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The Adventurer

The Adventurer

January – February 2012


South Western India

This is what it’s all about – travelling to where our beans are grown, meeting amazing people, exploring the landscape and understanding plantation processes to help us source, roast and brew better coffee. Just as importantly, we want to take you along on the journey with us, because it’s all part of the Yahava story. Read on to follow our adventure through South Western India

Sunday, 29th January
A 3:30am wakeup call quickly erased any romantic thoughts of our first trip to origin, but at least it was cooler than the 42 degrees we’d had on Saturday! Following a 3 hour layover in Kuala Lumpur we arrived in the early evening of Bangalore and quickly headed into town (in this case, a town of 5,000,000 people).

After quickly checking in we wandered out onto the street, looking for our first Indian meal to start the adventure. While the local mobile phone salesmen couldn’t help us with a SIM card, they proved very useful with their restaurant recommendation. Although we had no idea what the menu said, we managed to order some AMAZING food, mainly vegetarian, and less than $8 for the three of us!

With our bellies full and our 3:30am start taking it’s toll, we retired for our first night in India to the comforting sounds of dogs barking and water hammer from the copper pipes in the roof!

Monday, 30th January
We kicked off at 7am with what would become our staple breakfast of Masala Dosa, a partially fermented pancake of rice and lentil flour, folded, pan fried and served with a seasonal filling of potatoes, lentils and peas (SOOO TASTY). After a quick cup of tea we met our driver Mr Halesh and began making our way out of Bangalore towards Hassan, the base for Allanasons (the partners of our Australian suppliers HA Bennett and Sons).

We didn’t realise until later on our trip that there are more than 100 languages and dialects spoken across the various states of India, and we didn’t know a single word in any of them! Luckily Mr Halesh spoke at least 5, as well as English and Japanese (not bad for someone of only 25 years) – we would have been lost without him.

En route to Hassan we arrived at the town of Shravanabelogola (try saying THAT 3 times quickly), the site of an incredible Jain temple set on top of an enormous granite outcrop. After the Junkie narrowly avoided a coconut to the head we began climbing what seemed like a million or so steps (barefoot) before arriving at the temple itself. Built more than 2300 years ago, the temple contains inscriptions and rock carvings, including the largest monolithic statue in the world (a 57 foot dedication to the Jain deity Gommateshwara).

After a quick stopover in Hassan for lunch we continued on into the Western Ghats toward our first appointment with Kelagur Heights (the source of Yahava’s February Specialty Estate coffee). Dodging potholes, goats, cows, cars, motorbikes and overloaded buses we passed robusta plantations, coconut groves and forests including cardamom, vanilla and pepper. Finally we rounded the last bend to arrive at Kelagur Heights.

Occasionally photos simply won’t do a place justice – from hills of emerald green tea to Arabica and Robusta coffee, groves of native forest and the beautiful colonial era bungalow set amongst the tea Estate, Kelagur was stunning.
After quickly dropping our bags we headed back down the hill to watch the processing of the days harvest. Kelagur had already done 3 passes through each of the coffee blocks and were now doing a final strip harvest, which meant the workers would also hand sort the coffee cherries once they arrived back at the processing yard. A water separation followed the hand sorting, before the cherries were pulped and fermented for 18 – 24 hours. The beans were then quickly washed before being dried on the Estate patios. Finally the parchment coffee is packed and stored in Kelagur’s unique wood-lined dunnage box to develop more body in the coffee (perfect for espresso brewing).

During this whole process we couldn’t help but notice a really happy, relaxed atmosphere. The average worker harvests 90 – 100kg a day, earning about $6.50, and all of them were smiling and chatting away (even as they were lugging 50kg of cherries up the steps to the receival bin). Kelagur really look after their workers, with health cover (including an estate hospital), a crèche and school for the children and scholarships for further education. Despite this, Mr D’Souza (the estate’s General Manager) mentioned it is becoming increasingly difficult to find workers as more Indians move to the cities.

Tuesday 31st January
The next morning we woke early to watch sunrise over the tea plantation – a site that will stick in our minds for years to come! After breakfast (more Masala Dosas) we made our way further up the property with Mr D’Souza for a tour of the tea factory, where he explained the processes of wilting, cutting, fermentation, drying and packing. The Mathais family, 5th generation owners of Kelagur Heights, were the first to introduce tea into the southern highlands of India and their passion for tea continues today.

As we headed back down the hill Mr D’Souza talked more about the estate – he has been working here since 1979, and knows both the land and the workers intimately. He spoke of Kelagur’s absolute dedication to quality in both tea and coffee, about matching the correct coffee variety with each site on the estate to achieve both yield and quality. We stopped at Kelagur’s experimental block, where they have trial plantings of numerous new coffee plants including crosses of the much sort after Panamanian Geisha.

Finally, after a quick stop at the Kelagur Estate shop to buy some tea and cardamom (also grown at the estate) we headed back towards Hassan for our next appointment with Allanasons, sorry to leave but feeling that we had already improved our coffee and tea knowledge 10-fold. That night we met up with Jayadeva, Allanasons coffee quality control manager in Hassan, who tought us the finer points of eating Indian food, including a few tips for the Purist about how to deal with the spicier dishes!

Wednesday 1st February
After a lazy start to the day we headed to Allanasons processing yard on the outskirts of Hassan. Allanasons is one of the 2 largest exporters of Indian coffee, shipping more than 30,000 tonnes of coffee through their Hassan yard (including more than 1,500 tonne to the famous Italian roaster Illy). Of that, about 50% is processed on site with another 50% bought in from smaller processors around India. Their facilities included a stockpile of parchment coffee that had to be seen to be believed, it was enormous. Inside was a variety of machines sorting and resorting coffee – the result was REALLY LOUD (we felt like we’d just finished a AC/DC concert by the time we left!)

Jayadeva took us through the whole process, from receival to final packing and shipment. Allanasons have full traceability throughout the process and apply what they call the &lsquoIlly standard’ to all Tiger Mountain coffee supplied to Yahava. After hulling and polishing the coffee goes through 2 rounds of computer controlled colour sorting and a final hand sorting, where a 60kg sack of coffee takes an entire day to sift through. It is this attention to detail that produces such beautiful coffee for us to roast and brew for our Yahava customers.

After touring the processing yard Jayadeva took us through a cupping of recent coffees, from A grade Arabica down to AB Robusta. The Allanasons cupping lab is set up with 2 sample roasters, an Agtron colour scanner, commercial grinder and single group La Marzocoo espresso machine. Throughout our visit the professionalism and attention to detail from Allanasons was first class and makes a lot more sense when you taste how good their coffees are.

Finally we farewelled Jayadeva and the Allanasons crew, before making our way to Mysore for a day and a half of relaxing and playing tourist.

Thursday 2nd February
Arriving in Mysore the night before, we immediately had a great feeling – a big town of around 800,000 but a really welcoming environment and bustling centre with restaurants, markets and street vendors.

Overlooking the town is the Mysore Palace, home for years to the Wodeyars, the royal family of Mysore. The current palace, rebuilt in 1897 (and finished in 1914) after the original palace burnt down during a royal wedding, combines Hindu, Muslim, Rajput and Gothic architecture. The result is spectacular, particularly at dawn and dusk, and is illuminated by more than 100,000 lights for 2 evenings each week.

In addition to touring the palace, we shopped for Mysore’s famous silks and walked through the local markets, which stock all the fresh fruit and vege you could ask for. We also noticed a few local coffee roasters, with some pretty interesting (and slightly antique) set ups. The coffees were predominantly heavily roasted robusta but it was nice to see the local industry alive and well.

Friday 3rd February
Friday presented a long drive from Mysore to Pollachi, to begin the 2nd half of our Indian adventure with Pathy of Elephant Hills Coffee in Canberra. Pathy’s family own Thalanar Estate in the Nilgiri Mountains, about an hour outside of Pollachi, and also home to wild Elephant, Leopards, Pumas, Bison, Deer, Mongoose and the occasional Tiger. Along the way to Pollachi we passed along a mountain road so windy that the hairpin turns were actually numbered (5 down, only 22 to go!!!)

Once we arrived in Pollachi we were greeted by Pathy’s cousin Krishna, who’s hotel we were staying at. Pathy was due in that evening with Sasa of ONA coffee in Canberra and Bob of Blue Sky Coffee in Brisbane, who would be our travelling companions for the next 4 days. After farewelling Mr Halesh for his return trip to Bangalore (only 12 hours away!) we settled in for an early night.

Saturday 4th February
After meeting Bob, Sasa and Pathy (all suffering from only 4 hours sleep) we set off towards Thalanar Estate. Passing one of the Indian governments massive hydro dams we asked Krishna why no one was swimming or doing their washing, he simply answered &lsquocrocodiles’!

As we wound our way into the Nilgiri hills we noticed the first hairpin bend carried the sign &lsquo1 of 40′ – this was going to be interesting. Climbing above 1,500 feet we made our way into the tea fields, many owned by the world famous Dilmah company. There were thousands of hectares of tea, which apparently makes up only a small percentage of the Dilmah plantings.

Stopping briefly for a local tea (fine and fragrant but VERY sweet!) we continued on to Thalanar Estate. As we reached the top of the mountain road, which was effectively Thalanar Estate’s driveway, the altimeter in Krishna’s car ready 1,550m (more than 5,000 feet). We hopped out to take in the amazing view and almost stepped in a massive pile of elephant dung, they roam wild through this area of the hills Krishna told us!

After a quick lunch with Pathy and Krishna’s uncle Ravi we headed down to Thalanar’s processing yard. Thalanar were experiencing a very early harvest, as a result of early flowering in February 2011, and had been very happy with quality to date. As we walked through the process we noticed that Thalanar beans are mechanically washed after pulping, removing the majority of the mucilage prior to fermentation. They believe this offers greater aromatics and vibrancy in the resulting coffees.

As we continued to tour through Thalanar Estate, the differences with Kelagur Heights became obvious. The Nilgiri hills are incredibly rocky, full of granite, which means the coffee trees really have to struggle and are planted at a much lower density (900 trees per hectare). Combine this with the lower rainfall at Thalanar Estate (1,200mm compared to 4,000mm at Kelagur) and it became clear that we were dealing with a totally different style of coffee, but just as exciting.

We left Thalanar just on dusk (not very comforting given the winding roads) and headed back up the mountain pass to a deserted dairy in the hope of spotting some Bison. We managed to see two, including an alpha male, which was enormous and weighs nearly 1 tonne. However, the highlight on the way back down was to see the eyes of a wild elephant glowing red in the distance. Elephants are timid animals and rarely spotted during the day, but roam widely during the night. To see one (admittedly only it’s eyes) in it’s natural environment on an Indian mountain top was a wonderful experience.

Sunday 5th February
We had arrived at our accommodation on Waterfall Tea Estate the previous night, and didn’t have a great idea about our surroundings. Waking up just after sunrise we went for a quick walk out into the tea fields, which were just as beautiful as Kelagur Estate further north. In the words of Julie Andrews, the hills were alive with the sound of music, as the local Indian workers pumped out some Sunday tunes. Unfortunately, they didn’t seem to know the local Triple J frequency and it was nice once they turned the volume down!

We headed back up the hill, past Thalanar Estate, to look at the Robusta plantation of Tata (one of India’s largest companies, responsible for a range of products that combine for 5% of Indian GDP if you can believe it!) Looking at Robusta, side by side with Arabica, the differences are stark – Robusta dwarfs Arabica and is a much sturdier tree with larger, dark green leaves. Estates grow Robusta at lower altitudes, where they can produce higher yields with greater disease resistance and lower inputs. However, the Robusta coffee is traditionally heavier and harsher, and rarely produces the flavour and aromatics that make Arabica coffee prized the world over.

Walking through the Thalanar plantation later in the afternoon, we spoke with Pathy and Krishna about their Arabica varieties. Much of Southern India was traditionally planted to the Kent variety, and later Selection 795. However more recently, and like Kelagur Estate, Thalanar has been matching varieties to specific blocks on the estate, including new selections from the Indian Coffee Institute in Chikmagalur such as Selection 9 and Hawaiian Red Caturra (HRC). Both varieties combine more consistent yields, with improved disease resistance, finer aromatics and flavour. The dedication of both estates to consistently improving the quality of their coffee is a sign of even better things to come from our Indian suppliers.

That night we celebrated our visit to Thalanar Estate, and the hospitality of Krishna, Pathy and Ravi, with an Indian-style BBQ at the bungalow. After finishing all the Kingfisher, Krishna pulled out a carton of Fosters – the beer of choice for Australians abroad (but rarely at home). Washing down tandoori chicken with cold beer we couldn’t help but laugh at the amazing journey our careers in coffee were taking us on!

Monday 6th February
Heading back out of the Nilgiri Mountains towards Pollachi, we stopped at the Thalanar Estate drying yards. Although they were a very simple set up, the yards were spotlessly clean and allowed Thalanar to keep their coffee lots separate before processing. The Apprentice even took his shoes off to help the local workers as they turned over the parchment coffee, with their feet, to ensure even moisture content.

We then went onto the Pollachi Processing Works, which were a scaled down version of Allanasons factory in Hassan. The Pollachi Works were just as clean and well organised, and able to deal with small volume specialty lots including Peaberry. The first of Pathy’s Elephant Hills coffee was packed and ready for shipment to Australia – this year Pathy is using a grain-pro liner for his coffee, which regulates moisture levels during shipment and ensures consistent storeage before roasting. The grain-pro liners also prevent any possible contamination during transport.

From the Processing Works we headed to Ambrra River Resort (managed by Krishna and part owned by Ravi) for our last 2 nights in India. Along the way we past hundreds of Tamarind trees lining the road – these are government owned but harvesting is subcontracted out to locals, providing valuable employment and a source of income.

Tuesday 7th February
Our second last day was spent in a national park about an hour out of Pollachi, in the hope of spotting an elephant. As it turned out, we didn’t just spot one, we ended up getting a ride on one!!! Asian elephants are smaller and less aggressive than their African cousins but they are still a pretty powerful, intimidating site for a bunch of Aussie coffee roasters. What we weren’t prepared for was the 53 year old Elephant being just as nervous around us as we were around him.

After a few false starts, a few nervous moments on our behalf and some gentle nudging from his handlers, the Elephant was harnessed up and allowed us to hop on his back for a walk through the jungle. As we wandered past groves of bamboo, monkeys and wild bison we reflected on the last few days with Krishna and Pathy – we had seen beautiful tea and coffee plantations, sunsets over the mountains and were now riding an elephant. Again, we had to laugh at how lucky we were.

Wednesday 8th February
Our last day in India and, if we were honest, we were probably ready to head home to our loved ones and a much-needed flat white. After a very lazy start to the day we stopped for some last minute shopping in Pollachi and Coimbatore. A final stop at a local cake shop to sample some of the Southern Indian sweets and we arrived at the Coimbatore airport for our flight to Singapore. Unfortunately, our flight left Coimbatore at 9:30pm via Chennai and didn’t arrive in Singapore until 8am the next morning – it was going to be a long night!

Thursday 9th February
We arrived in Singapore bleary eyed and slightly dishevelled but excited to catch up with our mates at Yahava Singapore. One of the baristas, Fahmi, was competing in the Singapore Barista Championships and we were keen to see how he was going. We breezed through the airport and into a taxi for our 20 minute trip to the Sembawang Hills.

As we walked through the front door we were greeted by Tsai, the Singapore manager and a good friend after he spent much of last year in WA leaning the Yahava ropes. The Apprentice couldn’t wait to hop behind their La Marzocco espresso machine and knock out some coffees – after 11 days of drinking traditional Indian style coffees the 3 of us were looking forward to our preferred double shot flat whites.

We managed to catch up with 2 of the Yahava Singapore team, HB and Meng, and talk about our Indian experiences, along with exciting plans for the future and our renewed excitement about all things coffee. After a quick laksa with HB, he dropped us back at the airport for our final leg back to Perth. Despite being crammed up the back of the plane we managed a beer and a few games of cards before we were greeted by the shining lights of Perth – it was nice to be home!

 

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