While India may be a producer of fine teas, it has been growing and exporting exceptional coffees for over 150 years.
Notably, there is one unique coffee the country has been exporting for centuries, long before the existence of specialty coffee: Monsoon Malabar.
Monsoon Malabar coffee refers to a particular method of processing in a specific region of India, rather than any one variety of coffee on its own.
Notably, monsooned robustas can be found as readily as the many cultivars of arabica grown on the Malabar Coast, from Karnataka in the north all the way down to Kerala.
The process dates back to British colonial rule, when coffee was transported by sea from India to Europe. But, what is distinctive about Monsoon Malabar coffee, and how does it pick up its characteristic, and at times divisive, flavour profile?
To find out more about roasting Indian Monsoon Malabar coffee, I spoke with the co-owner of Monsoon Estates Coffee Company, Anne Parker.
A brief history of Indian Monsoon Malabar coffee
India is in the top ten coffee-producing nations in the world, with an annual output of almost 350,000 metric tons.
Currently, the crop is split roughly 70/30 in favour of robusta. That said, arabica production, including some fine quality micro lot coffees, has certainly made gains over the last 10 years.
The majority of coffee production in India can be found along the Malabar Coast, with robusta being grown at lower altitudes. In several higher areas, such as in the Western Ghats mountain range, farms are geared more towards specialty-grade arabica.
Notably, among these is coffee grown in the Nilgiri Hills in the Tamil Nadu region, which is famous for its coffee and tea plantations.
Coffee production in India has been one of the dominant agricultural traditions for centuries. This is despite the demand for tea plantations during the 19th century, while the country was under colonial British rule.
Therefore, large sections of the rural population in coffee-growing regions rely on the crop for their livelihood.
The flavour profiles of Indian coffee can be as varied as the climatic conditions and terroir of each region.
A typical Indian profile tends to be one dominated by full-bodied and earthy tones with notes of tobacco and spice against a moderate sweetness.
That said, the more acidic coffees grown in the Chamundi Hills outside of Mysore, for example, may be an altogether brighter and more tropical fruit-laden prospect.
“The better arabicas are high grown and are usually milder in flavour, sweeter, with more acidity,” says Anne, who is also the head roaster at Monsoon Estates Coffee Company.
“India is a big grower of robusta which is grown at lower altitudes. The coffees used for Monsoon Malabar are also usually grown at lower altitudes, and are lower in acidity in the South of India. For instance, ours is grown under 1,000 miles above sea level.”
Monsoon Malabar is probably the most famous of all Indian coffee. In the days when global trade was dominated by imperial concerns, such as the British East India Company, coffee shipments could take a long time to reach Europe.
This exposed the green coffee grown across the Malabar Coast to a lot of salt water and wind on their journey. Upon arrival in European ports, more often than not, the beans would have taken on a pale white colour and a distinctive set of characteristics.
These soft earthy tones Europeans associated with Indian coffee were found to be lacking when quicker modes of transport were invented. As a result, measures were undertaken to replicate the conditions.
What are the characteristics of Indian Monsoon Malabar coffee?
“Monsoon Malabar is a stand-alone type of coffee,” Anne says. “It has a huge following, but I wouldn’t call it a fine coffee.”
She explains that Monsoon Malabar coffee tends to have an unmistakable aroma and flavour: earthy, slightly spicy, and musty.
Anne admits the specialty coffee sector is yet to fully embrace Monsoon Malabar coffee. “However, we are seeing a general increase in interest for Indian and other Asian coffees,” she says.
“When we started in coffee, not many craft roasters offered Indian coffees, but there are some truly wonderful coffees grown here. I think this trend will continue to grow,” she says.
The majority of Indian coffee is traditionally shade-grown in what can be considered polyculture agroforest setups.
Anne explains this means it is often grown alongside a wide variety of spices and fruits, such as pepper, cardamom, vanilla, and oranges. This requires the coffee cherries to be picked by hand.
Common to other coffee origins, the three main processing methods post-harvest are the familiar natural / dry, washed, or honey processed.
It is here that Monsoon Malabar coffee differs.
“The dry processed coffee beans are stored in large open-sided warehouses to await the monsoon season,” Anne explains. “During this time, moist winds blow through the warehouses and the beans become paler in colour, almost double in size, and lose some of their acidity.
She adds that monsooned beans are often used in blends to add body and depth of flavour, especially for espresso.
Finding the optimum roast profile for Indian Monsoon Malabar coffee
As with any green coffee, the roast degree and exact profile will depend largely on the preference of the roaster.
For instance, the team at Monsoon Estates coffee only roast their coffee dark. “At a medium roast, we find the earthy, musty flavours quite unpleasant,” she says.
She explains that due to the nature of the processing, Monsoon Malabar beans can be tricky to roast. “The beans are lower in density, lower grown, and so the moisture content is affected. This means they require less heat to begin with.”
A low charge temperature may be the key, as too much heat at the start may result in tipping or burning the beans.
The acoustic cues are different, too. According to Anne, the crack as gases escape the roasting and expanding beans has a softer edge.
Again, temperature is an important factor to monitor closely.
“Once into the first crack, less heat is applied or the roast will just run away with you,” Anne advises.
“We go into a second crack with oils starting to leak out of the beans, as we like the bitter sweet flavours.”
She believes Monsoon Malabar is a great addition to blends in need of a little more body, particularly for those that are destined to carry well through longer milk drinks.
At MTPak Coffee, we understand how much time and effort it takes from sourcing top-quality green coffee to crafting the best roast profile for consumers.
Additionally, we are able to digitally print custom coffee bags to convey the unique characteristics of Monsoon Malabar coffee. We offer a 40-hour turnaround and 24-hour shipping time, as well as low minimum order quantities (MOQs) no matter what packaging size or material used.