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Indian coffee’s first lady

From the March 2015 issue.

As the first female coffee taster in Asia, Sunalini Menon is no stranger to blazing trails.

In her more than 40 years in the industry, Sunalini Menon has watched many in her nation of tea drinkers change their attitude towards her drink of choice. At the same time, she’s witnessed the world begin to take coffee from her homeland more seriously.

“When I would travel I would tell people I was in coffee and they would turn around and say: ‘You mean tea?’,” says Menon, who started out as a Taster for the Indian Coffee Board in 1972. “Indian coffee was just a filler on the world market, it was just used to fill in the crevices of the coffee cup.”

Coffee in India has a long and storied history. Legend has it that the Sufi saint, Baba Budan, brought coffee to the subcontinent way back in the 17th Century when he smuggled seven seeds from Mocha, Yemen, and planted them in the hills of Chikmagalur.

However, for much of the time since then, Indian coffee has not been taken seriously on the world stage.

Menon, who now runs her own coffee consultancy, Coffeelab, says it was the liberalisation of the Indian coffee industry in the mid 1990s, followed by a crash in world prices, that was the impetus for the nation’s farmers to start to focus on the quality of their products.

“That’s when I think farmers realised that they had to look not just at growing coffee, which had been their focus up until that time, but also at how it was processed, and that is when Coffeelab came into the picture.”

Now, she says, coffee in India is a cultural force as well as a valuable export.

“Indian coffee used to be considered a very dull and boring drink, and today there is such a change in attitudes – coffee is like hip-hop, it’s very happening. Every little corner there is a café opening up and young people now have this space where they can hang out with friends and drink coffee.”

When Menon started a project working directly with about 20 farmers around the country, this was unfamiliar territory in her capacity as a Taster.  She was used to evaluating the beans after they had been picked and processed, but now she was working with the coffee as a fruit.

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