Rediscovering South Indian Coffee with Pranoy Thipaiah
Updated: May 27, 2020
PRANOY THIPAIAH AND KEREHAKLU ARE SHEDDING NEW LIGHT ON THE POSSIBILITIES OF SOUTH INDIA’S UNIQUE SHADE-GROWN COFFEES
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS: ROHAN KAMICHERIL
'm standing beneath a thick forest canopy with Pranoy Thipaiah. The coffee plantation that surrounds us is alive with the peeping sounds of birds restless for the end of the day.
The trees cover the acres of old coffee plants in a pied shade—one of the signature features of South Indian coffee, and yet one that’s little talked about in the West.
“The shade prolongs the bean development,” Thipaiah explains to me. The moderating effect it has on the ripening fruit is almost analogous to the use of high altitudes in many other coffee-growing regions; it allows the berries to ripen at a steady and unhurried pace. Thipaiah has even noticed a correlation between plant and soil health and the variety of trees growing nearby.
“Absolutely,” he confirms, enthused. “Those lots that have old, native trees have richer soil, and you can tell the difference in the color and health of the coffee leaves.”
Pranoy and his father Ajoy Thipaiah run Kerehaklu, a coffee plantation in the Chikmagalur district of Karnataka. Pranoy is tall and rangy, with a determined brow and a spiky thatch of black hair. And he is on a mission to explore new processing styles to make Indian coffees shine—and hopefully bring them the acclaim he believes they deserve. The growing part, he tells me, Indian coffee farmers already have down pat.
As he walks me around a tall coffee bush, cupping the berries in his hand so that I can better see them, he says, “Indians know how to grow coffee really well. We just haven’t always known what to do with it once the berry is picked. Traditionally we’ve only ever made washed coffees—that’s just what we do.”
Washed or “wet” coffees are processed by removing the outer cascara of the fruit and the slick mucilage beneath it through a process called “pulping” before the beans are dried. The process is widespread around the world and produces a flavor profile that’s most commonly characterized as “clean.” But to Thipaiah, and to an increasing number of coffee growers and roasters, a washed coffee is a missed opportunity. Allowing the fruit to dry intact before pulping it takes advantage of the fact that coffee is, at the end of the day, a fruit; many growers believe that this “natural” process adds layers of complexity to the finished coffee.
“For me a washed coffee is boring,” Thipaiah says. It may be clean, but it also lacks distinction. He goes on: “I want those winey notes, those hints of green apple or peach that you get in a naturally processed bean.”
Ripe coffee berries
Although Kerehaklu has been in the Thipaiah family for five generations, it’s only in the past few years, at the instigation of Pranoy, that it has been taking things in a different direction. Indian coffees haven’t historically been known internationally for their high quality. Though India is the fifth largest exporter of coffee in the world (and the sixth largest producer), the majority of what it grows doesn’t qualify as “specialty coffee”—an industry term that often indicates a coffee that is grown and processed in a way that preserves its unique characteristics.
More practically, though, a specialty coffee is one with a cupping score higher than 80. To date only a handful of Indian coffees have achieved scores above 88, and there are only rumors of coffees that have broken the 90-point ceiling. “The main thing, with cupping,” Thipaiah explains, “is to have distinct flavors in your coffee.” The more distinct flavors tasters can discern in your coffee, the better. When I ask him if he’d like to see one of his coffees break the 90-point mark, he laughs gamely and shrugs. “Sure,” he says congenially, “that's the dream?”
Pulped coffee being spread out to dry
Back in his jeep, we drive up the bumpy mud road and back into full sunlight. On the way, Thipaiah points out the varieties of old, gnarled trees that line our way and loom up between the sloping plots of coffee bushes. He tells me that they have wild figs, pomelos, oranges, rosewood, and many other species on the property. Though Brazilian and other South American coffees routinely win high cupping scores, it’s far more likely that those coffees come from large, manicured estates with little biodiversity. The rustic tangle of trees, bushes, and vines around us—and the bison, squirrels, and occasional elephant that they attract— seem like the very definition of the term.
The jeep rattles to a stop at a high point of the estate where the coffee drying yards are located, carved out of the tall hilltop. There are long rows of tables at one end of the yard with coffee beans spread out on them to dry.
One of the things Thipaiah is keenest on is experimenting with new styles of processing coffee to highlight special aspects of its terroir. While he seems most excited when he’s talking about naturally processed coffees, he continues to experiment with other processes, too.
Dried pulped coffee beans
This manner of experimentation is a new area for many growers, and Thipaiah admits that they often have to rely on direction from specialty roasters to perfect their product. For its part Kerehaklu has already gained the imprimatur of specialty coffee roasters in India and in Australia. But, Thipaiah, says, despite the ascendant interest in specialty coffee in India, it can be hard for new growers to find reliable guidance.
One of Thipaiah’s other dreams is to establish a resource center where fledgling specialty coffee growers can share information and receive direction. He’s already been attending occasional classes at World of Coffee, a café and coffee experience center in Chikmagalur, as well as personally taking Kerehaklu coffees and the produce from their fruiting trees to customers and restaurant chefs in Bengaluru. He’s a one-man promotion team for the estate’s small CSA program. “I do everything myself, except climb the trees for the avocados and pomelos,” he jokes.
Sorting through the picked berries
As the evening wears on, the pickers come in with their day’s haul. Ninety percent of the workers on the estate are women, all from different parts of Karnataka. Clad in their sarees and boxy men’s shirts, their heads covered in kerchiefs, they file up to an elevated plinth above the pulping shed in one corner of the drying yard. They empty out their gunny sacks in an array of pyramidal mounds and sort through the berries, discarding any underripe specimens. The women then pour the sorted berries into a cement hopper that drops them into a column of water that separates floaters (usually indicative of an inferior berry) from the others before feeding them into the churning pulper below
Thipaiah stands by the mouth of the great green beast of a pulper, watching the beans fly out in a sluice of water. He and Manju, who coordinates the processing of the beans with him, talk to each other over the din of the machine, gesticulating and mouthing out barely audible words, discussing the day’s work and plans for the week ahead. Thipaiah listening, deliberating, asking questions, seems to be weighing the possibilities of different experiments that are floating about in his head.
When the day’s work is finished, the sun has all but disappeared into a sherbet haze over the edge of the distant hills. The concrete slab floor of the drying yard radiates the accumulated heat of the day into the cool blueing air. Thipaiah walks me through the yard, telling me about plans he has to process a small batch of Liberica, a coffee species that can grow to the size of a small tree and is commonly seen as inferior to Arabica and Robusta. It accounts for a scant 2% of global coffee production. In Chikmagalur, he tells me, it’s often planted as a hedge along roadsides. But, Thipaiah, seems to contend, why rely solely on inherited wisdom? So much in the world of Indian coffee is being revisited, reviewed, and revised—often with surprising and illuminating results, and Thipaiah is riding high on this wave of innovation. Out in front of us spreads the sere winter green of the Baba Budan Hills and the tangled, rich web of flora and fauna where the coffees of Kerehaklu are slowly ripening, waiting and full of potential.
Ajoy Thipaiah (L) and Pranoy Thipaiah (R)