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The Magic of Monsooned Malabar

By Aparna Datta

Come June, the west coast of India plunges into a state of suspense, awaiting the onset of the monsoon. When the clouds finally roll in from the Arabian Sea, accompanied by the dramatic orchestration of thunder and lightning, and the rain comes down in torrents, the whole of India heaves a sigh of relief. Termed by meteorologists as “the most intense annual weather event of the world”, the South-west monsoon is a lifeline for the Western Ghats, where much of Indian coffee is grown.

At Mangalore, one of the great port cities on the west coast of India, there’s even more anticipation, as preparations move into high gear for another great annual event – the monsooning of coffee. From June through September of every year, coffee beans that were harvested earlier in the season from December till February, are now processed in special drying yards to create perhaps the most special of India’s specialty coffees – Monsooned Malabar.

“India's most unusual coffee is the famous Monsooned Malabar, a dry-processed coffee that has been exposed for three to four months in open-sided warehouses to the moisture-laden winds of the monsoon. The monsooning process yellows the bean and reduces the acidity, imparting a heavy, syrupy flatness to the cup together with a sharp, hard pungency… Monsooned coffees are considered a delicacy by many, perhaps because of the romance of the name, the history, and the exotic process,” writes Ken Davids, coffee consultant based in Berkeley California, in his “Coffee Review”.

The geographic indication of Malabar is of particular interest, and gives a clue to the origin of this coffee. The Malabar is a particular stretch of coastline on the west coast of India, effectively a coastal area in the states of Kerala and Karnataka. The first coffee curing (milling) works were set up in the port towns of Calicut, Tellicherry and Mangalore on the Malabar coast by companies such as Pierce Leslie & Co., Volkart Bros., and Aspinwall & Co. In fact, the first coffee curing works was established by Pierce Leslie & Co., at Calicut in 1862, even before the opening of the Suez Canal – the ships laden with coffee then took four to six months to reach European destinations.

Serendipitously, these coffee beans, exposed to salt air and moisture, yellowed and mellowed in the hulls of wooden sailing ships, acquired a unique character, so distinctive that they caught the fancy of connoisseurs. The Norwegians, for instance, have a long and passionate association with Monsooned Malabar – Solberg & Hansen has on record shipments of Monsooned Malabar dating back to 1933. The advent of quicker transportation created a vacuum, but to cater to demand innovative suppliers devised ‘monsooning’, essentially a method to simulate the transformation of the bean that took place on the old sailing ships. Over the years, monsooning has evolved into a process with its own conventions, yielding a specialty coffee now avidly consumed in Scandinavian countries, Switzerland and Germany, besides the US and Japan.

Monsooned Malabar is today high on the coffee popularity charts worldwide. According to Sunalini Menon, Chief Executive of Coffeelab Pvt. Limited, and a celebrity coffee taster based in Bangalore, “Monsooned Malabar has gained acceptance in the international market over the past couple of years, thanks in part to the winning Barista at the World Barista Championships using the Monsooned Malabar beans in their blends. The beans are not only beautiful to look at – golden yellow in colour, large and bold in size and emitting a distinct fragrance even in the green form – but in the cup too, have very unique distinctive notes, which are mellow with a finish of spice. The texture is rounded and full-bodied and very creamy on the palate. When used in an espresso blend, the beans not only provide the hazel nut persistent crema to the cup, but also enhance the flavour notes of the beans comprising the blend and create a creamy mouth feel.”

The recognition of Monsooned Malabar as a specialty coffee in the United States has been achieved to a large extent through the persuasion of specialty roasters such as Dr Joseph John of Josuma Coffee Company in San Francisco. Dr John provides some special insights into the process: “Unlike most high-grade specialty coffees, which are washed (or “wet processed”) by growers to ensure consistency and eliminate defects, monsooned beans are spread on warehouse floors in the west coast of India during the monsoon season. While there, moisture-laden winds from the Arabian Sea blow over the coffee through the open walls of the warehouse. The beans do not get wet, however, as the warehouse still has a roof. During this 12- to 16-week process, the beans soak up moisture, swell in size, change color, and, most importantly, shed their acidity, turning monsooned coffees into the lowest-acid coffees in the world. In the cup, the coffees boast abundant body and a smooth, pleasant earthiness.”

Monsooned Malabar can be prepared from both arabica cherry and robusta cherry. No doubt the quality of the beans makes a difference in the final product. “The cherry beans used for the monsooning process should not only be of the highest quality, but should be selected with care before embarking on the preparation,” says Sunalini Menon. Josuma, for instance, has special arrangements with certain growers from whom they purchase these coffees as “whole crop cherries” and contracts with specific monsooners to process the coffee.

Of the old port towns, only Mangalore remains a significant center for Monsooned Malabar with operational coffee curing works. Just a handful of producers have the facilities for monsooning, which is an intensive and demanding process involving much hygiene and sanitation. Coelho’s Gold, offered by Sweet Marias in the US, is produced at Mangalore by Coelho Coffee Exports.

Aspinwall & Co., which has consistently won awards for their Monsooned Malabar AA at all the “Flavour of India – The Fine Cup” cupping competitions organized by the Coffee Board of India since 2002, has its establishment with dedicated monsooning facilities at Mangalore. “At Aspinwall, we have been trying to understand the science behind monsooning that brings about this phenomenal change in the bean,” says K D Thimmaiah, Deputy General Manager, Aspinwall & Co. Ltd. “We are doing a research project in collaboration with Kerala Agriculture University to study the bio-chemical changes occurring in the bean during the process. Even though the processing is highly traditional, we have tried to make it as scientific as possible, based on studies on monsooning carried out in previous years. Our coffees are frequently subjected to toxicology tests; further, our processes conform to ISO 9001: 2000 standards, and we are also implementing HACCP norms for our monsooning operations to ensure that we deliver a safe product to our customers.”

Monsooned Malabar is a niche item, and getting the genuine article requires authentication. Just as more Darjeeling tea is sold around the world than gets produced in the district of Darjeeling, and more Scotch available than actually made in Scotland, Monsooned Malabar may also be prey to dubious contracts. The fact is that monsooning, essentially an aging process, can be done at inland locations as well, much like Aged Sumatra or Aged Sulawesi.

However, if the coffee is identified, marked-up and sold specifically as “Monsooned Malabar”, the bottom line is that the coffee should indeed have been processed at a curing facility on the Malabar coast during the south-west Monsoon months of June to September. Importers should ensure that the beans are sourced only from Indian curers and exporters certified by the Coffee Board of India.

Currently, the annual production of monsooned coffees in India ranges between 3,500 and 5,000 tons, depending on the overall production of coffee, which is based on various climatic and agricultural factors. Sources at the Coffee Board confirm that international demand for Monsooned Malabar has almost doubled over the past couple of years due to higher visibility. “The outlook for Monsooned Malabar is certainly very bright, but being a specialty coffee, we need to be cautious not to flood the market with large quantities of this type of coffee, which would have its own backlash on the industry, both in terms of quality and price,” says Sunalini Menon.

Generally, monsooned coffees are available to the trade only during September through March. “We at Aspinwall are working towards a consistent supply of monsooned coffee throughout the year in future by increasing the volume and managing logistics so as to meet the demand,” says Thimmaiah. However, year-round trade is inherently risky for producers due to the highly volatile nature of the coffee market.

Quality standards mandated by the Coffee Board also provide a guide to sourcing Monsooned Malabar. The rule book says: 90% by weight shall stand on a sieve with round holes of 7.25 mm (between screen Nos. 18 & 19). This grade shall be clean garbled and can contain 2% by weight of triage. Being processed in a moisture-prone atmosphere, the moisture standards are higher than normal in the 13-14.5% range. The main grades of monsooned coffees are Arabica Monsooned Malabar AA, Monsooned Basanally and Monsooned Robusta AA.

The last word goes to John Gant, of Coffeator, New York, commenting on a sample from Aspinwall: “At cool down, the liquid is mild enough to be vapid; this is not an intense or deeply dimensional coffee, aptly named Mellow. Since Malabars are notorious blenders, should they be exemplary? There is a reason. Pull a shot through a good espresso machine to see and understand. This example runs rich and syrupy, very full with colors of bronze-gold-yellow, sliding under a heavy crema lid. Taste is toasty, woody with smooth sugar and slightly caramel finish. The surprises are no acidity, and crema, crema…”

© Aparna Datta, 2005

Published in Tea & Coffee Asia magazine, 3rd Quarter 2005



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