coffeeKarnatakaTravel and Food

I, me, my coffee and the journey of the bean

History of coffee in India

There is something special about a cup of coffee. It is hot, potent and full bodied. Everyone has a coffee story to share. Let me tell you my story as well. But along with it, I would also like to narrate the journey of the bean itself and the history of coffee in India.

history of coffee in India

Pic Courtesy – Shivakumar

Coffee to me is more than just a beverage. My story dates back to my childhood, when I was a mere two year old. My late grandfather, a coffee planter who owned over thousands of acres of plantations in Karnataka was the one who introduced coffee to me. But he did not stop with just the bean. He introduced me to the beautiful Western Ghats and the alluring Malenad in Karnataka with places like Chikmagalur, Saklespur, BR Hills when I was a mere child. We grew up in Chennai in a joint family with cousins and our bed time tales were wild tales of tigers and elephants in his path when he used to drive through the jungles to these destinations.  Chikmagalur, Saklespur, Agumbe, Sringeri, Hassan, Mysore, Chamrajpet, Belur and Halebeed were my childhood summer haunts as we played in the colonial bungalows and stood in awe as the mist overpowered the mountains.

history of coffee in India

The coffee plantations of Chikmagalur

It was coffee that took me places. I owed my  very first international trip to Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia in my twenties to my grandfather who took me on a coffee delegation tour to these countries. It was followed by another coffee study tour later to South America – to Brazil, Costa Rica and San Salvador. The travel bug had been bit. I did not just become a coffee addict but a travel addict as well.  However it took me two decades later to realize that. On this International Coffee Day, I am so grateful to my late grandfather who took me on this fascinating journey. He told us many stories and one of them is the story of the coffee bean itself.

This is not a travel story – but the journey of a bean and the history of coffee in India as narrated by my granddad with some research thrown in as well.

The Legend of the Dancing Goats

Steeped in legends the coffee plant is a native of the Koffa district in Abyssinia or Ethiopia as it is called today . A shepherd and his  herd were responsible for the discovery of the plant itself. The dancing goats legend as it is called was set in Abyssinia when the shepherd Kaldi and his sleepy goats chanced on some berries .The tired goats started prancing around upon tasting them and the shepherd found himself stimulated

History of coffee in India

The red berries

The story started with seven seeds

It is the Arab connection that sowed the seeds for the history of coffee in India.The legend today is as old as the hills where it all began.  A pilgrim called Baba Budan also known as Hazarat Shah Janab Allah Magatabi  smuggled seven seeds of coffee in his tunic while he was on a pilgrimage from Mecca. The saint  sowed the seeds in his garden near a cave in Chandragiri and the rest of course is history . The hills called as Chandra Drona in the puranic age are now called Baba Budan Hills after the seer  .

history of coffee in India

Coffee estates in Chikmagalur

Many years later, I visited Chikmagalur and spent some time in the family’s plantation, now managed by my uncles and cousins.  It is amazing what a cuppa can do to awaken the spirit. A walk into the woods took us right inside the coffee plantation. Rows of arabica  jostled for space with silver oak trees with pepper plants snaking around them.

History of coffee in India

Wake up and smell the coffee

A ray of light lit the red berries that were waiting to be picked.We paused for a moment and looked at the vast expanse of greenery  on the slopes of the Baba Budan Giri Hills that girdled Chikmagalur . This is the birthplace of coffee, where the seed was first sown more than 350 years ago.

The Wild Coffee

My grand father had told us how the  beans had slowly journeyed from the seer’s backyard into Karnataka. The local farmers  planted the saplings in the neighbouring villages  around forests and mountains . It soon  became a commodity for trade from the Malenad region. Coffee was  taken by merchants to the West coast and from there sold to Arabs in exchange for salt and gold . The wild  coffee slowly moved from Chikmagalur towards Mysore  and Kodagu or Coorg as we know it.

Coorg coffee plantations

Kodagu’s  tryst with coffee soon started . It is believed that the bean was brought in  here by the Mopla community from Kerala who traded with the Arabs. The locals cultivated coffee in the Nalknad area and initially and it is probable that most of the coffee grown initially  were wild coffee . Soon small holdings came up on the fertile slopes of the Western Ghats which were too steep to grow rice.

The home grown crop was traded with the Bhatkal merchants for cash and kind .This was well before the British entered the scene  and it took probably a  century  or more later for  the “ forest produce”  to become a  plantation crop. The famous coffee plantations of Coorg had still not yet arrived on the scene.

The Mysore Maharajas’ trysts with coffee

The Britishers featured much later in the history of coffee in India. While they  did wake up and smell  the commercial potential of the crop, it was the local rulers who had patronised the farmers.  Mysore Maharaja , Krishna Raja Wodeyar 111   gave away lands and established norms. Even Tipu Sultan gave inams and rent free lands to farmers .The locals  grew the crop in small plots around their homes  and it is said that the coffee trees grew up to 20 feet high.  Soon coffee spread to Aigur in Manjarabad region and to Saklespur ,Belur and Hassan. The capital of the ancient Hoysalas had become the capital of coffee.

history of coffee in india

Life inside a coffee estate

History of Coffee in India

 The Mysore durbar was controlling the coffee grown in Malenad  at that time and the land owners had to give part of their produce to the state. In the 19th century, the Maharaja leased the collection of coffee to Parry  & Company and the British stepped into the scene. This was just the beginning of the plantation story as coffee cultivation soon changed hands from the locals to the colonial powers. The coffee that was grown in hittlus or fenced lands soon started flourishing in estates and by 1830s, coffee was the key commercial crop in Malenadu

The advent of the British owned coffee plantations

The colonial control over coffee spread as estates started opening up. In Chikmagalur, Thomas cannon of Mylemoney had 500 acres and he exported Canon’s Mark one, named after the famous Canon Nose Peak in the hills. This was the beginning of the  Chikmagalur coffee plantation story. Chikmagalur and Kadur called as North Mysore were the favourite areas followed by Saklespur and Manjarabad in Hassan district known as South Mysore. There was even a rush for land near Agumbe, but too much rains made the settlers settle for Koppa .

In Coorg, the first European coffee plantation was probably opened in North Coorg near Mercara or Madikeri around 1850 called Mercara Estate. South Coorg was earlier referred to as the Bamboo District with its large tracts of jungles and canopies of bamboo trees and this became home to robusta. It is said in less than 25 years, about 44,000 acres were planted with coffee. It reached its peak by 1880s by when the number doubled and coffee became synonymous with Coorg. Almost every family in Coorg had a small holding.

History of coffee in India

Inside a drying yard

Most estates even today are suffixed “Kan” and I was told that it meant forests . Forests offered the British owners game and their spare time was spent in killing tigers and gaurs in their estates.  These Kans or forest lands were sought from the local government and a grant was given to them to cultivate coffee within a stipulated period of 3 years.

Hostory of coffee in India

Coffee being pulped

The patta had details such as 300 plants were to be grown in an acre and the boundaries were specified and marked . It is recorded that a path had to be in the north, a stream in the south, a jack fruit tree in the east and a path lined with trees in the west. The plants bore berries within 6 years and laborers were paid Rs 3 per day It is recorded that during Ugadi, in March-April, the laborers went home and returned only during August-September after the Gauri Puja ,while the planters came to Bangalore to escape the monsoons.

The demand for Mysore Coffee world wide

Mysore coffee as it was called was in great demand in Europe .The mountain grown large beans were blue green in colour. It  was shipped to Europe in wooden sailing vessels, taking four to six months to sail around the Cape of Good Hope before reaching their destinations. Coffee, stored below the water line was  affected by the humidity as moisture seeps through the wood and it underwent a form of treatment during its voyage . When that coffee reached Europe, it had changed its color from bright green to pale gold, and had lost its new crop acidity. It was mellow in the cup and easy on the stomach and much sought after by the Europeans.

History of coffee in India

Coffee in a drying yard

Many people associate India with chai or tea but coffee has its own special place here. We looked out from the sprawling verandah into the Baba Budan Hills and into the blur green horizon that met our eyes . As we sipped our filter coffee, we wondered  how a small cup of coffee had so much history behind it. Today, tourism has developed in almost all of Malenadu and its a dream to stay in a Chikmagalur cofee plantation from the British era or head to a coffee plantation in Coorg, but very few know the coffee bean story.

See my video on filter coffee story in Bangalore

 

This post was published as a part of a coffee table book on coffee.  All photographs (except the first) are shot from our family estates near Chikmagalur and near a village called Biccodu near Belur . If you are interested in single origin coffee being delivered right to your doorstep, please leave a comment in this post as we sell customised coffee seeds – raw or roasted and freshly grounded powder as well.

Acknowledgements for research – Information collated from books and essays on history of coffee in India, notably by historian Mr. S Muthiah.

7 comments

  1. Nisha 7 October, 2017 at 00:07 Reply

    This is amazing Lakshmi! I love my cuppa coffee. Be it is a stimulant when working or as a conversation excuse with friends. But your story is so special. I love trying coffee from different regions but knowing that coffee could actually drive someone’s travel love is so different and interesting. I loved the freshness of the article and the personal touch of your story. Thanks so much for making us a part of this beautiful story 🙂

  2. Mayuri Patel 10 October, 2017 at 17:16 Reply

    wow. I am tea lover but I love coffee as well. especially cold coffee in summer months
    your article described history and so many details of plantation.I am always keen to know about tea processing,coffee processing details.its nice information

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *