In my previous article, I featured an Ethiopian coffee export company who ran her business based on trust. This is factored in two ways; dealing with her farmers and clientele. In this day and age, we can learn a thing or two by understanding the wisdom behind why some people do the things they do, treading a harder path and not resort to shortcuts. They are in it for the long term, not focused on the short term gains. I have nothing but high regard for individuals like Medina.
Continuing a similar conversation, I have been focusing on what exactly is happening at the farm level by getting in touch with the producer directly. In this article, I talk to the owner of a coffee estate farm based in India. Sumaira gives us an insight about how her family’s coffee estate started in the late 18th century, processing techniques employed on her farm, the specialty coffee movement in India, and much more.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and Rasulpur Coffee Estates?
I am Sumaira, the owner of Rasulpur Coffee Estates & Roasters. We are located in the Rasulpur village, Coorg district, in the hot spots of the Western Ghats, India. My entrepreneurship journey has had its shares of ups and downs. I took up a career as an interior designer and worked as a business head for a furniture empire in India. Later on, I moved to the UAE and explored the real estate industry and the coffee sector. I envisioned starting up something of my own, being from a family of coffee planters and having the self-confidence and determination to start my own business. Something clicked the moment I realized how the coffee industry is growing day-by-day.
To add, I am a fifth generation coffee planter who introduced specialty coffee at our estate. We introduced better equipments and techniques, and new processing and fermentation methods which I’ll get into a little later. A laboratory is set up for roasting and cupping to create different roast profiles and new blends at our estate. We believe in helping and encouraging our coffee community, especially the neighboring small and marginal coffee growers to analyze their coffees, and improve their harvesting and processing methods to fetch a better price for their coffee.
The journey of Rasulpur Coffee Estates started in the late 18th century when our ancestors migrated to the Western Ghats of India i.e. Coorg at the time of the British rule, as their main occupation was trading in coffee and spices. They travelled to different parts of Coorg, as they developed a liking towards coffee estates and the greenery, purchased plenty of estates, learnt the methods of coffee cultivation, and started exporting coffee to foreign countries. England was one of the major countries to which coffee was exported to from our estates in that period with the help of the Coffee Board.
We named the estate and brand ‘Rasulpur Coffee’ after the village, Rasulpur, which is on the banks of the Kaveri river in Kodagu district is named after Mr. Rasul Khan, our first generation planter. He cleared the land, started cultivation, built dams for irrigation, made the place livable and initiated agricultural works. Looking at his abilities and progress, the government named this village after him.
In time, our second, third and fourth generation planters purchased more coffee plantations and improved the methods of cultivation, processing, and introduced pulping and irrigation. An R&D team was also set up and a variety of experiments are conducted to this day. The goal here is to enhance the quality of the crops, and advance the processing and post harvesting methods. Our coffee is featured in auctions, supplied for projects, sold locally and exported to wholesalers, cafes, and restaurants. We also ferment micro lots as per requirements from our roasters and young entrepreneurs who are venturing into the coffee industry.
What kind of processing is done on the farm?
Processing on our farm is done in three different ways along with few specialty processing methods, all of which change the sweetness, body and acidity of brewed coffee. These are natural/sun dried, washed, and honey processed.
- Natural/sun dried process. A natural processed coffee, also referred to as dry processed, is a traditional yet common way to process coffee today. Originating in Ethiopia, it involves drying out freshly picked coffee cherries with the seed still inside. To do this, we place the cherries on drying beds in the sun. These beds are either patios or raised drying tables. The cherries have to be rotated and turned to prevent mold, and takes about seven to eight days to ferment. During this time, the sugars and mucilage (the sticky substance that coats the seed) will latch onto the seeds, develop flavours and make them sweeter. Once the coffee is dry, a machine separates the pulp from the seed. Natural coffees are heavy bodied, and have deep, complex tasting notes. This development comes from the way the cherry ferments differently. Natural processed coffees can be difficult to replicate because of the inconsistencies in fermentation. However when done right, these coffees can also be some of the sweetest you’ll taste. It is juicy, syrupy and well worth the extra effort.
- Washed process. Unlike natural, washed processed coffees are called the opposite, i.e. wet processed. In this scenario, machines called pulpers remove the seeds from the cherries before drying them. However, it is not just any cherry that gets the seed removal treatment. These cherries must have the perfect amount of ripeness to make sure they are sweet enough. To accomplish this, they go through a sorter and are segregated according to density. Once these pulpers remove the skin and pulp from the seeds, they are placed in tanks full of water. The water separates the rest of the mucilage and fruit caked onto the seed. Finally, the seeds are dried on the beds in the sun. Washed processed coffees have cleaner, and more crisp tasting notes when compared to natural processed coffees. The body of a brewed washed coffee is lighter. There is typically more brightness as well, because of a cleaner acidity that balances out the sweetness of the coffee. They are just as fruity as natural coffees, but the flavor notes are easier to differentiate.
- Honey processed. This method is a combination of both natural and washed. It is a rare and demanding method, and not as commonly practiced as the previous two. However, it produces a unique cup of coffee, with flavours similar to both of the previously described processing methods. During honey processing, a pulper removes the seed from the cherry before it undergoes a drying process. However, it does not go into washing tank to remove the mucilage. That mucilage, which is what the ‘honey’ refers to stays on the seed and is now dried in the sun. The amount of mucilage left behind determines the sweetness, and there are even machines to control the amount on the seed. Like natural process, the seeds are dried on beds. The flavor components of honey coffees are varied and complex. Like washed coffees, they have lighter body and are very syrupy and sweet. Acidity is present but more mellow when compared to washed coffees.
- Specialty processing. This is an emerging field and we use unique methods like anaerobic, aerobic, natural fermented, and fruit fermented to name a few. We ferment our coffee in a temperature controlled environment, with or without oxygen, followed by controlled drying to bring out unique and funky flavors out of the coffee.
What is the current state of the specialty coffee industry in India?
The coffee culture in India has evolved over the past decades. The nostalgia-inducing coffee houses were popular meeting grounds until the 1980’s. In the 90’s, cafe culture took over the country and coffee became the trendy drink to try.
Cafes are becoming the primary hangouts for youngsters and coffee found an emerging and appreciative audience. In the past two decades, we have seen a surge of cafes all over the country. They have materialized as a central hub for meeting, whether casual or business, and also doubling up as co-working spaces.
The 2020 pandemic impacted the industry In multiple ways and its effects were manifold. Logistics of coffee exports are pretty bad even today. Traditional coffee plantation owners who supply heavily within India and export to Europe are left with excess stock of coffee that could no longer be shipped to international markets.
Coming to the Indian coffee space, in recent years, the spotlight is on specialty coffee. This movement is picking up speed with many brands and roasters setting up shop. Analysis gives us a deeper understanding on how speciality coffee has emerged as the current buzzword in coffee circles. Current generation and millennials have emerged as the major chunk of consumers of specialty coffee within India.
Increased awareness and interest about coffee augmented by growing exposure to worldwide trends due to rising international travel and social media saw many of them exploring specialty coffee and manual brewing techniques. Lockdowns put a halt to the possibility of exploring cafes and thus many coffee consumers in the country turned to home brewing.
Many retail specialty coffee brands saw skyrocketing sales in 2020 as consumers invested in manual brewing equipment ranging from French Press, Moka Pots, Chemex and Aeropress. The new generation of coffee consumers respect the people behind the product, want to better understand the ‘farm to cup’ journey and are willing to invest in educating themselves on all nuances of coffee.
A few years back, this was largely unheard of. Farmers were just one aspect of the coffee supply chain, but hardly ever found the spotlight on them. Now plantation owners are keen on sharing their stories and experiences, information on their crops and the work they put in to make that perfect cup of coffee.
One can safely say that specialty coffee will not just be a passing trend, but en route to becoming one of the mainstays of the Indian coffee space in the coming decade.
I think there is a lack of communication between the consumers and farmers. I know some of the consumers, including me, have started to pay attention to where exactly the coffee is coming and from which farm. What do you think can be done to fill this gap?
The missing ingredient is awareness. People need to be educated about Indian coffee. The new-generation farmers need to collaborate with the Coffee Board of India and conduct events to promote coffees originating from India within the country and internationally.
Joint efforts need to be made by all coffee enthusiasts to encourage the consumption of coffee by making people understand the benefits of drinking coffee. The government has to support and help promote farmers to come forward and establish their own brands.
Being honest and transparent ensures the consumers and clients knows about the past, present and the way you are going to build a future. Bringing credibility to the table builds trust factor for the brand with the consumers.
I know some of the issues the farmers are facing currently are the increasing production costs, what steps are you employing to change that? Have you increased the price of your coffee to reflect that?
Whether we like it or not, coffee is getting more expensive. It’s important to look at some of the reasons why this is happening, before you potentially do one of the following:
- Buy less sustainable and ethical coffee because it’s cheaper or
- Lay blame on the wrong people for higher prices.
There are many factors influencing the cost of coffee from climate change, disruptions to global shipping, consumer demand, and packaging cost. While the need to use more environmentally-friendly packaging for coffee cups and bags is real, so too is the cost for shops switching to compostable or recyclable materials. We have also witnessed fluctuating shortages of packaging stock forcing some companies to find more costly short term solutions to packaging which comes at a higher cost.
Lastly, coming to the cost of quality, producing coffee of higher quality simply costs more. Coffee must be cared, harvesting and processing is hard work. It requires time and physical effort if you want to achieve the highest quality standards. You can’t have it both ways.
What are your thoughts on transparency? Has it benefitted you in any way?
Yes, by ten-fold. Transparency has improved our overall trust factor in this industry. It solves many problems and even stops disasters before they happen. It expands relationships, increases productivity, strengthens innovation, and improved our revenue.
What is the future of specialty coffee?
By far, the most interesting and exciting coffee segment of the moment is specialty coffee. It is rapidly expanding in India and across the globe as consumers continue to seek out the best cup of coffee to enjoy.
When it comes to coffee quality, specialty coffee is the ‘cream of the crop’ and is likened to fine wines due to its distinctive characteristics and delicious flavour that can only be achieved under certain growing conditions.
In today’s market, specialty coffee has become an intricate science and a global phenomenon that is seeing rapid growth across all sectors. More estates are coming into this specialty game, that will give ‘Indian specialty coffee a lot of mileage.’
What do you do in terms of R&D on Rasulpur Estate
We are currently doing research on developing a hybrid plant which is resistant to white stem borer and leaf rust. These are the two biggest pests and diseases faced by all Arabica growers throughout the world. International Coffee Organization (ICO) is working with different countries to find a solution for this.
This R&D program has been ongoing for the past four years on a 40 year old, 30 ft tall, Arabica plant labelled by us as Rasulpur Arabica. So far, the results look promising and it is resistant to these diseases. We have propagated progenies of this plant by clonal cutting, seed and tissue culture, and cross-bred this plant with other varieties of Arabica.
About Rasulpur Coffee Estate
Rasulpur Coffee Estates & Roasters is based out of Rasulpur village in Coorg district in the hot spots of the Western Ghats, India. The Estate is run by Syeda Sumaira, a fifth generation coffee planter and entrepreneur.
Fun fact: Coffee farms are the best place to get first hand knowledge about the beverage, how it is grown, harvested and processed. Rasulpur Coffee Estates organizes coffee tours, get in touch with them to find out more.