While India’s tryst with coffee has its roots in the story of Baba Budan’s ‘seven seeds’ that he brought back from his pilgrimage to Mecca in the early 17th century. Commercial coffee plantations started gaining ground with the coming of foreign trading companies in the 18th century.
Though Dutch tried growing coffee in the Malabar region, it is the Englishmen’s efforts to set up Arabica coffee plantations throughout the hilly terrains of Southern India that commercial cultivation of coffee in India began in 1840s.
British found South India’s tropical climate, high elevations with sunny slopes, and its humus rich soil perfect for Arabica coffee cultivation. A British executive, JH Jolly, sent a petition asking for 40 acres of land to grow coffee to the Mysore government and rest as they call is history. His successful endeavors encouraged many people to try their hands at the new crop and soon coffee plantations started flourishing across South India.
But the Great Depression hit Coffee industry hard. The government stepped in to rescue small growers by establishing the Coffee Cess Committee that was later rechristened as the Coffee Board of India.
Evidently, coffee production grew rapidly in the 1950s, rising from 18,893 tonnes in 1950-51 to 68,169 tonnes in 1960-61. Another big change came with liberalization, when government decided to let coffee planters market their own produce, rather than selling to a central pool.
India is the sixth largest producer of Coffee in the world and produced 348,000 metric tonnes (MT) in 2015-16. Robusta accounted for nearly 70 percent of the total with 244,500 MT and Arabica stood at 103,500 MT. Apparently, this was 4.05 percent of global coffee production.
Also, India is home to 13 unique coffee varieties and 3 specialty coffees with states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu being the major contributors. In the last fifty years, the area under coffee plantations in the country has increased trifold, from 120.32 thousand hectares in 1960-61 to 434.436 thousand hectares in 2015-16.
India’s coffee industry is enterprise-based with approximately 333,527 coffee growers - 99 percent small growers and 1 percent medium to large growers. Today, coffee is world's second most traded commodity after oil, and notably, India’s 75 percent of coffee is exported. Our coffee export stood at 318,101 MT in 2015-16.
Even, export earnings have boosted manifold from Rs 1050.36 crore (US$ 216.23 million) in 2001-02 to Rs 5,176.57 crore (US$ 791.80 million) in 2015-16.
From its humble beginnings in Baba Budan’s seven seeds, Indian coffee has indeed come a long way and is today loved by connoisseurs across the globe for its subtle and stimulating intensity.