India is essentially a tea drinking country. We as a country consume about 750gms of tea per capita. As compared to coffee, this is at 90gms per capita. We are fairly new at coffee drinking. However, our history with coffee production isn’t new at all. We have been growing coffee since the 17th century. The story of coffee coming to India is a fascinating and adventurous one.
If you’ve been to south India, you will see scores of people enjoying steaming cup of South Indian Filter Coffee, but none of us have actually stepped back and thought about the adventure behind coffee reaching India.
It all started with legendary holy saint Baba Budan, who in the 17th century went to Mecca for ‘Hajj’, on his way back he came via Yemen. He encountered a strange drink there which the Arabs enjoyed immensely. He tasted this drink and was very excited to take it back home. Unfortunately, coffee was a restricted commodity and you count not carry raw coffee out of Yemen, only roasted beans. That did not stop Baba Budan from smuggling 7 raw beans and planted them in a small range of hills in the district of Chikmagalur. For a long time these plants were like a kitchen garden, it was only in the 1800s when the commercial cultivation of coffee began under the British.
That range of hills is known as ‘Baba Budan Giri’. Even today, the best coffee in India comes from these hills.
The South Indian Filter coffee as we know it came about in its chicory blended form in the early 1900s. This was a time of great economic slowdown and a lot of families found it difficult to brew pure coffee, thus came chicory (French origin). Chicory is a root of the chicory plant that’s roasted and ground and added to coffee in proportion by weight.
Chicory has no coffee properties at all, it is bitter; however, it does add thickness to the coffee (so you use less coffee powder) and the bitterness enhances the taste and aroma of the coffee. The French used to consider chicory to have medical benefits such as relieve headaches, constipation. It is also believed to add some dietary fibers. However, the coffee purists believe that chicory blends are not the real blends of coffee and shun the addition of chicory altogether.
Coffee in India is cultivated in the 4 traditional coffee drinking states of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. It is now rapidly expanding to the nontraditional areas of Odisha and North East as well.
With such a fascinating history, 70-80% of the coffee produced in India is exported. India is the 6th largest producer of coffee in the world (300,300,000 kgs) but probably the 160th in the coffee consumption per capita. We are new to coffee drinking as whole; we became aware of coffee only in the late 90s when the ‘café culture’ came to India. However, our consumption numbers are growing at a steady pace of 6-7% a year.