Elephant poop. Not the most elegant sentence to begin a food column with, I admit. But you have to admit, as first lines go, that’s a tough one to top. Elephant poop coffee to be specific.
I’m rather bitter about this. I was just getting used to the idea of Kopi Luwak (made from partly digested coffee cherries defecated by the Asian palm civet). Once labelled the most expensive coffee in the world, it rapidly became de rigueur at posh brunches. “Kopi Luwak with your freshly-baked croissant, madam?” It took a year for me to nod elegantly at the waiter, instead of squealing, “Ew. Cat poop!”
Now, I have to deal with elephants and their internal plumbing issues. I pull up a recent story from The Telegraph (UK) that begins with the line, “In the lush hills of northern Thailand, a herd of 20 elephants is excreting some of the world’s most expensive coffee.” Which, to be perfectly honest, beats my first line hollow. Sigh. Trumped again.
I have a comeback though. Monkey parchment coffee. This time, thankfully, there’s no poop involved. Sourced from Chikmagalur, Karnataka, it is made from beans that have been chewed and spat out by monkeys. Coffee snobs praise it for its complexity, flavour and – I quote – “pleasant, rounded acidity.”
Over the past couple of years, responding to a growing demand from the domestic market, a handful of small Indian outfits have started sourcing high-quality beans, roasting them and producing artisan coffee. Kunal Ross of The Indian Bean was the first to start in 2012. More importantly, his company is the only one offering that elusive monkey coffee.
The Indian Bean’s ‘Monkey Bitten Coffee’ is cultivated in the forests of Andhra Pradesh’s Araku Valley. “The animals pick beans, keep them in their mouth for about 20 minutes, and then spit them out,” says Kunal. Experts say an enzymatic reaction between the monkey’s saliva and coffee breaks down acidity, making it mild and mellow. “Personally, I like it because they choose the ripest, sweetest fruits.”
Like all the other artisan coffee makers, Kunal is just as smitten with the story behind each coffee blend, as he is with quality. “Kopi Luwak has become so commercial, the animals are caged now,” he says, adding that the farmers he works with co-exist comfortably with their wild visitors. “Our ‘Appa’s coffee’ farmer has two water bodies; one for his crops, one for elephants. These are people who care about the environment.”
Another significant brand from the South is Flying Squirrel, which also sources its beans from Coorg. Founder Ashish D’Abreo started it with his colleagues two years ago. “Four of us ran an advertising firm, and drank a lot of coffee,” he chuckles. “My friend Tej owns an estate in Coorg, and his coffee is excellent. So one day, we decided to just get into the business.” Discussing the advantages of a single-origin, he talks about the impact terroir has on flavour. “We grow our coffee in citrus patches, in vanilla plantations, in spice patches, in forested areas… All to get those subtle nuances.”
Unlike mass-produced coffee, produced in tonnes, artisan coffee is roasted in batches of 15 kg. “The kind of care, effort and experimentation we put in can’t be done on a large scale,” Ashish says, explaining what defines an artisan coffee. “We can create a different flavour with just interesting cultivation, drying and roasting methods. For our Sunkissed coffee, for example, we bruise the bean, leave the fruity pulp and let it ferment.”
Matt Chitharanjan, founder of Blue Tokai, which began in 2013, says he looks for unique characteristics in terms of flavour and aroma. “Our coffee is a lighter roast than most commercial ones; it makes the flavours fruitier.”
Chennai-based Aishwarya Srikkanth, who recently launched her own brand Heritage Blend, says her Coorg-based family has been in the coffee business since 1856. “It used to be grown as a backyard crop by the British. We’ve been exporting until now, mainly to Japan and Italy.”
Realising that Indian consumers were getting increasingly picky about their morning shot of caffeine, she and her cousin decided it was time to create a home-grown brand. “It’s single-origin, with Arabica to enhance flavour and robusta for the frothiness and acidity.”
The response so far has surprised her. “We’ve been around for just two months, and we’re already getting great feedback. We have customers who carry it with them even when they travel. Someone sent me a picture of himself drinking it in Spain!”
The best part? No poop involved.