India was a real discovery for Nespresso. A unique land with a particularly rich coffee-growing tradition, accustomed to producing plentiful amounts of quality goods. Much of this continent of flavours was yet to be explored. Come along: the journey is only just beginning.
India is one world encased in another. An accident of continental drift that changed the face of the east forever, india is the cornerstone of asia. It profoundly shapes the continent, whose very foundations were raised by indian thinkers. India gave Asia spirituality. In return, Asia lent India its tea leaves. The British introduced tea to India, bringing it from China to the tiny Himalayan lands of Assam and Darjeeling. While British culture’s indebtedness to the tea industry is well known, the importance of coffee-growing for India is often overlooked. Nonetheless, the history of coffee in India predates that of Anglo-Indian teas, testified by the tradition of “monsooned” coffee, which dates back to the days when grain was transported in the cargo holds of the Old World clipper ships. Off the coast of India, the salty taste from the wet months would seep in through the deck of Liverpudlian ships during the monsoon. The remarkable aromatic profile of the region’s coffee then ripened in the bellies of these ships that carried it to Europe. With the invention of dry cargo holds, India deplored the loss of this flavour, going so far as to recreate it by leaving some of the coffee beans out on the beach during the rainy season. The annual deluge produced a full-bodied golden coffee. Every June, rain clouds bursting with moisture from the Arabian Sea spill forth onto the peaks of the Ghats. The heavens burst over the earth for four months, recovering flavours that had been lost with the era of sailing ships.
The roots of Indian coffee-growing can be traced back to a semi-mythical figure.
Nespresso’s long-lasting relationship with India began with the launch of two limited edition blends: Mysore in 2002, and Jalayatra (monsooned coffee) in 2007. On the back of this success, we decided to establish enduring ties with the subcontinent by introducing a Pure Origin Grand Cru to our permanent range, featuring exclusively Indian coffee. It was fascinating to focus on a new array of flavours in this largely unexplored coffee-growing nation. Monsooning produces a distinguished, dense, spicy cup. What would result from processing these beans using conventional methods? The answer was Indriya from India (2009), which conveys in a sense the expansiveness and primitive nature of the murky forests in which the coffee trees grow, tucked alongside fruit and spice trees. The roots of Indian coffee-growing can be traced back to a semi-mythical figure who planted the first coffee beans in the Chikmagalur highlands that now bear his name. In the century of Galileo, Velasquez and Louis XIV, a holy man known as Baba Budan – revered in several religions – returned home from a pilgrimage to Mecca. Baba Budan brought with him coffee beans from the Yemeni port of Mocha, the coffee capital which gave the illustrious appellation of Arabica to this bean sourced in the uppermost highlands of Ethiopia, just across the Red Sea. The first coffee bushes on the Indian subcontinent sprouted at an altitude of over 2,000 metres in the handful of acres not devoted to food crops. Just as they were gaining a foothold, the British Raj seized the new crop to sow coffee plantations across a large swathe of fertile land in Chikmagalur. Plantations were subsequently established in Coorg, a sister microclimate more than a day’s walk to the south. Nowadays, these two regions boast plantations more than 150 years old. While the rest of India is only now discovering the pleasures of cappuccinos and lattes, coffee drinking has long been part of the culture here. The locals brew it similarly to chai masala tea; with milk, sugar crystals, cinnamon and cardamom treating the palette to a distinctively Bengali explosion of flavours.
In the north of India, “ghats” are the steps of temples leading down into the River Ganges. In the south, the Ghats are a mountain range, an immense natural staircase linking the Deccan plateau to Malabar. Within this depression lies Chikmagalur, and Coorg which is said to be inhabited by the descendants of the legendary phalanxes of Alexander the Great. For centuries, this fertile ground for rare ingredients has been fuelled by the enterprising spirit of a string of strongholds – Cochin, Calcutta and Mangalore – in much the same way as wine-growing in the south-west of France has always been stimulated by the port of Bordeaux, a small city with no vineyards that is nonetheless famous the world over for its eponymous wines. Coffee is as much a signature phenomenon of this part of the world as sandalwood, punchy cardamom, green, red, white and black pepper, endlessly languid vanilla pods, and tea fields gracefully draped over the landscape like satin. India resembles a gigantic melting curry pot that has been absorbing myriad cultures for millennia. But the treasures, aromas and flavours of India are all channelled through the ports of the southern tip of the country. These cosmopolitan shores have welcomed peoples from around the world: the Jews of Cranganore (as old as the Holy Scriptures,) the Muslims of Calcutta who astounded Vasco de Gama by welcoming him in his native tongue, the Christians personally evangelised by Thomas the Apostle, and the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British. The Chinese came too, and left the legacy of their famed fishing nets to the fishermen in the backwaters. Now an immense Indian bayou of infrastructure floats where the spice trade used to pass through; a patchwork of waterways between the Ghats and coastal trading posts.
Coffee is as much a signature phenomenon of this part of the world as sandalwood and punchy cardamom.
Coffee flourishes in luscious plantations, a jungle of luxuriantly dense vegetation. Coffee plants form a carpet of vegetation amidst a forest of sleek oaks, jackfruit, rosewood and sandalwood trees, and countless stakes to which pepper vines cling like fur coats. It is as though the planters were attempting to restore harmony among the species, replicating the natural state of diversity. The bushes thrive in the shadow of a tall canopy that retains humidity from the atmosphere and protects the soil from erosion with its strong roots. The energy the coffee plant doesn’t need to defend itself from drought and sunshine is channelled into packing its beans with flavour. And if ever the coffee harvest is not up to standard, income can be supplemented by black pepper, green cardamom or pink grapefruit. Not to mention the fact that polyculture allows skilled labourers to stay on in large farms by guaranteeing them work all year round. We soon realised that this coffee-growing tradition shared the philosophy of the Nespresso AAA Sustainable QualityTM Program. This means we promise to pay above market price for yields to all farmers who can commit to progressively adopting our standards for good practices in farming, ecology and labour management. Although the project is still in the early stages, more than 50 Indian farms have already joined the Program. And their performances are already looking up. Despite the location of these plantations in the depths of dense forest, productivity is comparable to that of a field in open countryside. These farmers are aware of progress, but at the same time take care of their environment. Unlike pioneer societies that relished a pathological culture of slash-and-burn, India is not blindly pursuing the productivist “miracle” of the 1960s. In trying out unconventional forms of development that are intelligent and caring, Indian farmers are proving that, behind their conservatism, they are very modern at heart.
PROTECTING THE ENVIRONMENT
The abundance of local ecosystems can certainly seem difficult to manage. Coffee beans must be harvested manually since mechanical harvesters cannot access these densely-forested areas, and fauna are not shy about sprouting up through these delicate crops... With the exception of wolves and bears, just about every animal from “The Jungle Book” can be found here: elephants, panthers, tigers, macaques, boas and Malabar giant squirrels. But for coffee farmers this somewhat turbulent biodiversity represents a resource and a vital challenge. To give one simple example, it would be a terrible idea for farmers to start hunting birds as, without avian assistance, they would be hard-pressed to find auxiliary pollinators for coffee plants. By helping wipe out birds, the farmer would be acting against his own interests. Nature is very capable of exacting revenge when threatened by humankind. In a recent stampede, a troop of wild elephants made their way to the city of Mysore several dozen miles away, where one person was trampled to death. Deforestation would appear to be responsible for this violent incursion: as humans hack away at elephants’ habitats, these animals naturally end up invading human territory. Nature can be merciless, but nonetheless benevolent in the greater scheme of things. A superb Arabica crop was harvested in Coorg in late November. In Chikmagalur, the January crop of Robusta gives off an aroma rich enough to shake off the Robusta family’s lingering stereotype of being a coarse, bitter coffee. In a bid to preserve the magic of this land, we offer coffee growers the chance to enter the Nespresso Program, helping them to achieve Rainforest Alliance standards for environmentally-friendly farming.
Nature can be merciless, but nonetheless benevolent in the greater scheme of things.
THE GENTLE PACE OF MODERNISATION
In a place where all religions coexist in harmony, one blossoming ideology is promised a bright future: progress. Just next door, the economic capital of India, Bangalore, is a world-class technopolis housed within a modest colonial fort city, like a giant in kids’ clothing. Unlike the main tourist centres whose sights are so neatly tidied away that no one dares touch them, Bangalore is a living, breathing city, more a place to live in than to visit. Fittingly, in keeping with the contradictions of the city, the region is evolving at a blistering pace yet remaining static. Modernisation seems to be in the hands of sceptics. The locals stop to flash the most beautiful smiles on the planet. These people are not content to smile with just the corners of their lips or by lighting up their eyes. They smile with every muscle of the soul, blushing all the way to their betel-chewing crimsonstained teeth. The most radical contrasts overlap like primary colours, without clashing, tiring or fading. In the silk-producing quarters, silkworms metamorphose while spinning miles of dazzling coquetry worn by women of all colours, who can be spotted sniffing a rose before fixing it in the gleaming braid of their hair. Scents of jasmine and incense lend an other-worldly feel to the heavy stench of poultry merchants and these days of plenty. Pink parade elephants and cows own the streets. The interiors of taxis are decorated like shrines. Rickshaws defy the laws of physics as they re-enact the Ben Hur chariot race, wheel rims spiked with strips of hardened steel. Cart drivers coax their beasts with the tip of an umbrella and raja-like pride on narrow streets transformed into red carpets by petals from the Royal Poinciana trees. Things here move both slowly and very quickly; time spreads into infinity. We are encouraging farmers to conserve more water, use more natural fertilisers, and remove coffee beans from the mucilage using fermentation or by leaving them to dry in the sun, rather than using mechanical methods. This process seems to help reveal the character of the bean. This coffee has a vast untapped potential waiting to be explored. The Indian adventure is only just beginning.
Text Julien Bouré Photography Olivier Gachen