women’s Coffee Promotion Council, Sakaleshpura are some well-known local brands.

Another brand which has caught the attention of coffee connoisseurs is Talacauvery Eco-Coffee Works which is based out of Kodagu. This coffee is produced by an all-women self-help group called Sri Rajarajeshwari Self Help Group in Kargunda.

A vibrant culture has evolved around coffee in the last three centuries in the coffee land of the state rooted in self-reliance and innovation.

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