Coffee Arrives in India

Ranking high among the coffee legends of old (alongside such revered tales as the discovery of coffee by the goatherd Kaldi and French Lieutenant Mathieu de Clieu’s adventurous journey to Martinique with the New World’s first coffee tree) is the account of the Muslim saint Baba Budan.

Legend has it that Baba Budan, who hailed from India, came across coffee in Yemen around 1600 A.D. during his travels to the Holy Land. He found the drink exhilarating and wanted to introduce it to his native country. But European traders and other travelers were forbidden to take “live” coffee beans out of Yemen (the commodity was considered too valuable). The beans had to be partially roasted or partially boiled first to prevent enterprising outsiders from growing the crop themselves.

But Baba Budan ignored the mandate and strapped seven coffee seeds around his waist when leaving the country. Upon returning home, he planted these seeds around his mountain hut near Chikmagalur in South India, now considered the cradle of Indian coffee. Descendants of these early plants still stand in the coffee-growing regions of Coorg, Mysore, and Nilgiris.

The Dutch, who occupied parts of India in the 17th century, are believed to have spread cuttings from Baba Budan’s original plants throughout East Asia. These cuttings are believed to be the progenitors of all coffee in Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Bali, and other Indonesian islands. Many also believe that much of the coffee in Central and South America, along with Mexico, is directly descended from a young and vigorous coffee plant from Java (itself related to plants in India) that the Dutch gave to King Louis XIV of France in 1714.

India started producing commercial coffee more than 160 years ago when the British began establishing plantations throughout South India. They found the tropical climate, high altitude, sunny slopes, ample rainfall, humus-rich soil, and well-drained sub-soil ideal for coffee cultivation. India has since been a consistent producer and exporter of high-quality coffees, of which well-known coffee authority William H. Ukers once wrote, “Indian coffees are noted for their blue color, cleanness of bean, and fine liquoring qualities. … The producers have always taken a stand on quality, and, accordingly, Indian coffee has commanded a premium on the European market.”