Even as Indian speciality coffees, or premium grade varieties of coffee, are finding a steady market in Europe, more coffee growers in India are turning to ‘estate-branding’ to give their product exclusiveness and get premium prices.
“Today, there are at least 20-25 brands,” says Sunalini N. Menon, a coffee taster. “Three years ago, there were only about three or four brands. People are beginning to realize how important it is to have a brand.” Menon, who runs Coffeelab Pvt. Ltd in Bangalore, is also the quality ombudsman for Speciality Coffee Association of India (Scai)—a body of coffee growers.
“A lot of people are getting into estate branding, but it is happening silently,” said G.V.Krishna Rau, chairperson of the Coffee Board of India. “It’s the way of the future,” he says, but adds that the trend will not see rapid growth for at least five to eight years because it involves a change in mindset and work.
Speciality coffee is a term used to describe premium variety beans grown at higher elevations. These are carefully cured and processed because of which they command better prices, often 10% more than the normal varieties.
By estate branding, growers distinguish their coffee on its special taste and appearance. Brand names such as Butter Cup Bold, Aspinwall’s Malabar Mellows, Balehonnur Corona, Balanoor Bean, Araku Emerald, Meerthi Mountains, Dark Forest and Temple Mountain, refer to unique tastes and also the name of the estate the coffee is grown in.
“There is a shift from commodity to product,” says Sanjay Cherian, a planter who grows organic coffee in Kerala’s Wayanad district. “If you put in the effort, it will pay off as it is the quality that gives you the premium.”
Although Cherian says that his volumes have decreased by 40% because of growing an organic crop, he hopes branding his coffee will help him bank on Wayanad’s tourism potential.
The Coffee Board broadly classifies varieties, such as Monsooned Malabar, Robusta Kaapi Royale and Mysore Nuggets Extra Bold as speciality coffees. Monsooned Malabar derives its name from a process through which the beans are exposed to the south-west monsoon winds that give it a unique flavour. Mysore Nuggets are large beans and Kaapi Royale is a parched Robusta.
In 2006-07, India exported 9476.3 tonnes of these three varieties—about 4% of total coffee exports of 243,059 tonnes.
Unlike normal coffee, which sells in tonnes, speciality coffee volumes are restricted to bags of 60kg each.
“You cannot get very high premium out of large volumes because when you sell large volumes, you are no longer special,” says Ashok Kuriyan, chairperson of Scai.
According to Kuriyan, the 28-member association is slowly increasing its numbers. “Many others who are not members of Scai, come to us to know how to go about improving quality,” says Menon.
In fact, Kuriyan says roasters too want to become members of Scai and two foreign roasters had already approached them.
“We have decided to open up because when we get buyers into the set-up, it could be a way to get local growers in as well,” he says.
This year’s speciality coffee exports may not see a big increase, primarily because the overall coffee crop is estimated to be 262,000 tonnes, 10% less than last year owing to heavy monsoon rains in Karnataka and Kerala.