It was the late 16th Century. Baba Budan, the revered Muslim Saint and Philosopher, was on his way from a pilgrimage to Mecca. His journey took him through the Port of Mocha in Yemen, where he chanced by 7 green coffee beans, which he collected and stored carefully in his waistband. Taking unroasted coffee beans outside the Arab world, those days, could have sent him straight to the dungeons, but the brave Baba managed to slip them through the borders undetected.
Back home, he sowed them on a hillside on the Chandragiri Hills near Chikkamagaluru. The seeds germinated, and soon, coffee plantations sprouted up all around the hill, named Baba Budan Giri after the Saint. 70% of the coffee produce, in India, still comes from the hills of Chikkamagaluru and Kodagu (Coorg), with Kerala and Tamil Nadu accounting for most of the remainder. The rest come from the seven North Eastern States, accounting for 1% of national production.
Coffee, originally comes from West Africa. It’s a long-lived plant, able to produce crop after viable crop of coffee berries and beans for 70yrs. Some coffee plantations have coffee bushes over a 100 yrs old, that still produce huge crops. ARABICA, the high-altitude variety, is said to produce a more subtle-tasting coffee bean, while ROBUSTA, a disease-tolerant hybrid of Arabica, is more commonly grown in lower altitudes. ‘Kent’, a cultivar named after L. P. Kent, and English planter of the Doddengudda Estate in Mysore, is known to produce one of the best Arabica coffees in India.
Coffee, in India, is grown in the shade, unlike in most other countries. Indian coffee plantations often resemble mini forests with tall fruit trees, pepper vines and cardamom rubbing shoulders with the coffee plants. For 4 days, every year, coffee plantations take on an ethereal appearance. The bushes burst into bloom, with bunches of delicate white flowers filling the night air with mystery and romance. The flowers drop off to form coffee berries, that take over eight months to mature. Each berry produces 2 beans, which are fermented, dried in the sun, roasted and pounded to make coffee. Some berries produce only 1 bean each, an these are carefully collected and graded as PEABERRY BEANS, known for their superior quality and taste.
Can you grow coffee at home ? Well, yes, but only for fun. You’ll only be able to harvest enough beans for a couple of cups of joe a year, if you’re lucky. The good news is that you can grow coffee in the shade.. So, if you have a tree-covered backyard, that’s no use for growing anything else, try planting a couple of ROBUSTA bushes. Make sure you water them once a week in the dry seasons. You can leave them to fend for themselves after a couple of years. And, in those magical 4 days, when they bloom and fill your garden with fragrances of the Middle East, you can thank Baba Budan, who made it all possible with THE SEVEN BEANS IN HIS WAISTBAND.
——- Sriram Aravamudan.