If you look at India's coffee plantations, you would realize that they are models of interdependence. Diverse majestic trees allowing coffee to bloom under shade, attracting rainfall and providing sanctuary to numerous species of birds, animals and plants. At the same time, the birds, animals and fallen leaves contribute to the organic replenishment of the soil, into which takes root an impressive array of crops, including coffee. This pattern of intercropping once again provides and makes for the distinctive flavours of Indian coffee. And finally, the patronage of all our buyers and consumers resuscitates the entire plantation. Just as honey is the product of a shared understanding between the flower and the bee, our coffees are the result of a dynamic collaboration among the numerous elements of our plantations' ecosystems. How true to nature and yet how little we understand and implement. We have now realized that if only each one of us on the coffee farm, especially the coffee farmer, was to improve the quality of his produce, prepare it in a special way, enrich the same with special attributes and offer the special produce in a distinct manner, how much he could receive - in terms of price, prestige and pride. The Law of Giving and Receiving is truly a stimulating law of the Upanishads and we, in India, have been advocating its implementation in all walks of life, including in the Coffee World of Taste and Satisfaction.
On this note, let me welcome you to the Indian World of Estate Branded coffees and share with you the path we have been traversing in the coffee growing regions in India, to prepare and offer to the world distinct branded and micro-lots of coffees. We are still on the path of giving, but we firmly believe that we would soon also receive, not only a pride of place in the galaxy of world coffee brands, but also to establish "relationship marketing" on a firm foundation of taste, trust and deserving price lines.
HOW DID WE COMMENCE THE JOURNEY IN INDIA?
The low and poor price scenario of the past awakened the world and especially India, to understand the value of quality, brand identification and relationship marketing. No longer was the chant of "my coffee is the best" or "my coffee is excellent in quality" of any value. Also, the Indian coffee farmer realized that if he had to survive, he needed to look in-house at his growing and cultivation practices, at his processing techniques including the pulp house facilities, the cup quality of his produce, the market requirements and the suitability of his produce to buyer's needs. He had to look at and understand a whole new world of taste, trust, time and targets. He had to accept the reality that if he needed to sell at a premium in a declining market, he needed to have a quality product with a distinct taste profile and with a cup value, which was different, acceptable and outstanding. There was now a need for his coffee produce to don a distinct mantel of identity, unique taste, usage and consistency. A different world, which he needed to study, understand and implement if he had to survive. But also a world which would help him not only to earn premium prices, but also to establish himself as a quality supplier of branded coffees and earn a pride of place in the international market.
The awakening began. The journey commenced. Plant strains were being examined for their uniqueness in the cup.
Indian coffee has to its credit a number of excellent plant strains in respect of both the Arabica and Robusta varieties of coffee. Not only can India be described as a supermarket for coffees, offering both Arabica and Robusta, but also as a stimulating coffee cup, with a range and multitude of tastes and flavours, to cater to many discerning palates all over the world. The excellent strains of Indian coffee are the result of brilliant and yeomen research carried out by the Central Coffee Research Station of the Indian Coffee board.
The strains of Kents, S.795, Sl.9 and BBTC Selection are some of the fine strains amongst the Arabica variety, while the strains of C x R and Sln. 274 are brilliant strains of unique cup quality amongst the Robusta variety.
Kents is the earliest plant strain of Arabica, which was selected by an English planter Kent, during the 1920's. The cup quality of the Kents strain is unique with good texture and flavours. While this variety was cultivated on a large scale till the 1940's, today, the quantum of Kents strain produced in India is very limited, as this plant material is susceptible to leaf rust. However, this plant strain has the makings of a special coffee and those farmers who still possess this strain, should harvest and process the beans separately and with care, to enable estate branding of these beans. Even a bag or two would be purchased as 'micro lots' at a premium.
On the other hand, the S.795 is the most popular and commercially viable Arabica Selection, which was released during the 1940's and which continues to be grown even today. This selection was developed using Kents arabica as one of the parents. This strain when cultivated at high altitudes and processed with various variables such as with mucilage or with varying modes of fermentation could result in distinctive coffees, which could be launched as estate brands in the market. As an espresso too, the coffee beans of S.795 are most sought after by discerning roasters worldwide.
Sln.9 is another popular plant strain, which is drought resistant. It is a cross of an Ethiopian Arabica collection. This coffee has excellent cup quality traits with delicious flavour notes of fruit, and is a sure winner as an ‘Estate Brand’.
On the other hand, the BBTC selection is a distinct strain, which was developed on the coffee plantations of The Bombay Burmah Trading Company. When washed, this strain is delicious in the cup, exhibiting bright juicy tanginess - a strain, which will work wonders as a micro lot, in addition to the Sln.9.
Chandragiri is a plant cultivar which has been recently launched to the field by the Central Coffee Research Station, a strain which has the attributes of good yield, bold sized beans and a bright cup. We need to experiment with this strain to examine its uniqueness as a 'brand'.
In respect of the robustas, the excellent Indian robusta selections are the S.274 and CXR . S.274 is cultivated in all the major robusta coffee growing regions. When processed by the wet method, this coffee has delicate texture, hardly any bitterness and with flavour notes of chocolate and malt enabling the preparation of distinct estate brands.
The CXR is an inter-specific hybrid, which was developed by crossing Coffea Congensis, a species closely related to the Robusta. The beans are bold, the yield is good and the cup is soft and buttery.
Last but not the least, is the poor cousin of the Arabica and Robusta, the Liberica, a strain which has almost been forgotten by the Indian coffee community. Used as a wind breaker and as a hedge to demarcate the farms, the faithful Liberica could prove to be a stunner, provided the cherries are carefully harvested and processed. Recently, the Washed Liberica from a farm in Coorg was sold as a 'micro lot', at an excellent price and has secured the honour of being described as a unique coffee, with rich tea masala notes and repeat orders for the next couple of years!
Apart from the plant strains exhibiting distinctiveness in the cup, yet another discovery has been made. The outstanding plant strains, which have now been identified, take on yet another taste profile when grown in certain regions, at certain altitudes, under certain type of shade trees and under certain processing conditions, opening up a pandora's box of excitement, taste distinctiveness and brand identity. Strains of coffee which are grown at high altitudes above 4000 ft, develop very distinct taste profiles, as seen in some of the coffees from the Bababudan hills. Also, these coffees grown at high elevations and under shade, when subjected to distinct processing methodology, result in the intrinsic flavour notes of the plant strain being highlighted, with clarity of the flavours latent in these beans, which develop slowly at high altitudes. These coffees can not only been branded, but also sold as 'micro' lots, at a high premium in the international market. In fact, the coffee of one of the farms in the Bababudan region has not only been branded and sold as micro-lots every year at a premium, but has also been the bench mark for the pricing of quality coffees sold through the local auctions.
HOW CAN FARMERS GO ABOUT PREPARING ESTATE BRANDED COFFEES ?
Farmers, who have blocks of coffee plants at varying elevations can venture into 'estate branding' of their produce, by dividing their farms into zones based on altitude into High, Medium and Low Altitude zones, while others can demarcate the blocks on their estate according to the plant strains being cultivated. The farmers should harvest the coffee of each zone separately, after which they should be processed with meticulous care and with a processing technique, which would bring to the forefront their innate characteristics. In order to achieve the latter, it would be necessary for the farmer to experiment with his processing technique and arrive at a methodology which would ensure distinctiveness in the cup.
We firmly believe that an upgraded and special processing technology could positively highlight the unique quality nuances of a specific varietal. As such, the farmers are guided to process their coffees, both Arabicas and Robustas, in a variety of ways, by the washed and unwashed and by the honey sundried methods of preparation, not only to establish distinctiveness in the cup, but also to suit each buyers requirement around the world. Custom-made coffees have become our Speciality.
The lot of Estate Branded coffee, which has been so prepared and bulked as to be uniform and homogenous in quality, is thereafter subjected to Quality Certification, keeping in mind the Indian Coffee Board Specifications. The Quality Certification could be carried out either at the Coffee Board or at an independent laboratory, which has been accredited by the Indian Coffee Board, and whose report is acceptable to the buyer and/or the market.
The lot of Coffee should then be packed in IJIRA bags, which would have the logo of the estate brand printed on the bags. The bags of coffee would be closed and sealed with the Seal of the Farm, thus ensuring that the farmer is held responsible for the coffee produce of the farm, which in turn would ensure the coffee to be consistent, homogenous and a true representative of the coffee of the farm.
The farmer is advised to present a short write up about his farm and his produce, especially since all Indian coffees are sustainable coffees, meeting the environmental, economic and social requirements for a coffee to be considered sustainable. It is mandatory for the farmer to ensure weight conformity, correct documentation, overall quality homogeneity from bag to bag, consistency in quality and correct delivery schedule at all times.
Over the past 5 years, we have observed that the Indian farmer, who is onto the preparation of Estate Branding, not only enjoys a price premium and a relationship marketing, but also takes pride in the quality produce of his farm!