Karnataka's cuppa

Coffee pickers in Chikmagalur.
Coffee pickers in Chikmagalur. Photo: Ben Stubbs

Ben Stubbs gets a taste of life in a region that takes its coffee seriously.

"Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love." This is the quote that greets visitors to the Indian Coffee Museum and it is a sentiment felt all through India's coffee-growing south. I am in the small city of Chikmagalur in the Indian state of Karnataka. Nearly every family in this place, surrounded by deep valleys and green hills, is connected to coffee; they are growers, buyers, sellers, roasters, drinkers and they even run a coffee resort, The Serai, which is where I decide to stay during my coffee discovery of southern India.

India is the world's largest tea consumer. The warble of chai wallahs boarding trains and walking the streets croaking "Chai, chai, chai" like frogs is as synonymous with India as the Taj Mahal.

Coffee berries in Chikmagalur.
Coffee berries in Chikmagalur. Photo: Ben Stubbs

It is different in the south, though; the high altitudes and heavy rainfall around the tongue-tied town of Chikmagalur are perfect for robusta and arabica beans and this area has a reputation for some of the best "monsoon malabar" coffee, which was discovered when the beans were exposed to seawater and humidity on a voyage to Europe during World War II, giving it a mellow character and a reputation as one of the best coffees on earth.

I walk through the museum to get a little background on the beverage of Karnataka. They take coffee very seriously here and I read one plaque that displays the health benefits of coffee according to the museum's experts: it aids alertness and ease of breath with asthma, lowers gall stone and colon cancer risks, increases antioxidants, reduces the severity of Parkinson's disease and is even said to help prevent suicide.

The manager of The Serai tells me he has just kicked a 20-cups-a-day habit.

The museum is full of ancient coffee presses and videos on the production process, though there is nothing to drink here so I head into town to search out a brew.

The Serai, a coffee resort in Chikmagalur.
The Serai, a coffee resort in Chikmagalur. Photo: Ben Stubbs

The road through Chikmagalur is full of Coffee Day shops (India's answer to Gloria Jean's), street stalls plunging and grinding, and warehouses full of beans. The smell is heaven for a coffee fiend.

My accommodation is at The Serai Chikmagalur, a resort set in a coffee plantation, with coffee massages, coffee martinis and plantation walks on the agenda for guests looking to burn off some of their caffeinated energy.

Coffee Day has about 5000 hectares of coffee in this area, with not a tea bush in sight. I'm treated to a 90-minute coffee massage at The Serai and the manager, Manjunath Balakrishna, introduces himself to me over an iced coffee afterwards with the claim that he has just kicked a 20-cups-a-day habit.

The Serai's resident bean expert, Nishant Sachania, offers to take me to the spot where India's love affair with coffee is said to have begun.

The origin of coffee in India is the stuff of legend. Sachania tells me, as we drive up through the hills outside Chikmagalur, that in the year 1600 (or thereabouts - the story changes each time it's told to me) Saint Babu Budan travelled to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. He returned home via Yemen and smuggled seven coffee beans inside his belt before planting them in the hills that are now named in his honour.

We drive to the top of the Babu Budangiri hill, which at 1600 metres provides an unimpeded view out across the state. Sachania and I hike to the top of the ridge past pilgrims paying their respects and we stop to appreciate the vista of the blue mountains of Karnataka. It is quiet and everything is calm up here - a rare commodity in India. Sachania is getting jumpy, though. I see him tapping his leg up and down and I suggest we head back down for a coffee in town.

In the afternoon, Sachania and I wander through the plantation, watching the women scour the plants for ripe red coffee berries (men are not deemed careful or delicate enough when picking the berries, so only women are hired).

The plantation is full of fruit trees to keep the resident monkeys away from the coffee, and the towering acacia trees, teaks and silver oaks are thick with pepper vines, which they use as a supplementary crop in the off-season. This small, 28-hectare plantation around the resort produces 100,000 kilograms of coffee a year of both arabica and robusta. They all look the same to me, though Sachania tells me robusta has bigger clusters of coffee berries and arabica has the fruit all along the stem. Robusta also has double the caffeine of arabica. We pick coffee berries from the bushes and nibble on the sweet fruits as we walk through the trees. This shade-grown, high-elevation coffee is India's speciality.

With the aroma wafting through the plantation and the quiet lanes around the resort, I feel I could be anywhere, though I'm reminded this is still India when Sachania and I visit the Sri Nagadevate snake temple within the plantation that protects the workers from snake and spider bites - "No one has been bitten since we built it!" he brags before we continue into town to meet India's coffee guru.

I meet the head of research and development for Coffee Day, Dr Pradeep Kenjige, at the company's research facility. I am taken into his labs where pots are boiling, assistants are experimenting with grinds and everyone walks around quickly, blinking and chattering as if on fast forward while the heady aroma of coffee fills the halls.

Coffee Day has 22 different blends of coffee and 13,000 staff to process the 700 tonnes it roasts each month. I ask about decaf and Kenjige laughs. "A concept we don't understand in India ... it's like chocolate without the fat or a butter-free croissant."

Kenjige says he even studied the enzyme properties in civet coffee (digested by jungle cats) and tried to reproduce it in the lab. "It wasn't popular. I discovered that people are more interested in the story, rather than the actual taste."

The emergence of coffee has much to do with India's rising middle class, Kenjige says. "People equate coffee drinking with rising living standards," he says. "Even if people just sniff it ... the potential is huge with India's population."

I am shown the tasting room, where a round table is set up with stools and four little sinks, so the tasters can swirl and spit, just like wine. We sit down for a tasting and the scientists get to work. I'm presented with espresso blends, chocolate frappes, flat whites with a 20 per cent chicory blend, a long black robusta and another espresso blended in a Clover machine that is "more expensive than a Mercedes-Benz!" according to Kenjige.

We swirl and spit, looking for hints of "coffeeness" and the difference in flavour between the blends. On my eighth cup I feel stoned and my eyes bulge like a lemur.

Kenjige has blends to monitor and experiments to run so I leave him to the science of coffee and head back through Chikmagalur with my teeth chattering. The streets are buzzing and I'm tapping my feet to the Hindi soundtrack in the car just as Sachania was earlier. I am well and truly caffeinated.

I return to the resort and I need to relax. I think of another coffee massage and decide against it. I check the minibar - and in the middle of India's coffee heartland, I settle on a relaxing chamomile tea and a good lie-down.

Sixteen cups of coffee were consumed during the research for this article.
The writer travelled with assistance from Thai Airways and Small Luxury Hotels of the World.

 

Five other things to do in Karnataka

1 Kabini Only a few hours south of the coffee plantations of Chikmagalur, the thick corridors of jungle within the Nagarahole National Park contain some of the most incredible wildlife in Asia. Take an early morning jeep safari from The Serai Kabini and look out for tigers, leopards, Asiatic elephants, deer and more than 300 bird species.

2 Mysore The second city of Karnataka is sprawled across the green hills of southern India. With wide, leafy streets, the aroma of sandalwood in the air and some of the best-quality silk products in India, it is a beautiful place to spend a few days. The Mysore Palace in the centre of town, with its spacious halls and architectural beauty, is one of the most ornate and impressive buildings in India.

3 Bangalore The capital of Karnataka is one of the most vibrant and emerging cities in India. The centre of the IT boom, Bangalore is known as the garden city for its abundance of parks and tree-lined avenues. It has a great pub scene and some of the best multicultural cuisine in the south.

4 Gokarna On the southern edges of Goa, the beaches of Gokarna in northern Karnataka are a great alternative if you want to escape the crowds while enjoying an Indian-style beach holiday. There are numerous secluded spots along the coast with simple bungalows available and the Om Beach Ayurvedic Resort is a highlight if you are seeking something a little more inclusive.

5 Hampi This World Heritage site in the north of Karnataka dates back to the 1300s and contains some of the most impressive temples, frescoes and ruins in India — including the Virupaksha temple with its 49-metre tower.

 

Trip notes

Getting there

Thai Airways has regular flights from Sydney to Bangalore (with a stopover in Bangkok) from $1421, including taxes. thaiairways.com.

From Bangalore, it is a five-hour drive to Chikmagalur. Many hotels and tourist agencies can organise drivers. theserai.in.

Staying there

The Serai Chikmagalur has 29 villas set in the hills of a working coffee plantation. Each room has a spa or private plunge pool, free minibar, king beds and free plantation tours. Prices from 12,500 rupees ($230). slh.com/destinations/asia/india/chikmagalur/the-serai-chikmagalur/.

More information

theserai.in.

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