By Heneage Mitchell
When one thinks of Indian coffee, its hard not to think of Coffeelab and its chief executive Sunalini Menon. Informally known as India’s Coffee Ambassador, Menon has made an indelible mark on India’s coffee industry. Her pioneering work has been instrumental in helping to establish countless blends and in putting numerous coffee estates on the map, Coffeelab and its contribution to quality improvements is now an integral part of the Indian coffee experience, and it is where many domestic and international coffee roasters, blenders and importers turn to for guidance and inspiration.
Sunalini Menon was working as the director of quality control at the Coffee Board of India, when in September 1995, the Board initiated moves towards the decentralization of its decades-old centralised marketing of Indian coffee.
"For the first time, growers were allowed to market coffee independently, so all marketing activity was divested from the Coffee Board, so downsizing became a priority for the government," Menon recalls. "It was a sad ending in many ways because I had set up the quality control department, a key element in the marketing of any product, initially. I then intended to stay with my family, who were stationed in the Middle East at that time, but many coffee growers requested and appealed to me to stay in India, saying that this was new territory for them. ‘How do we handle quality issues?’ they said. I considered it, contacted some friends and colleagues, and finally agreed to establish a lab and to work at my own pace."
And so Coffeelab was born on 1st January 1996, with its operations located in Bangalore.
The company’s main aim was to assess the quality of the coffee growers’ product, to visit their estates during the processing of the coffee and to provide guidelines as to how the quality of the produce could be upgraded. In the process, it was important to determine whether their coffee beans had some unique characteristics that could be highlighted through processing, thus enabling them to brand their coffees and market them as estate banded coffees.
"This was the first aspect that we took on immediately," Menon told Tea & Coffee Asia. "Secondly, we established training programs on key quality aspects, on cup tasting, on roasting and on processing. We also started carrying out the certification of coffee that was being exported from India, whenever so requested by the buyer or the seller. Then we started doing special formulations of coffee based on the plant strain, the region of growth and of course, the intrinsic quality of the coffee beans. Soon we expanded into doing special preparations of coffee gradations based on buyer’s requirements. We also started doing sensory-oriented advisory services for roasting companies to evaluate the quality of roasted and ground coffees. And, most importantly, one of our major areas of expertise that was consciously developed, was to develop fine and distinctively different coffee blends.
India’s first coffee shop, Cafe Coffee Day, was first launched in Bangalore in Brigade Road, and was among the earliest clients of Coffelab. We do all the blends for this outlet and to this day we continue to develop new blends for them, not only for the Indian market but also for their overseas outlets," Menon said. "Dark Forest, Mysore Royal and Malabar Monsoon are some of the blends that we developed for them and are proud of. Since then we have been sought to assist in creating specialised blends for various companies, small roasters, for Costa’s and for other major clients that are soon to enter the market. We have been able to be accurate and efficient in blend preparation, and are probably the only outfit in India which has been recognised as having the ability to do so. Of course, there is always more to learn, and that is the most interesting aspect of working with coffee. I find that the more you learn, the more you realise how little you actually know."
"We have been doing this since 2007," Menon informed us. "The interesting aspect of this training program is that we carry out the training in the field. We literally carry and move the whole lab to the field, as a lot of practical exercises are carried out and taught to the growers. "
"It is amazing that a coffee buyer should come to a growing nation and extend such a program to growers of both arabica and robusta coffees" Menon pointed out. "In fact, we started the program in a robusta producing region. The principle is that if one trains coffee growers, irrespective of whether they are arabica or robusta growers, the principles of quality and its continual upgradation would become a mindset and would get embedded in the coffee cultivation community, which would help in materially altering the quality profile of Indian coffee as a whole. This then increases the consumption of quality coffee domestically and globally, thus helping to better returns to the coffee grower. This is my philosophy, and it seems to be working, considering what we have seen in the last several years. "
"Chicory evaluation is something I consciously sought to acquire in the lab, as many consumers like to drink coffee with chicory," Menon explained. "As chicory appears not to affect health negatively, we went to the chicory growing areas in Jam Nagar and Anand. We visited the chicory growers, we went to the roasting units, and studied every relevant aspect of chicory. We started tasting chicory and over the years, we have developed a fair expertise in evaluating chicory and chicory/coffee mixtures."Gems of Araku
In 2009, the Gems of Araku Cupping Competition was established to help tribal coffee growers in the Araku region of Andhra Pradesh, under the patronage of the Naandi Foundation, an NGO.
"The Naandi Foundation in Hyderabad have established the Araku Coffee Project for helping and sustaining the lives of the indigenous people in the Araku Valley," according to Menon. "The lab has been associated with this project in respect of the upgradation of quality of these indigenous coffee growers, since October 2007. We launched this competition just to entrench into the growers the quality aspects that required to be emphasised, We felt that a competition would bring out the best in these growers, so the Gems of Araku Competition was launched in March, 2009. We received innumerable samples from tiny coffee growers - some of them producing as low a quantity as two bags. Each lot was processed individually at the centralized processing unit of Naandi at Araku. Individual samples, drawn from each of the participating lots, were analysed at the lab, after they were coded region wise. The samples were roasted and prepared at the lab and we drew up a pre-jury to carry out visual evaluation of the coffees. The pre-jury comprised experts from the domestic industry such as growers, roasters, traders and QC experts of various export companies, who carried out the visual evaluation of the coffees." "We also had a national jury comprising experienced cuppers from the Indian coffee industry who carried out the taste evaluation".
The coffees that scored 75% or more moved onto the international jury round which comprised eminent international tasters of impeccable standing in the industry such as Paul O’ Toole from Bewley’s, Ireland, Alan Nietlisbach from Volcafe Specialty Coffee, USA, George Sabados from GS Roasting, Australia, Hidetaka Hayashi from Hayashi Coffee Institute, Japan, Yoshi Kato from Bontain Coffee Company, Japan and Arthur E. Darboven from J.J. Darboven Specialty Coffees of Hamburg, Germany. Of course I was happy to be a part of this jury, many of whom I have known over the years."
"The wining coffee had such a distinctively acceptable and unique flavor, and all the judges voted for it," Menon recounted. "When we visited the farm where it was grown, we discovered that the entire crop was grown under the shade of fruit trees. This is an exciting development, as it leads to interesting avenues of research and specialty into the relationship between the environment in which coffee is grown and the quality and cupping qualities of the harvested crop. Araku is therefore fast becoming an interesting research project to determine what environment and types of shade adds to the qualities of the cupped coffee. The Robusta brand Buttercup Bold, which is grown under sapotilla fruit trees showed us that the specific shade trees are contributing to the significantly smoother and softer fruity nuances and tastier cupping qualities; one would not imagine it to be a robusta!"Evaluation and advice
Coffeelab advises on any aspect of quality that anyone needs help with – roasters, traders, growers, even consumers. It evaluates their coffees and advises them. Recently, Coffeelab has expanded into some unconventional avenues in its mission to promote awareness of Indian coffees.
"We have been conducting small workshops for consumers like doctors, housewives, business women and the like on coffee, focusing on brewing and cup quality," Menon revealed. "The interesting comment we got from doctors attending a medical conference was that they felt that this was the most interesting feature of their conference.. The presentation focused more on brewing -- how Indian coffee was brewed using the Indian Filter and the French press equipment. They were then able to taste the results to see the differences caused by different brewing techniques".
The next generation of coffee growers is also a matter of interest to Coffeelab, as a recent trip to a school in a coffee growing area demonstrated.
"We did a workshop for 6th to the 12th grade schoolchildren in a coffee growing region," Menon said, "with a focus on the 12th grader to help them decide what aspects they wanted to write their dissertation on, and to engender coffee culture and knowledge into the children, as this school was located in a coffee growing area. The principal invited us to conduct a small workshop at the school. We decided that a presentation would be inappropriate; so we took along coffee plants and coffee beans and turned the event into a practical session. We divided the children into small groups and each group was required to prepare a blend for a market of their choice We provided them with roasted coffee beans, which they had earlier tasted, to use in their blends, Then the group leader had to present the blend, describe how it was created and then discuss the nitty gritties of how they would market it. The event was an exhilarating experience with plenty of excitement and learning. The kids were fabulous and keen to acquire knowledge. It rates as one of the best days of my life in the coffee industry!"
Coffeelab’s work has helped to inspire many coffee growers and roasters since its inception. Clearly, as the above interview reveals, its work is continuing to inspire a new generation of coffee lovers from all walks of life while staying true to its core mission – to continue to improve and promote the quality of Indian coffee that finds its way into the most discriminating coffee lover’s cups across the world.
|Biographical Sketch |
Sunalini Menon is a graduate of the University of Madras, India. She was an official of the Coffee Board of India from 1972 until 1995, holding positions of increasing responsibility, ultimately becoming the Director of Quality Control. During her tenure at the Indian Coffee Board, Sunalini was responsible for all matters concerning the quality of Indian coffee throughout India and abroad.
In 1996, after the marketing of Indian coffee was decentralised and liberalised, she established her own company, Coffeelab Private Limited, in Bangalore. Coffeelab was the first of its kind to be established in the private sector and provides comprehensive quality related services for the Indian coffee industry. In 2006 Coffeelab was awarded the Hidden Treasure Award by the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe in 2006 for "that unrecognized treasure that has done more than its fair share of promoting quality coffee and to applaud the small entrepreneur that deserves greater recognition for the efforts they have made to improve the speciality coffee industry".