I recently returned from a two-week trip to India. It's no exaggeration to say that I have been longing to visit India for most of my life. Indian arts, philosophy, religion, and food have fascinated me since I was young. About fifteen years ago, I learned that India was the first place where coffee was commercially cultivated outside of present-day Yemen. As someone who had been working in the coffee industry for a few years at that point, this discovery ignited a desire within me to work with Indian coffee.
During that period, the specialty coffee industry was still in its nascent stages. I was wrapping up my tenure in Boston, and there were only a handful of places where I could find exceptional coffee, but none of them offered Indian coffee. At that time, I was also employed by a tea importer. Although Darjeeling teas were and are regarded as God’s gift to the tea world by many in the tea industry, I was told at the time that India was unable to produce top-quality specialty coffee.
A few years later, around 2014, I learned about Sunalini Menon, the former Director of Quality Control at the Coffee Board of India. Sunalini is an absolute powerhouse in the coffee industry. We communicated briefly through email and met in person at SCA, and she convinced me that Indian specialty coffee was an emerging star. Moreover, she urged me not to overlook Indian Robusta. Sunalini sent me a set of samples, most of which were Robusta lots. Her knowledge and passion had such a profound impact on me that these brief interactions played a significant role in shaping my career aspirations. Although it's possible that Sunalini may not recall our emails or our chance meeting at SCA in Seattle, I am immensely grateful to her.
At that time, I had a vague awareness that certain markets, such as Australia and Germany, imported what they were referring to as Indian Specialty Coffee. However, I continued to struggle to establish relationships for these coffees. In 2017, I bought a small quantity of Indian coffee from Tom Owen at Coffee Shrub, intending to feature it on a recently launched Educational Lot menu that Passenger Coffee, who I was working for at the time, was developing. The educational component focused on the historical and present day significance of Indian coffee, which continues to be one of the top ten largest coffee producers globally, typically ranking sixth or seventh.The Educational Lot menu was conceptually well-received and more excitingly, the Indian coffee featured on it was highly enjoyable. The coffee was remarkably clean, with a clear black tea foundation and a molasses-like sweetness and distinct baking spice notes. It reminded me of an East African coffee from the Great Lakes region, with slightly lower acidity. Needless to say, my desire to work with Indian coffee intensified after roasting and drinking this coffee.
About 18 months ago, I connected with Pranoy Thipaiah through Instagram. As someone who typically laments social media's negative impact on society, I must admit that I am grateful for the business partnership and even friendship that has arisen from our online interactions. Pranoy is a bright, thoughtful, driven young coffee producer from Chikmagalur, India. Chikmagalur is a district located in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka, and it was the very region where coffee was first introduced in the 17th century.
Around the same time, I was also introduced to Dinesh Pejathaya. Dinesh comes from a family with a history of coffee farm management and which also owns an agricultural supply business. Although he is not a coffee farmer himself, Dinesh serves as an organizer, connecting farmers who are interested in using their land not only for coffee production but also as a habitat and corridor for local wildlife to move through without significant disruption. During our interactions, Dinesh sent me a set of samples from the producers he was working with, and I was thoroughly impressed by the quality. I was optimistic that this could be the beginning of a meaningful partnership in India.
During the summer of 2022, Pranoy Thipaiah visited my family in the United States and stayed with us for a few days. We spent our time roasting coffee together, from India, Africa, and Latin America. We also cupped coffee together and had many conversations about India and its current standing in the specialty coffee industry. Pranoy even brought some of his own coffee with him, and we hosted a cupping event at Sey Coffee in Brooklyn to introduce more people in the US to Indian specialty coffee.
The cupping was a great success and gave both Pranoy and myself confidence that the American specialty coffee market was interested in and ready for Indian coffee. We started formulating a plan for a container to the States. As I had also been in conversation with Dinesh, I wanted to be sure that we could ship a consolidated container that would contain coffees from both Pranoy and Dinesh’s group, Coffea Indica. Plans were made for me to visit India during the 2022/2023 harvest season.
I went into my trip with minimal expectations, but those expectations were exceeded beyond measure. Pranoy's innovative and forward-thinking approach to processing and value-adding through processing was truly inspirational and even paradigm-shifting for me. During my time in India, Pranoy introduced me to Ashok Patre, who owns Ratnagiri Estate, where I witnessed the most impressive and intentional processing I have ever seen, surpassing anything I had experienced before. The latter half of the trip was spent with the producers of Coffea Indica, whose dedication to wildlife conservation was incredibly inspiring. The estates I visited with Dinesh rank among the most beautiful coffee farms I have ever visited.
In addition to everything else, I had the pleasure of tasting many outstanding coffees during my trip. I am beyond excited to bring these exceptional coffees to the United States. The dry milling for our lots has already commenced, and we are scheduled to ship a container in early April. We plan to showcase these coffees at the SCA in Portland and are eagerly looking forward to connecting with as many roasters as possible to discuss these unique coffees and the dedicated producers who grew them. I cannot remember the last time I felt this motivated and inspired by coffees and their producers.
There is much more to share about each of the producers we'll work with this year. We also have a lot to share about Robusta (yes, we purchased some and can't wait to share samples with roasters). There is even much to be said about India as a specialty coffee consuming market, but for now, we'll end here. If you're interested in these coffees, we encourage you to get in touch. We strongly believe that Indian Specialty Coffee has a bright future and so look forward to playing our small role in that future.
- David Stallings