Spiciness in the Cup
Most Indian coffee plantations grow fruits and spices amidst their coffees. Producers planted these crops long ago after concluding that coffee alone could not support the land economically, especially given the volatility of the world coffee market. Now it is common to find oranges, tangerines, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper vines growing alongside an estate’s coffee plants.
The end result from an economic perspective is a more diverse collection of products that isn’t as vulnerable to market fluctuations or poor growing seasons among one or two crops. The coffees receive a unique benefit as well, as they generally acquire some of the taste and aroma of the fruits and spices planted nearby. The result is a character in the cup that is uniquely Indian.
Shade Grown and Bird Friendly
Coffee plants require about four hours of sun each day. Because the southern parts of India, where much of the coffee is grown, is near the equator, temperatures are generally higher than in other parts of the country, and coffee trees need shade to survive. The shade used in coffee plantations falls into two categories: an upper, permanent canopy and a lower, temporary canopy.
Upper canopy shade consists primarily of original jungle trees (Silver Oak is a popular variety) that may tower 100 feet or more above ground level. The lower canopy is traditionally populated by Dadap (Eryhtrenia Lithosperma) trees, which managers can easily prune to regulate the amount of sunshine and rain reaching the coffee plants.
The increasing variety of overhead shade trees provide a sanctuary for birds and enhance the quality of natural organic matter introduced to the soil from falling leaves. This decomposed organic matter enriches the soil, conserves moisture, and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. Shade trees also control the growth of weeds on the estates and reduce the incidence of insects, pests, and leaf disease.
Growing coffee in high-diversity shade remains the most environmentally sustainable way to cultivate coffee. Surprisingly, India is just one of the few countries that continue to grow the majority of their coffee using such traditional techniques.
Handpicked and Sun Dried
All coffee in India is handpicked without the use of machinery so that only the fully ripe beans are harvested. Under-ripe beans are allowed to remain on the plants and ripen further. This selective picking ensures that India’s beans are at the peak of flavor when picked.
Indian coffee is also sun dried on patios lined with brick, stones, or concrete. Some estates will also use raised beds for the initial stages. Although this process takes much longer than mechanical drying, growers believe the slower drying period actually enhances the flavor in the beans.
Coffee-growing regions in India receive between 60 and 120 inches of rain each year. Some regions receive all their precipitation during either of the two monsoon seasons, while others split their rainfall between the two monsoons. With that much rain each year, it is perhaps difficult to imagine that a coffee plant’s ability to withstand drought is an important criterion for selecting a particular hybrid for planting.
Rains during the monsoons are so heavy that much of the water simply runs off the steep slopes of coffee plantations without soaking deep into the soil. Thus, it’s not uncommon to see coffee plants suffering the effects of drought barely three months after the end of the monsoon season.
Many owners have begun to harvest the water falling on their estates (in large pools or tanks) and are storing it for use during the dry months. They use some of the water for pulping, fermenting, and washing their coffees during processing, but also for irrigating their coffee plants during the driest of Indian summers.