India - Day 505 December 2019
Another day another drive, thankfully not so far this time, off to see a friend of Akshay’s, Shiv, he is a fourth generation coffee grower, who is now also roasting for the local market. A really interesting character, always up for experimenting, larger than life character (apparently used to work in Bollywood, can’t say I’m surprised)! We checked out his shade drying area, and he did a small roast while we were there on his home 500g gas drum roaster, this was fascinating, to cool the coffee when it came out, he emptied it into a tray, took it outside, plugged a fan in, and cooled the beans under it, somehow it seemed to work! We chatted about all things coffee, while we tried a couple of his coffees, and were introduced to a surprisingly pleasant snack, fresh coconut chunks, eaten with lumps of palm sugar, delicious!
After that we headed back to the house, just in time as the pickers had unloaded today's crop, to everyone’s delight, they’d finally managed to properly selectively harvest, and all the cherries were an even red, as required for a better natural coffee.
Early evening, off to see Akshays uncle, who owns the neighbouring coffee estate, Kanbile estate. We had an evening of beer, snacks and music, this was everything from Chicago blues, John Mayell to Amy Winehouse. We had a really interesting chat about the good old days in coffee, the recent climate change effect (predominantly in the last decade) and the dilemma they now face as to whether grow more robusta, which is a much hardier plant, more productive, commodity coffee, but is currently significantly more profitable than arabica which is much harder to grow, although more delicious. The consensus was not to give up on arabica as the current disparity in price could change in the near future. He was also interested in experimenting currently with naturals and anaerobic fermentation, we also discussed the possibilities of a smoked coffee, you’ll hear it first here if this works! A thoroughly fantastic night, finished off with everyone (Chris and Akshays uncle) singing along to Leonard Cohens Halleluiah, the world needs more characters like this!
India - Day 404 December 2019
4:30am start followed by a long drive to the curing works, 35KM, but believe it or not, this takes 2 and a half hours, this tells you all you need to know about the roads in India. The route took us through a stunning national park of beautiful ancient jungle, where we spotted 2 elephants, 2 bison, samba deer, lots of spotted deer and a family of wild boar, the place was truly magnificent and a dinosaur would look at home here. We then decided to take a detour and go on a safari tour, this was a whole other adventure, a windowless bus, zero suspension, over the most unbelievably rugged dirt roads you can imagine, this was to go deep into the jungle and hopefully spot interesting wild animals, we should have saved our rupees, because all we saw were more spotted dear, some mongooses, and a big lizard, no tigers today! The elephants and bison must have gone back to bed. We finally got back, our innards will never be the same, and headed off to the curing works.
The curing works was a step back in time, built in 1873 by the British. We were taken on a tour by the marketing and curing manager Nanaiah, and the general manager Rukmini. This is where coffee is brought to be processed, into the final green beans that we’re familiar with, checked, and bagged, ready for export, or sold into the local market, with less emphasis on checking. The cost of the whole process including hand sorting for the export market, works out at 3.2p per kilo, on average, 50KG of dry, unprocessed coffee in, equals 40KG out, the removed husk, dust and stones are also packed, so the grower can tell that nothing has been siphoned off, this is now a government control board operation, and is run by a cooperative.
Interestingly, the manager told us before 1994/95 there was a government set price for coffee and exporting was not allowed, it was then liberalised, and the price was set by the market. This was beneficial to some growers who were keen on growing good quality coffee, and disadvantaging the smaller, lower quality growers, as previously, they were paid the same, regardless of the quality of the crop. Now the quality of the crop, really matters.
India - Day 303 December 2019
To start the day off, we took a hike around the 200acre Kanbile estate. This is absolutely stunning, a beautiful, shade grown coffee plantation, bordered by ancient deciduous jungle. A lot of the estate managers come from an ethnic group called the Clansmen, they’re a tight knit society and it’s believed they originated from the Afghanistan/Kazakhstan region. They’re generally taller and bigger boned than the general population of India and although they claim to be Hindu, their beliefs don’t really tie into any religion. They pray to their ancestors and they believe in the spirituality of nature and they keep areas of the jungle pristine and wild. They believe this will take care of them and their crop. There are elephants in this area, the closest we got however, was spotting some elephant dung!
We then went down to the wet mill to assess how the anaerobic fermentation was coming along, unfortunately some air somehow got in, and it’s turned to vinegar, the experiment will have to be started again.
Back for lunch, and off for a long drive up into the highland area for some spectacular views. Another drive another adventure, it’s too crazy to describe but imagine if the Gods were gamblers, and they were after more souls, they would place their bets on the corners, EVERYONE'S A WINNER! It seems corners, are the best place to overtake.
Our host wanted to show us another coffee growing area that they are interested in potentially growing in, as it’s at slightly higher altitude. It’s incredibly remote, we almost collided with a water buffalo in the middle of the road, he wasn’t for moving and we saw our first snake, two of them actually!
India - Day 202 December 2019
Day 2 – Early start, out the door at 8am, wellies on and off coffee picking with Komal, at the main, Mooleh Manay estate. This is at 1000m altitude and where they grow arabica, liberica and pepper. The liberica is really tall and is used as a boundary plant to mark the edge of the farms, this is another species of coffee which is different to robusta and arabica, and is hard to get hold of, we are hoping to roast a small amount of it. Working a little bit with the pickers and seeing exactly how the coffee needs picking, you can really start to see why these coffees are more expensive (if they are done properly). Only the completely ripe cherries should be picked, after a bit of picking, a lot of walking, and a lot more talking, we headed back to the main house for breakfast.
The estate manager Thimmiah and his wife Meghna joined us for breakfast, where we learnt a lot more about the difficulties of growing coffee. He’s been in coffee all his life and his family is 4th generation coffee plantation owners. Breakfast of the gods finished, and we’re off to Madikeri, this is the largest town in the district. It is an old British hill station with a fort, the Brits apparently loved it here because the climate is cooler. We checked out a couple of tiny roaster/coffee shops and amongst all the chaos of this tiny town was a coffee emporium that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Kensington, very modern, selling speciality coffee beans and ground, and also making coffee. We got chatting to the owner Narendra, where we were plied with numerous different filter coffees and espressos, from 100% robusta to Monsoon Malabar and everything in between, we were totally coffeed out, and we needed food urgently. Akshay and Komal took us to a great little local restaurant called Coorg Cuisine, the food was sensational, especially the pork.
Time to head back to check on todays harvest, after multiple near misses on the mountain roads, we arrived, miraculously in one piece, I empathise with Akshay, he has a really difficult job, some of the pickers did it as he wanted, with a high percentage of ripe cherries, unfortunately not all the pickers were as good, and it had to be sorted through taking a lot of time taking the half yellow cherries out.
While Komal worked on the new raised beds (another experiment for drying the natural coffees) we went off with Akshay to check on yesterday’s fermentation and see how it’s coming along. So far so good, water testing done, and then we checked out the processing at the wet mill (photos). We came back to the coffee on the raised beds for drying, and another experiment begins. Time for another bonfire.
Interesting things we’ve found out since we’ve been here: Most of the local farmers, do not like Fairtrade, reasons being – cost to join, admin, interference, access to company books etc. also the price difference is not worth the hassle.
On average a coffee picker is expected to pick 40-60kg of cherries a day, with the selective naturals, it comes down to 10-15kg of cherries a day, but as the season progresses, this should increase to between 30-40kg.
In some countries the farmers dehull their own coffee beans, in India, no farmers dehull because tax is only levied after dehulling.
India - Day 101 December 2019
So excited that the boys have actually put something in writing that I'm copying here for you. The pics won't copy and Will is sending them to me tomorrow, so use your imagination when it refers to any pics!!!
Enjoy the read, I'm really impressed with Chris Howard and Will Howard
After 13-14 hours of travel (including plane change) we arrived at Bangalore airport, our wonderful hosts Akshay and Komal collected us, and about 7 hours later due to traffic, we arrived at the beautiful Mooleh Manay estate, we were absolutely wrecked, but the sight of where we were going to be staying for the next few days, and a cold beer, brought us back to life. The house, a classic colonial style, with a large, wrap around veranda, just exactly what you’d imagine in a tropical environment. The main house backs into the edge of deciduous/rainforest jungle, it’s hard to describe, but the sound is all encompassing, I’ve got no idea what the animals are that are making all these noises, but it’s hypnotic, and somehow soothing. A few beers and a chat around a bonfire on the edge of the jungle. Magic.
Day 1 – Late start, breakfast outside, incredible food, and the jungle chorus for company, what a start to our first day, had a tour of the coffee beds, where the coffee cherries are drying on the patios, the selective is dried on the lower patio, and the non-selective is dried on the higher patio. The beans in these beds are hand raked daily to ensure even drying and are covered with a breathable sheet at night to prevent dew on the beans. The photo of the coffee in the bags has been damaged by heavy, late rain, you can see the difference between the good coffee and the damaged coffee, in one hand, the good, even coffee, in the other, the ruined, uneven coffee. Sadly, this year, about 45% of the crop has been damaged so will be sold cheap, into the local market.
The part of the estate where the house is situated, is 850m above sea level, this part of the estate is mostly used to grow robusta, there are some wild liberica beans, and a small amount of wild arabica, and some wild robusta, I even got to try some wild chili, hot, hot, hot! This part of the estate backs onto the backwater of the Harangie river, which is a tributary of the Kaveri river, which is the life source of the state of Karnataka. The building overlooking the lake is a little temple.
We went to Kanbile estate which is run by the same family and on the way checked out the construction of the modern staff quarters. We went to the wet mill to start the process of an anaerobic fermentation, which is an experiment they are running, in the hopes of getting a coffee with the fruitiness of a natural, but the clean taste of a washed. They add the coffee cherries to a barrel of water, and add some yeast, and jaggery (unrefined sugar), to start the fermentation, it’s then kept airtight for around 7 days, before washing. Hopefully this works, and we can get access to some very special coffee in the future.
Got the bonfire going, had a few beers, sat around talking coffee, marvelling at the wonderful surroundings, and then time for dinner.