Spectrum: Look what’s brewing...

From efforts to obtain a premium tag for coffee grown by tribal people to producing the world’s most expensive coffee, much is happening in Karnataka's coffee sector

 Soliga coffee growers of BR Hills engaged in post-harvesting activities
Highlights: 
The coffee quality in BR Hills is unique because of the elevational gradient across which it’s grown. So, a single region produces a variety of different cup profiles. Coffees from BR Hills tend to be fairly sweet with spicy overtones.

Bird-friendly, ecological, organic, ethical, traceable... Ever imagined that your cup of coffee could have so many tags apart from the adjectives that describe its aroma, quality and taste? Small clusters of coffee plantations located on the fringes of Biligiri Rangana (BR) Temple Tiger Reserve in Chamarajanagar district are the source of this distinctive coffee, which could soon get a premium tag. A relatively new entrant to the coffee belt, this area produces one of the best quality coffees by virtue of the nutritional and ecological benefits the forest ecosystem offers and, more importantly, the unique cultivation practices adopted by the Soligas, the indigenous people of BR Hills region.

A cup of forest’s goodness

“Earlier we used to grow over a hundred types of crops – from grains to fruits and vegetables – in small patches of land allotted to us. Now though the crop pattern has changed, the fundamentals of cultivation remain the same,” says Karana Kyategowda of Muttakadagadde podu (hamlet). All the 80 families of this podu have been growing coffee, with pepper as the intercrop, for the last two decades.

Every action of the Soligas is guided by their idea of coexistence with nature and this holds true for coffee cultivation as well. As a result, they are not inclined to use chemical inputs, while affordability is another concern. They don’t complain about wild animals entering the farm as they believe that they also have a share in it. Around 10 forest species and the same number of horticulture trees can be spotted in a one-acre plantation, allowing birds and other animals to inhabit. All these aspects make the plantation and the produce organic and nature-friendly. At the same time, this also lowers the yield considerably. “We get 100 to 150 kg of coffee and 50 kg of pepper from one acre,” says Kyategowda. This is much less compared to the standard yield of around 500 kg per acre. 

At present, around 700 tribal families in the region grow coffee. While they started with Cauvery variety, Chandragiri is the new favourite. The landholding of each family is between one and two acres. These podus are not easily accessible as most of them are nestled amidst forests, making transportation a difficult task. All these aspects hinder tribal people from getting the rightful benefits for growing quality produce. Also, this coffee that offers the wholesome goodness of a sound ecosystem gets lost once it enters the market.

Efforts are underway to ensure that this coffee gets due recognition. The Coffee Board and the State Social Welfare Department have collaborated to enable these growers to better position their produce. The project aims to train the Soligas in better and sustainable production practices (for both coffee and pepper) and introduce advanced post-harvest techniques to improve the quality of the bean.

Specific origins, unique flavours

As it happens, many of the farms have been practising methods that would qualify the coffee grown here for niche markets. For instance, 25% of the plantations have sufficient tree diversity and shade cover, which can give the beverage the ‘bird-friendly coffee’ tag. “Coffee grown by the Soligas is predominantly under native tree shade. Shade regulation is controlled rather than indiscriminate, there is a great diversity of tree species, and there is no use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers,” says Arshiya Bose, who has been working with the Soligas and procuring coffee from them through her company, Black Baza Coffee. “The coffee quality in BR Hills is unique because of the elevational gradient across which it’s grown. So, a single region produces a variety of different cup profiles. Coffee is also hand pulped which reduces damage. Coffees from BR Hills tend to be fairly sweet with spicy overtones,” she adds.

Lack of exposure and minimalist lifestyle of the Soligas have prevented this eco-rich coffee from getting the appreciation it deserves. Hence, plans are on to label this coffee, grown amid birds, tigers and elephants, suitably, and sell it as a premium brand. For this, the Coffee Board project will facilitate collective marketing and enable access to differentiated markets through certification of coffee and pepper for local and international markets. An official associated with the project feels that BR Hills coffee is better placed in terms of ecological value than the coffee grown in Araku Valley, where a similar model has changed the fortunes of growers. 

While this effort blends coffee with social welfare and conservation, there is another effort in Kodagu where a startup is promoting civet coffee, the world’s most expensive coffee, though in a small scale. “The bean gathered from the faeces of civet cat was neither sold nor consumed at home until the Internet brought home information about its real value,” says Narendra Hebbar of Coorg Consolidated Commodities (CCC). When people started bringing small quantities of civet coffee bean four years ago, Narendra Hebbar, a planter turned trader, and his partners decided to explore the possibilities.

Civet coffee

Three types of civet cat are found in Kodagu, including Asian palm civet. Coffee cherry is a part of their diet. Civet cat picks the best coffee cherry, eats the flesh of the cherries and excretes the bean. Natural enzymes in civet’s stomach enhance the bean flavour. Also, this coffee is said to be nutritious. The peculiar method of production makes this coffee the most exotic and expensive coffee in the world.

In one year, around 20-30 kg of civet coffee beans can be gathered from a 20-acre plantation. Since the cat generally excretes on a dry surface like rock or wood, gathering the faeces is not a messy task. This year, CCC has procured half- a-tonne civet coffee bean, at a price of Rs 2,000 per kg. “The processing is a long and difficult procedure and results in the loss of 60% of the quantity. Getting the necessary certification, packaging and branding is another process,” says Narendra. Now, they sell this coffee under the brand name of ‘Ainmane’, at Rs 8,000 per kg.

“Unlike Indonesia and other countries where civet is held captive and fed only coffee cherries for maximum production, here we follow the natural course of production and focus on their conservation. Also, the growers take every step to stop the illegal killing of these animals,” he says.

According to experts, coffee culture is changing and the youngsters are more interested in tasting local specialties, natural blends and the ones without chicory. As a result, an increased number of estates and producers are becoming directly involved in the roasting, cupping, branding and retailing of coffee grown by them.

Over 50 estates in Chikkamagaluru, Hassan and Kodagu districts sell coffee in their own brand. Furthermore, coffee roasters, such as Bengaluru-based Third Wave and Delhi-based Blue Tokai, sell coffee under the brand name of the estates from where the bean is sourced. “This brings us a better price and enhances our marketing prospects,” says M J Dinesh, a coffee planter and entrepreneur in Chikkamagaluru district. The concept of single-origin coffee is gaining ground as it benefits both growers and consumers — growers get the feedback for the quality of the bean and the consumers can try different flavours and trace their origins.

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