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The large subcontinent of India has a unique coffee story far different from any other origin.

India is the world’s sixth largest coffee producer, behind Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, Colombia, and Honduras. The country exports around 70 percent of production – with exports of greens roughly split between 30 percent Arabica and 70 percent Robusta.

As in Brazil, there is a growing domestic market for coffee in India, as café chains spring up in urban areas to cater to the burgeoning middle class. Coffee consumption more than doubled between 2000 and 2011 and continues to steadily increase by some 5-6 percent annually.

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  • Place In World For Coffee Exporter
  • Sacks (60kg) exported annually
    Approx: 6,028,000
  • Percentage of world coffee market
  • Other major agricultural exports
    Rice, wheat, soybeans & other pulses/grains
  • Estimated number of families relying on coffee for livelihood?
  • Typical varieties produced
    30% Arabica: Catimor, Kent, S795, Caturra, Cauvery & S9, among others
  • Key coffee regions
    Karnataka, Kerala & Tamil Nadu (among others)
  • Typical harvest times
    November - March
  • Typically available
    From May
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The Beginning of Coffee

Coffee was introduced to India during the late seventeenth century. The story goes that an Indian pilgrim to Mecca – known as Baba Budan – smuggled seven beans back to India from Yemen in 1670 (it was illegal to take coffee seeds out of Arabia at the time) and planted them in the Chandragiri hills of Karnataka. The Dutch (who occupied much of India throughout the 17th century) helped spread the cultivation of coffee across the country, but it was with the arrival of the British Raj in the mid-nineteenth century that commercial coffee farming fully flourished. Initially Arabica was widespread, but huge infestations of coffee leaf rust led many farms to switch to Robusta or Arabica/Liberica hybrids.

The India Coffee Board was established in 1907 to help improve quality and presence of Indian coffee through various research and education endeavors.  The board, throughout the modern history of the country, has stringently regulated the coffee sector, particularly in the period between 1942 and 1995. Upon liberalisation in 1995, growers were given free rein to sell their produce wherever they choose.

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Location of Coffee

Indian coffee production is between 70 and 99 percent grown on small farms sized less than 10 hectares. The vast majority is still produced in the traditional growing regions in the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which counted for around roughly 90% of the country’s production. The rest is grown in the more recently developed areas of Andra Pradesh and Orissa in the Eastern Ghats, and the North Eastern ‘Seven Sister’ states of Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.

India’s coffee is usually grown under a two-tier mixed shade canopy of evergreen leguminous trees, often intercropped with spices and fruit crops including pepper, cardamom, vanilla, orange and banana trees. Most Arabica farms lie at between 700 and 1,200 metres above sea level. The coffees may be processed using either the natural or washed methods, known locally as ‘Cherry’ and ‘Parchment’, respectively. Coffee is usually dried using patios, tables or, on some of the larger estates, mechanical dryers.

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Varietals and Processes

The main coffee varietals cultivated are:

Cauvery – an Indian sub variety of Catimor (a Bourbon descendant).
Kent – a mutation of Typica, planted widely by Indian growers from the 1920s.
S795 – a hybrid bred by Indian botanists from Kent and S228 (a hybrid of C. Arabica and C. Liberica) varietals in the 1940s and now widespread. This varietal is also popular in Indonesia, where it is known as ‘Jember’.
SL 9 – a derivative of a cross between the Ethiopian Arabica varietal ‘Tafarikela’, and ‘Hybrido-de-Timor’ (a natural hybrid of C. arabica and C. canephora).

India is also where the ‘Monsoon Malabar’ method was created – a process unique to India, with a lengthy history and a distinctive, potent cup. It dates back to coffee farming under British colonial rule, when during the several months that it took to ship green coffee from India to Europe, the humidity and sea winds caused the beans to swell and age. As transport improved and the beans suffered less from the elements en route, European coffee-drinkers noticed that the coffee was losing the character and distinctive, bold flavour they were used to.

So, a new process was devised to replicate the conditions that produced this singular coffee.

To create a ‘monsooned’ crop, natural sun-dried green coffee is stored in open-sided warehouses on the coast, which allow moist tropical air from the monsoon winds to blow through the storage area.  Over a 2-to-3-month period, the beans absorb moisture, lose a degree of their natural acidity and swell to around double their original size, becoming brittle and pale. The process starts when the monsoon season begins in June/July and is usually completed by the end of October. The result is an earthy, pungent, low-acidity cup, which is often used to add body and weight to fine espresso blends.