In my years around coffee I have found that the many myths, tales and legends which can be found throughout the world are superb teaching tools. We as the “storytelling ape” innately find it easier to remember things which we encounter as stories, and this has been a foundation for my coffee education work for a long time. These articles will attempt to replicate some of this, by sharing some tales of coffee and discussing the reality, relative truth and impact of these tales on our understanding of the wonderful world of coffee.
Baba Budan and the Seven Seeds
This time our tale takes us back to the 17th century, here we find a Sufi Muslim Cleric by the name of Baba Budan living in the Indian province of Mysore. The time has come for our faithful Cleric to undertake his Hajj (the sacred pilgrimage to the city of Mecca, which the faithful must make at least once in their lifetime, if they are able). So Baba Budan prepares himself for the journey to come, packing the necessary things, issuing instructions to his household for his period of absence.
Hajj is a long journey usually undertaken on camels across the land route from India through Africa and into the lands of Yemen. Fortunately for him, our pilgrim is a man of some means and while he may make the initial journey overland he has laid plans for a return trip across the sea through the Yemeni port of Mocha.
During his journey Baba spends some considerable time in the company of other faithful Clerics, and in the lands of Africa he discovers that they habitually consume a dark drink with amazing properties to aid them in attending arduous calls to prayer. This drink called qahwa (the Arabic root of the much more familiar word; coffee) is truly a revelation to our pilgrim, it’s warm and comforting flavours combine with an almost magical energising property, making a life of constant prayer much easier.
Baba Budan quickly becomes an avid drinker of qahwa, and as a scholar he begins to learn more about the drinks’ history, and the growing of the plant from which it is made. Baba Budan you see,, grew up in Mysore and we can imagine he has some knowledge of farming, and perhaps even some land of his own. It becomes quickly apparent to our clever pilgrim that the hills of Chandragiri so near to his own home would likely be a suitable place to grow the coffee plant. An idea is born.
There is a small problem with Baba Budan’s great dream however. Due to its value as a trading good, the ruling Ottoman Empire has very strict laws regarding coffee leaving Yemen. Only coffee beans which have been prepared and baked or roasted may be exported from the country, the removal of live seeds or plants is illegal. Here then dies the dream of our pilgrim growing the magical plant in his homeland…
Or not. Despite the law of the land Baba Budan is determined to bring coffee to India. So he concocts a remarkable plan to smuggle coffee seeds out of Africa. Baba Budan acquires some coffee seeds and, depending on which version you prefer, either tapes them to his body covered by his beard, or conceals them within that same beard. So prepared and traveling under the safety of his religious journey he enters the port city of Mocha and, in a caper worthy of Daniel Ocean himself, our enterprising Cleric successfully evades discovery during inspection and travels safely home.
Upon returning to India Baba Budan promptly faces the sticky question of how to justify his actions to his own peers and government. Once more however our “hero” is prepared for the challenge. You see when he collected his “booty” Baba Budan chose the quantity with great care. One can imagine his expression as he calmly explains that he brought exactly “seven seeds”, and the gasp as those questioning him realise the significance of this fact. Seven is a sacred number in his faith and Budan protests with great passion that his crime was a religious act. Given his reputation and the number of seeds he is able to win the debate, Baba Budan is excused from consequences and returns to his home.
The seven seeds which he brought with him are lovingly cultivated in the hills of Chandragiri and soon India has its first coffee crops. Baba Budan successfully founded the growth of coffee in his homeland and lived the rest of his life as a deeply revered Cleric.
You can still find coffee growing in the hills of Chandragiri, those same verdant slopes are now known by the name Bababudangiri, named for the Muslim saint whose tomb lies within them.
Indian Coffee in the Modern World
As with so many of the great legends of coffee, we must take the tale of Baba Budan with a pinch of salt. A great deal of this tale is supposition and myth, indeed my own telling uses plenty of personal narrative license. But the fact remains that coffee did indeed make its way to India in the 17th century and that it is still grown there today.
India is a very special place, and the coffee grown there has a unique appeal to me, I confess that tasting Indian coffees always excites me. The terroir (the fancy word for the type of land on which coffee is grown) of India produces some deeply interesting notes in coffee. The mystery and excitement of Indian grown arabica is also accentuated by the particular challenges that are faced in achieving a good result.
Interestingly India’s terroir and climate make the land much more suited to the growing of robusta coffee than the more premium arabica plant. As a result the robusta growing farms in the country are known for their far more considered and careful approach to cultivation, and the resulting robusta has a distinctly better taste profile for it. Indeed India is often considered a premium origin for those roasters looking to add the traditional “tickle” of robusta to an espresso blend, but who want a much better product than the majority of the robusta market. This isn’t a time to debate the pros and cons of robusta as a coffee but the fact is that India produces some higher quality results with this less loved coffee plant.
Another fascinating aspect of coffee in India to me is the domestic market for the drink. India is not a coffee loving country, so much more time and attention is paid to tea (another drink I can talk endlessly about), and yet a robust market is still found and the pants fairly widely cultivated, why is this the case? Interestingly it comes down to sheer population density, despite the fact that individual consumption of coffee in a year is tiny (somewhere around 100-200g per capita, if you are into numbers as much as I am), the immense number of people living in India (about 1.3 billion) means this level of coffee drinking still creates a noteworthy national consumption level (around 2,000,000 bags of coffee a year in fact) which drives the market.
I can hardly discuss India and coffee without mentioning Monsoon Malabar, a name that is globally recognised in coffee. This type of coffee gets its name from the unique period of its drying process which is spent with the beans deliberately exposed to the wet weather of the monsoon season. This rather bizarre practice has its roots in the quest for a historical flavour. As with many crops still grown in India, coffee was a major part of the machinery of the British Raj, large quantities of Indian grown coffee were transported around the British Empire in sailing ships. The coffee beans were packed in wooden boxes, and of course during transportation moisture made its way into the containers.
Fast forward a little while and a very strange thing occurs in the coffee world, the coffees of India seem to taste wrong. A bit of time spent thinking and someone somewhere realised that improved transport practices had kept the traditional levels of moisture out of the beans, and as a result the flavour had changed.
So we come upon the idea of monsooning our beans. The process is fascinating for many reasons and the deep and earthy flavours are not everyone’s cup of coffee, but demand is still high for this amazing coffee. One interesting fact is that monsooned coffee is by its very nature a naturally processed coffee, but uniquely does not have the fruit and acidity forward tastes that many expect from a natural. This all comes down to the ingress of moisture and the chemical changes it creates in the bean, monsooning breaks down the bean and naturally negates the acidic flavours of the coffee.
There are many more intriguing aspects to Indian coffee, too many to properly do justice to here, but suffice to say that in his “Smugglers’ Hajj” Baba Budan brought a whole new world of variety to coffee and set off the chain of events which have led to its global appeal and growth. Without an arguably “shady” holy man coffee may never have reached the levels of production and availability which we are so dependent on. So let’s all raise a cup of the good stuff to the pilgrims, the innovators, the rule breakers and the pioneers!
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Thanks, – Bear