Kuttikal: The Mythology Of South Indian Coffee

Note: The reference to Madras and Tamil Nadu in this article is generally made in reference to the pre-Independence Madras Presidency. This includes the current states of Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Karnataka and Kerala. The history of coffee in Tamil Nadu is a shared heritage among all these states.

The story of Baba Budan Giri and the legend of how coffee was brought to India is the stuff Tollywood movies are made of. Throw in dancing behind a coffee shrub and I’m sold! To introduce the taste to India, he is said to have wrapped seven coffee beans (the number 7 is considered sacred in Islam) around his belly and smuggled them out of the port of Mocha, Yemen while coming back from Haj. In those days coffee was exported to other parts of the world only in roasted form, so that no one could grow their own and were forced to buy from the Yemenis. On his return home, he planted the beans in the hills of Chikkamagaluru, since named the ‘Baba Budan Hills’ in his honor. The progress of coffee after Baba Budan’s seven seeds arrived in the Chandagiri Hills remains a matter for conjecture.

[quote]The province of Koffa, a district of Abyssinia is considered to be the original habitat of Arabica though it was commercially farmed using irrigation in Yemen for trade.[/quote]

The next mention of coffee in the region is in the ‘Letters from Malabar‘ by Rev. Jacob Visscher in 1723. Francis Buchanan noted in his account of his journey from Madras that in 1799 one chest was the total export of coffee from Kannur. In 1800, one year later, that number had risen to 6 chests and 6 mounds. This coffee, cultivated at the Baba Budan Hills of Mysore, soon became a monopoly of the Mysore state, until J. H. Jolly.

Maharaja Krishna Raja Wodeyar III
Maharaja Krishna Raja Wodeyar III

J. H. Jolly and the Wodeyars  (1800-1833)
It all started with an ambitious and enterprising British manager named J. H. Jolly, who was working for trading company Parry & Company of Madras. He felt that the coffee beans growing in the plantations of Chandragiri in the Babu Budan Hills had huge potential, and sent a petition to the Mysore government of the day for 40 acres of land to grow the crop. Until this point, coffee was sold as ‘Hittalu Coffee‘, meaning ‘coffee grown in backyards’ of small farmers. Maharaja Krishna Raja Wodeyar III made the decision to change this into an ‘estate’ based economic model, where he gave away land in exchange for a share of the coffee produce. He made the decision to sell the collection rights of Mysore Princely State coffee to Parry’s for 10 years from 1823 to 1833. The government was assured of a yearly sum of 4,270 rupees by Parry’s and renewed after the first decade for the increased sum of 7472 rupees per year.

Coffee beans stored in open-air bins in Karnataka.
Coffee beans stored in open-air bins in Karnataka.

Abolition of slavery and the spread of Coffee  to Wayanad
The growth of coffee plantations took place in the Wayanad region rather than the Baba Budan hills. One big problem was accessibility to the Baba Budan range, but even more important was the availability of cheap labour. The Abolition of Slavery Law 1843 caused a free movement of labourers from their indentured paddy fields to the coffee plantations. But the British soon introduced the Workmen’s Breach of Contract Act of 1859. This act had provisions stipulating that the workers had to sign a contract agreeing to work in the gardens for a specific period of time to guarantee indentured labour for their precious plantations. During this period a number of European planters applied for huge areas of land in the Wayanad region and within a few years several entrepreneurs started estates in Mananthavady; Glasson, Richmond and Morris were the pioneers among them. Very frequently Major Glasson is credited with opening the first Manantoddy coffee estate in 1840.

There are two versions of the popular story about how coffee spread to the most prolific coffee growing region today. The first one credits a partner of Messrs. Parry & Co in 1820 or thereabouts who was on his way from Madras, across the peninsula, to Calicut. He went up the Kuttiyadi ghat on a visit to their coffee estates on the Baba Budan Hills and was greatly impressed by the flourishing coffee plants on the Manantoddy (now Mananthavady) hill pointed out by some of  the officers.  The first thing he did therefore on return to Madras was to purchase Grass hills near Manantoddy and experiment with coffee cultivation; a first attempt that ended in failure. Mr. Pugh from Ceylon, an experienced planter then visited Manantoddy and established the first coffee estate known as the Pew estate. The exact year is not known, but it was between 1830 and 1840.

A soldier of the Madras Native Infantry.
A soldier of the Madras Native Infantry.

There is another version of this story – that the pioneers in coffee cultivation in Wayanad were the soldiers of the army of the English East India Company. A regiment of the British Army had been stationed at Mananthavady during the 1820s to suppress rebellions of the native rulers. Subsequently, the service of the sepoys of the regiment were used for cultivating coffee in Ambukuthy hills and its valleys; areas close to the Army camp in Mananthavady. Legend has it that the first plantation was started by Captain Bevan, who was in charge of the 27th Regiment of the Madras Native Infantry of the East India Company. He bought coffee plants from Anjarakkandy which grew well and here is where the stories converge. The large scale cultivation proved a failure during the period, because of the lack of technical knowledge regarding the process of cultivation. Agents of Parry and Company, while on their way to Baba Budan hills in Bangalore, passed through Wayanad and were impressed by the growth of the coffee plants and went on to start a coffee plantation near Mananthavady in North Wayanad.

In 1838, the British (who by now had taken over Mysore under the pretext of misrule) abolished Parry’s contract and threw open coffee cultivation to free competition. Additionally, they moved from the Vara system of sharing of produce to an excise model (Halat). This also resulted in the growth of banking in the south of India and ensured that in almost every household at least one member was employed in the banking industry.  The earliest known colonial estate was Thomas Cannon and his Mylemoney Estate in the 1830s, an estate that exists till today! Coffees of this estate were sold on the London market as ‘Cannon’s Coffee – Mylemoney Brand’. Thus began the era of coffee in Southern India and Ceylon.

1855-1880: The Coffee Era
Subsequently, coffee plantations continued to thrive in India over the period of the British Raj and beyond. The Dutch began to grow coffee in the Malabar region, but a major transition happened when the British led a relentless drive to set up Arabica coffee plantations across the hilly regions in South India, where they found the climatic conditions to be apt for the crop.

Coffee plantations experienced rapid growth under the colonial powers. The first European coffee plantation opened in 1854 in Kodagu (Coorg), initiated by John Fowler, but by 1895, there were 130 of them. The mass emigration of Tamils to Sri Lanka happened during this time as labourers in coffee plantations.  The colonial bureaucracy argued that it would be more expensive to transport Chinese to Ceylon’s coffee plantations and also that Indians were more frugal to maintain than the Chinese! In the 1870s, a leaf disease wiped out Sri Lanka’s entire coffee crop, the repercussion of which was that Sri Lanka switched its estates entirely to tea and took an early lead in tea plantation, a lead that continues to this day. The other repercussion of this leaf disease was that vast areas of coffee plantations in the Nilgiris switched from coffee to quinine and then to gold (yes, there was a brief gold rush in Wayanad) and then eventually to something far more valuable – tea.

Pollibetta Coffee Estates Company Limited and Coorg Coffee Estates Company Limited, both of London, were two prominent groups of estates in Coorg in the early years of this century. They were merged to form Consolidated Coffee Estates Limited (CCE), registered in Edinburgh in 1922. Where is this company now Well, the name of the Company was changed to Consolidated Coffee Limited w.e.f. 12th June 1967 and was further changed to Tata Coffee Limited w.e.f. 11th August, 2000 and a fresh Certificate of Incorporation was obtained from the Registrar of Companies, Karnataka, Bangalore. The oldest coffee estate in India, Mylemoney Estate (est. 1830) still continues to operate and produce high altitude coffee.

According to the Planting Directory (Waddington), the life of a labourer in the plantations of Wayanad was pathetic due to various reasons. Though the labour force was tapped by the planters, they were not given sufficient wages. Able-bodied men were paid only two annas and women, nearly half – an anna and four paise; only after 1858 did the wages begin to rise. The wages in other parts of Malabar and South Canara during the period were also very low. Under the system of attached labour, the agricultural labourers were given three edangazhi of rice per man and two edangazhi per woman. The Tamil Nadu Coffee-Stealing Prevention Act of 1878 and the Madras Planters Labour Act of 1903 further strengthened the tentacles of the planters over hapless labourers. Under these acts, workers and maistries in possession of freshly picked coffee were liable for prosecution. In addition, any labourer without a valid reason for absence from work, would not only forfeit his wages but also pay the planter four annas for each day, in addition to being liable for imprisonment!

Sanskritization and the Growth of Coffee Consumption
Up until this point, coffee was either exported to Europe or was a luxury afforded by the upper classes. The spread of coffee to the common man came about as a direct result of Sanskritization.

Adopting the life-style of the brahminical castes to climb the social ladder has been termed as ‘Sanskritization’ by M. N. Srinivas, and what could be an easier way to adopt this lifestyle than adopting coffee! Morning coffee, which was a privileged habit of the ‘higher classes’, gradually spread to the lower classes.

In 1906, the Gazetteer of Tanjore published interesting information about the changes in food consumption habits of labourers. The Brahmins and other upper castes ate hot food at lunch and dinner, drank coffee in the morning and consumed a light snack at 3pm. The lower castes on the other hand, ate cold rice and water (kanji) at 7:30am with meat soup on rare occasions, hot or cold rice for lunch and hot rice, meat soup/curry between 7pm and 8pm for dinner. ‘Of recent years however, a tendency has developed among Sudras, even of the poorer classes, towards the use of coffee in the morning in preference to cold rice. On the other hand, this beverage is losing favour with the higher classes who regard it as unwholesome’, reported the Tanjore Gazetteer. The same trend was noticed and published in Tirunelveli district in 1917. During this time, refined sugar was only used for drinks in South India; desserts used jaggery. Since the consumption of sugar shot up dramatically, the only reason could be the popularity of coffee among the non-Brahmin castes, since tea was still not popular. Coffee then, was directly responsible for the growth of sugar consumption in South India!

The Nadar Christians of South India were classified primarily as lower castes; a consequence of them being involved in the toddy tapping trade. The Nadars, who made a successful transition to their claims of ‘high status’ were the ones who had given up toddy production and moved on to coffee. Religion was a fluid concept in South India of those times, with conversions happening towards those religions that were able to provide succour – spiritual or fiscal. And so there was a continual border crossing between Hinduism and Christianity, all of which changed with the coffee. By 1870, the large scale employment offered by coffee plantations, victims of famine and other natural calamities had alternative sources of relief and survival. It is very strange to think something like coffee influenced something so deeply intrinsic as religion, but we tend to forget that, like everything else, religion is human, and so is influenced by the same, if jaded, social and material concerns.

What was the reason for the upper classes finding it unwholesome As usual, then, and now, it was religious dogma.

The Case for Banning Coffee and Religious Fundamentalism
In the early decades of the 1900’s coffee was looked upon as a serious vice and as condemned as roundly as alcohol. Media and politicians alike were vocal in condemning it; in fact, so loud was the condemnation that not even Mr. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was spared from its impact.

‘The greatest obstacle in the way of the success of our movement in Madras are our women. Some of them are very reactionary and a very large number of the high class Brahmin ladies have become addicted to many of the Western vices. They drink coffee not less than three times a day and consider it very fashionable to drink more. In dress they are no better, they have given up the homely cleap (sic) cloth and are running after costly foreign cloth.’ – Young India, August 1921, page 68; Addressed to M. K. Gandhi.

Thankfully, the Mahatma disregarded the effects of coffee and focused on the fashion-addiction of the women, as rightly he should have. It was not so with all his followers however. As a large section of Gandhians started condemning coffee, it soon became known as kutti-kal or ‘junior alcohol’ amongst chaste Gandhians. Of course, its biggest proponent was the great author and freedom fighter C. Rajagopalachari who is said to have wished the Cauvery flowed with coffee!

An advertisement for coffee, aimed at women.
An advertisement for coffee, aimed at women.

Coffee and the Caste System
Coffee had a very direct role to play in the Tamil struggle against the Brahminical caste system, primarily because the practice of segregation practised in the ‘coffee hotels’ of that era.

Periyar, who launched the self-respect movement and Tamil Nadu and gave rise to the two DMK parties currently in power, writes this about coffee shops: Think a little of how the Tamilian’s shame is today. In the coffee clubs he is segregated as a low caste. If we go around this village, several boards say, ‘This is for Brahmins’, ‘This is for Sudras’,  ‘Panchamas, Muslims and Christians will not be given food, snacks or water here’, ‘Sudras should not draw water from here’, ‘Sudras should not bathe here’, ‘Sudras will not be admitted into this school’, ‘Sudras should not read these topics’, ‘Only Brahmins can go so far – Sudras should not go beyond this point’, ‘Sudras should not reside in this street’, ‘Panchamas should not walk in this street’ are placed in every coffee shop that the Brahmins own, in every hall, in every tank and temple, rules are created, and people are divided; aversion and dislike are created; disgrace is created. Let any Congress leader get up and say, let them accept that at least as far as this place is concerned in the coffee shops and Brahmin hotels, the boards that say ‘Brahmins – Non-Brahmins’ will be removed and flung off.

In Salem, the Congress party fought for a  resolution favouring the cancellation of the license of any ‘coffee hotel’ that denied entry to untouchables or harijans.

On 11 August 1945, K. K. Kannan introduced a resolution in the Council for urging the Government to remove untouchability by a Royal Proclamation. The mover of this resolution had an experience of the practice of untouchability on his way to Anandapuram. When Kannan with his friends entered a coffee house, the Nair owner told them that he would serve coffee to them on the condition that they consent to wash the glass after drinking it. Kannan not only refused, but caused the introduction and carrying of a resolution banning these practices.

A Story of Chicory, World War II and Degree Coffee
When World War 2 began and the sea routes were sealed, the coffee industry in India suffered a huge setback and was directly responsible for the creation of the Coffee Board of India, which controls coffee till today. This was also the period when the south Indian filter coffee, as we know it today, was created using a blend of chicory and coffee.
Chicory’s origins can be traced to the Mediterranean Sea, more specifically France and Italy. Chicory is also believed to have originated in eastern India as it was referenced in the writings of the ancient Greeks. By itself, chicory powder is bitter tasting, but when mixed it with coffee, it not only adds body to the coffee (so less coffee can be used) but also enhances the taste and aroma of the coffee. The easiest way to understand this is to think of the fragrance of filter coffee in South Indian dosa hotels!

A coffee ad, promoting it as a restorative.
A coffee ad, promoting it as a restorative.

Chicory was widely used during economic crises such as the Great Depression in the 1930s and during World War II in Continental Europe. It was also used as an ingredient of the East German Mischkaffee (mixed coffee), along with sugar-beet and rye, introduced during the ‘East German Coffee Crisis‘ of 1976-79. So very possibly, we received a chicory blended filter coffee culture from the British, likely through Indian soldiers during the world wars. Camp Coffee is a Scottish food product, which began production in 1876 and is a brown liquid which consists of water, sugar, 4% caffeine-free coffee essence, and 26% chicory essence. Some of the Indian soldiers started military hotels and messes after coming back to Madras. Whether all this is directly connected to the South Indian filter coffee is not clear but it definitely adds more interest around the circumstances that led to its growth and rapid proliferation.

Mixing chicory into your coffee is traditional in parts of the American south, and is a tourist treat at Café du Monde in New Orleans, where it’s served with beignets. Incidentally, the Americans began adding chicory to their coffee to stretch the beans they possessed, when a Civil War naval blockade kept coffee shipments from coming into the city.

Then there is the famous Kumbakonam Degree Coffee that is made only with the purest churned cow’s milk. Why is it called Degree Coffee Well, one explanation is that it’s not “degree” coffee, but ‘chicory’ coffee, which came to be pronounced first as ‘chickaree’ and eventually became ‘degree’. Speaking for myself, I believe the most plausible one is that milk certified as pure with was called degree milk owing to the ‘degree’ markings on a lactometer and therefore coffee prepared with degree milk became known as degree coffee.

A Crash Course in Beans and Leaves
A little about the different types of coffee beans:

  • Arabica: The the most sought after species of coffee with high quality tasting characteristics, low acidity and low caffeine.
  • Coffea Canephora (robusta): The second most sought after coffee specie in the world after Arabica beans, canephora is easy to maintain and thus to produce. The beans are considered of lower grade if compared to Arabica beans and are often mixed with the latter to make coffee production cheaper. However it is often included in instant coffee and espresso blends to form ‘crema’. It has a huge amount of caffeine; twice as much as in Arabica coffee.
  • Coffea Liberica: This coffee specie was first discovered in Liberia, West Africa. It is similar to the taste characteristics of Robusta beans and is still found in parts of Central and East Java.
  • Peaberry: What is peaberry and why is peaberry coffee special Erin Meister explains that it is one of two in the pods in a coffee bean, smaller, denser and cuter than its twin and a mutated one at that. According to Erin, ‘Fans think they taste noticeably sweeter and more flavourful than standard-issue beans; naysayers insist they can’t tell the difference.’ Continuing, she says, ‘Because there’s no way to tell from looking at the cherry itself whether there’s a single or double header inside, these little guys need to be hand-sorted after picking and processing in order to be sold separately. As a result, in many cases the peaberries are sold for roasting right alongside their normal counterparts. Occasionally, growers will hand-select the tiny mutants for special sale, sometimes at a premium; not only because of their taste, but also because of the amount of labor involved, as well as their relative rarity.’

The mix of arabica and robusta is pretty typical in Asia; as you get closer to the southeast, especially Vietnam, you get into the Excelsa and Catimor varieties too. The Trung Nguyen coffee you get in ca phe sua da at Vietnamese restaurants is often a mix of all four coffee varietals. The most popular Arabica varietals are:

  • S.795: This is by far the most popular Arabica selection released during the 1940s with high yields, bold beans, superior quality and relatively high tolerance to leaf rust. This selection was developed using ‘Kents’ Arabica, known for its high quality. Even today, the S.795 is a favourite with planters and is a widely cultivated Arabica variety. S.795 has a balanced cup with subtle flavour notes of Mocca.
  • Cauvery: Popularly known as Catimor, Cauvery, a descendant of a cross between Caturra and Hybrido-de-Timor, is a natural mutant of the famous Bourbon variety. Thus, Cauvery inherited the high yielding and superior quality attributes of Caturra and the resistance of Hybrido-de-Timor.
  • Sln.9: Selection 9, a derivative of a cross between an Ethiopian Arabica collection, Tafarikela, and Hybrido-de-Timor, Sln.9 has inherited all the superior cup quality traits of Tafarikela. This variety has won the Fine Cup Award for best Arabica at the ‘Flavour of India – Cupping Competition 2002’ organised by the Coffee Board of India.

Modern-day Coffee Production
One of the big problems with Indian coffee is that most Indians associate good coffee with filter coffee. Not that it is not good in a greasy-dosa-hits-the-spot kind of a way, but a filter coffee does not showcase much of the beauty and flavour of coffee. Similar to wine, coffee too is associated with terroir, the French word for the complete natural environment in which a particular coffee is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate, and in some cases, the poop. Since most of the coffee produced in India is consumed in a chicory blended filter coffee format, it is singularly hard to source single origin Arabica beans from these farms. Thankfully, the whole CCD-Barista-Costa-Starbucks onslaught has brought on a new appreciation for non-chicory blended coffee; in particular pure Arabicas. We are now seeing small start-ups sourcing small-lot coffees from individual farms and selling them as gourmet coffee. Additionally, we have establishments like the decades-old Devans of Delhi who source Arabicas from the South of India.

Karnataka (Chikmaglur/Baba Budan Giri) and Wayanad: The Mysore Nuggets Extra Bold (MNEB) is a common variety of coffee that is sold internationally. It has not reached the renown that the Monsooned Malabar has though. That being said, some of the best single origin coffees are produced in the Baba Budan Giri Hills today. Most gourmet coffees in India are sourced from small farms in this region.

From the Malabar coast (Kerala and Karnataka) originates the only internationally renowned Indian varietal of coffee, to my knowledge, the legendary Monsooned Malabar. It is protected under India’s Geographical Indications law (similar to Champagne). The origins of Monsooned Malabar date to the British Raj times, when coffee was transported from South India to the great markets of London. During the sea voyage, which frequently took almost 6 months to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, the humidity and the sea winds combined to cause the coffee to change from green to a pale yellow as well as undergo drastic flavour changes, owing to exposure to the constant humidity. Today these beans are bathed with moist monsoon winds in specially constructed coffee sheds to replicate the conditions of those bygone sea voyages. The prime characteristic of the Monsooned Malabar is a fairly mellow coffee with almost no acidity.

Recently, the sleepy town of Palakkad has been all the rage because of its wins in the speciality organic arabica section of the Coffee Cupping Competition in India.

Tamil Nadu (Yercaud and Nilgiri Hills): Here, originates most of the filter coffee grown in India. The chicory and bean blend hits the drinker in the face with the familiar smell of south Indian cafes serving crispy hot dosas and filter coffee pulled with the ‘cup’ and the ‘saucer’ an arms length apart to produce that characteristic head of brown and white froth. In the Nilgiris are said to originate some of the really good coffees in India, but they are next to impossible to source because of the close ties of this region to the filter coffee industry. Most of the coffees from here end up as chicory blends.

Andhra Pradesh (Araku) has now landed on the international gourmet coffee landscape because of its certified, small lot, organic tribal coffee grown in the misty Araku valley, but extremely hard to source since most of the crop is exported. Pedabayulu Estate in Araku has been a consistent winner for the best Arabica in Indian Coffee Board competitions. This is the new coffee to sample and to beat.

Orissa – Daringabadi: This is actually coffee grown in pine forests and with periodic snow! If you buy the terroir story, then the flavour profiles here ought to be very interesting indeed. This is again another coffee varietal which is hard to source because it is not really grown commercially, but rather for tourism.

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Coffee has not only influenced the geo-political map of two great countries, but is one of the most sought after gourmet commodities worldwide. Coffee, along with saturated fat, is the subject of one of the age-old medical flip-flops with practitioners and researchers being unable to decide once and for all if the stuff is good or bad for us. Today, in 2015, the verdict is that coffee is good for us, with multiple studies talking about the merits of three to five cups of black coffee a day in reducing risk for everything from melanoma to heart disease, type 2 diabetesParkinson’s diseaseliver diseaseprostate cancer and Alzheimer’s among others. Regardless of whether you believe it or not, when you sip a cup of a single origin cappuccino or espresso, you’re not just tasting the air, the clouds and the soil of a coffee estate, you’re also taking gentle sips of history. Your next cup of coffee therefore will not just be a journey through space, it will be a journey across time.