`I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,' said T.S. Eliot. Perhaps the same holds true for Sunalini Menon, Asia's only woman coffee taster.
Coffee... perhaps the most popular drink worldwide.
YOU are drinking delicious coffee in a Parisian café or perhaps in a Coffee Bar in New York City; chances are that the coffee has actually travelled all the way from the verdant slopes of Chikmagalur, Karnataka. It deserves special mention that Indian coffee is not only finding its feet in the global market but earning accolades for its flavour and texture as well. In fact some Indian blends are considered to be gourmet coffees worldwide.
From the celebrated "Indian Monsooned Malabar", "Pearl Mountain" (an Estate Brand from Karnataka), "Robusta Kaapi Royale", to the more recent "Buttercup Beanz Cream", a blend whose origins can be traced to Coorg, the list merely threatens to swell with time.
"It has all been happening over the last eight years," states the elegant Sunalini Menon, Asia's only lady coffee taster and international quality control expert. Sunalini is also the Quality Ombudsman for the Specialty Coffee Association of India (SCAI). In fact, she figured in the New York published Tea and CoffeeTrade Journal's (www.teaandcoffee.net) list of "People of the Year," in the year 2003 for her outstanding contribution to the Indian coffee industry.
A post-graduate in Food Technology from the Women's Christian College, Chennai, she began her career with the Coffee Board as "Assistant Cup Taster" in the 1970s. "People used to find my profession strange and besides I was the first woman the Board had ever taken in," she confesses with a smile. " The Coffee Board sent me to Switzerland on training and that was my first brush with international coffees," she reminisces.
1996 ... the turning point
After two decades with the Coffee Board, she came into her own in 1996. Sunalini Menon is the Chief Executive of "Coffee Lab Pvt Ltd", an organisation based in Bangalore. Coffee Lab evaluates the unusual and vibrant quality overtones of Indian coffee and provides the seal of quality to the producer, exporter, trader and consumer. The Lab is one of a kind in the country and perhaps in the rest of the world as well. "We are certainly the first lab in the private sector to deal with an ephemeral subject like an organo-leptic evaluation," states the internationally recognised cupper.
"From the seed to the cup, we offer the entire gamut of services," says Menon matter-of-factly. The Coffee Lab has state-of-the-art equipment and infrastructure; they undertake green coffee evaluation, education, consultancy and training services, certification and advisory services, to name a few offerings from their comprehensive repertoire. "Through our workshops, I share knowledge gained in three decades of tasting," she declares. In fact there was a cupping seminar at the Coffee Lab last month for the members of the Indian coffee industry comprising farmers, roasters, exporters. During the Seminar, the participants were introduced to 20 international coffees.
The lab also assists in special preparations of coffee such as the estate brand of coffee, specialty coffees based on plant strain, region of growth, and visual and intrinsic quality of the coffee. "Butter Cup Bold", an Estate Brand, which the lab has helped develop into a brand nearly seven years ago, is one such example. " I discovered on my visit to the plantation in Coorg, that the coffee was being grown in the shade of chickoo trees. Its smooth and creamy texture has made it an incredible palate glider," she says. The brand is now available in Korea.
"Meerthi Mountains," yet another Estate brand of coffee from Chikmagalur is the result of the brand-building efforts of the Coffee Lab. Coffee Lab also assists cafes in preparing blends, as it is a vital aspect in their business. On a typical day, Coffee Lab receives queries from all over the world. "A farmer has sent his beans from Ecuador to have them certified at my lab," she remarks with pride. Well, what do you expect when the renowned Solberg & Hansen use their services? Credibility is clearly their forte. "It's all through word of mouth," she adds.
According to Menon, a taster must possess acuity of taste, concentration and experience. "One sip is all that it takes. When I walk into someplace, I pick up even faint smells," reveals the veteran cupper. She believes that the burgeoning coffee culture in the country has the potential to impact the market. Describing her visit to Chikmagalur as rather insightful, she mentions this: "I went there recently after several decades and absolutely nothing had changed, suddenly I heard loud music and I turned to see a brightly lit café in the midst of nowhere! Already it's everyone's favourite haunt," she points out.
Sunalini Menon (left)... is it just right?
"Most Indians like their coffee strong, aromatic and milky, but all that has changed now," insists Menon. While the peerless, filter coffee with its inimitable aroma may have history and tradition linked inexorably to its flavour, here is what the young who have contributed tremendously to the growth of the coffee culture in India have to say: "I like my espresso to be of the same shade as super model Naomi Campbell's skin and when I pour the coffee from the extractor, it must appear like Naomi sashaying down the ramp," gushed star contestant and Barista, Vikram Khurana, to the amusement of the judges and the audience at the "National Barista Championship", and held in Bangalore last year.
"Shall we meet over coffee?" This innocuous line has assumed a new dimension with the advent of the coffee culture in our midst. Most young people know their coffees really well. Besides it's a healthier option to beer and most mothers are relieved that their children are high on coffee instead.
Has shed its tea image
"India has certainly come a long way since the opening up of the market in 1994. It is now being acknowledged as a producer of specialty coffees worldwide," Menon emphasises. The country has finally shed its erstwhile "tea" image.
With a job that takes her across the globe, she believes that meeting new people and making friends is the best part. "Every day I wake up and look at coffee hoping to find something beautiful. It's about expecting the unexpected, " she reflects about life and her life's enduring passion.
"Cappuccino", "Chococcino", "Mocha", "Latte" ... it is after all new wine in an old bottle.
Coffee was first known in
Europe as Arabian wine.
It takes 42 coffee beans to make an espresso.
The aromas of coffee develop at the 10th minute of roasting.
A coffee tree has a lifespan of about 50 years.
Coffee grows in more than 50 countries and is the second largest export in the world after oil (in dollar value).
Bach wrote a coffee canta in 1732.
Revolutions were planned in coffee houses, namely the French and American Revolutions.
Some of the world's most powerful business, including Lloyds of London and the New York Stock Exchange, started life as coffee houses.
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