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by Adele Bilotta June 08, 2022

When you think of India, the first hot beverage that comes to mind is tea. But did you know that coffee’s roots actually far predate its leafy cousin? In fact, its origins in the country can be traced back over 400 years! 

Now, India is among the top 10 coffee-producing countries in the world, and accounts for nearly 3% of the world’s total coffee production and supports over 2.5 million people in the country. It’s most well known for its high quality Robusta beans - something a coffee aficionado might call an oxymoron - but this is something we'll debunk below.

So, where does the story of coffee in India begin?


Baba's got the beans

Early in the 16th century, a Muslim monk from India named Baba Budan visited the Holy Land of Islam for the sacred Muslim pilgrimage, the Hajj. On his return to India, he stopped in the Yemen port of Mocha, where he was offered a cup of  qahwa (rough Arabic translation for coffee). To his delight, this new ‘magical’ beverage filled him with energy and helped revive him from his long travels and helped to keep him awake during his evening prayers.  Wanting to share the pleasures of coffee with his homeland, he sourced seven green beans and - despite it being illegal at the time to take green beans out of Arabia -  decided to smuggle them home in his beard.

When Baba landed back in India, he planted [what are now known as] the seven arabica coffee seeds near his home, in the southern Chandragiri Hills of Karnataka. The area has since been renamed after the monk, and is now called Baba Budan Giri. 

The boom and bust of Arabica

It wasn’t until 1840 when the first coffee plantation was established, not far from Baba Budan Giri in the Southern hills of India. Finding the high altitude and perennial tropical climate of Southern India ideal for coffee cultivation, Dutch and British colonial presence in the country helped to enhance commercial production and export. However, unfortunately not long after the ‘boom’ of coffee production had begun, a devastating disease called coffee rust had reached the country. 
 
Coffee rust is a fungus that thrives in moist environments, and more typically on arabica plants. While it might not completely kill a coffee plant, it does seriously impact its productivity. With between 30-50% of total yields compromised, many farmers caught on to the fact that robusta plants were more tolerant of the ever humid conditions in Southern India, and therefore resistant to diseases like coffee rust.
 
 
Not only were robusta plants more resistant to disease and nearly twice the size of it's arabica brother, they were also cheaper to grow and easier to harvest. By the late 1800’s, nearly 50% of coffee farms had replaced their damaged arabica plants with sturdier robusta. 
 

Rethinking Robusta? 

Fast forward to the 21st century, and robusta beans now make up for nearly 70% of all coffee cultivated in India, and is profoundly favoured for its superb mixing quality and higher caffeine content.

Did you know that high quality robusta actually creates a richer crema? That's why you'll often find robusta in espresso blends! 

Typically, robusta is seen as lower-grade coffee, generally reserved for cheap instant coffee and commercial grade coffee blends. It's lower acidity levels mean that it generally tastes less sweet than arabica beans and is associated with harsh, bitter and burnt taste notes. However, this is only true for low quality robustas grown in mass quantities at low altitudes.

Normally, robusta beans around the world are grown between altitudes of 500-1,000m above sea level. However, Indian robustas are generally found at levels of 1,400m upward, always shade grown, and frequently intercropped with crops like cardamom, tobacco, mango, jackfruit, pepper, nutmeg, clove and cinnamon. This means the soil is more rich and nutrient dense, and the shade from larger crops benefits the coffee plants, all of whichallows a greater range of flavours to develop in the bean itself. 

This, twinned with the fact that these beans are washed before drying (a process normally reserved for high quality arabicas) means that Indian robusta has a much cleaner, mellow finish than many people would be led to expect.

 

We love an Indian Robusta so much that we've included it in a number of our blends. Not only our Organic Indian, but our Espresso Blend, Intense Roast, and Long Black coffee bags all include this magnificent bean. 

Adele Bilotta
Adele Bilotta

Birthstone is a coffee bean. Head of Customer Experience and resident American.



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