January 2017 | Cynthia Rodrigues

A very special brew

It's a first for Indian coffee. Tata Coffee's Nullore microlot has been selected by Starbucks Reserve to be counted among the rarest of rare coffee microlots in the world

In a giant step for Indian coffee, the Nullore coffee estate, one of the 19 estates of Tata Coffee at Kodagu, Karnataka, has catapulted itself into the global coffee scene. A microlot of coffee from Nullore, the first-ever from India, was selected by Starbucks Reserve in June 2016, and will be sold and served as Tata Nullore Estate coffee at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Seattle in November.

A microlot is a limited edition variant of coffee that sparks interest on account of its exclusivity. It is coffee that is unique to a particular ecosystem. This is the first time an Indian brand has been counted among the rarest of rare coffee microlots in the world.

Moment of pride
Sanjiv Sarin, managing director, Tata Coffee, explains the significance of the achievement, “Around the world, customers are demanding enhanced, differentiated flavours, and roasteries are on the lookout for special microlots with exclusive flavours. For us, the leap from being mass suppliers of coffee to being selected by Starbucks from the crème de la crème of coffee is truly momentous.”

The creation of the Nullore microlot was a series of ‘aha’ moments, from the identification of the block where the coffee was grown, the time when the coffee was picked and the weather conditions prevalent then, to the decision of Starbucks to medium roast the beans in order to release the coffee’s best characteristics. Each of these elements happened at the right moment, and served to create the perfect microlot.

The effort to produce a spectacular coffee began last year with Tata Coffee inviting estate managers to work on microlots. Since the concept was unknown, everyone at the estate needed to be coached. This is where Sunalini Menon, director, Tata Coffee, stepped in to guide the quest for the perfect microlot, while also encouraging Starbucks to taste an unknown Indian coffee.

The 'microclimate'
Ms Menon, with her years of experience on the Indian Coffee Board, advised estate managers to look for a ‘microclimate’ created by a particular combination of flora, fauna and soil conditions that would influence the microlot produced there. Initially, there was scepticism, but before long the estate managers were fully enthused about their task.

A cross-functional team with estate managers and members from export sales, R&D and other functions was set up, with MB Ganapathy, senior general manager (plantations), at the helm. The new experience also involved learning to identify a potential microlot, and it was not an easy task. With the 505-hectare estate divided into 27 blocks, there was, literally, a lot of ground to cover. Estate managers began to scout around their blocks and teams rolled up their sleeves and began work.

Soon entries began to pour in from all the estates. Eventually, Mr Ganapathy’s team identified 42 blocks across all 19 estates, where the samples showed potential. Estate teams then began processing their lots, handling them with care to ensure that there was no contamination and that they were able to extract the best out of their microlots. The processed coffee was sent to the QC department for roasting, the test that would help identify the best coffee.

Coffee berries at the Nullore Estate

The best of the samples were sent to Ms Menon for evaluation. The final shortlist consisted of four microlots from four different estates. Three of these were selected for their differential processing techniques, and one for the uniqueness of the coffee. These samples were selected for cupping (a tasting process) by Ms Menon and Sunil Pinto, who handles quality assurance and is a licensed Q grader at Tata Coffee.

The mark of a great coffee is finally the flavour, which depends on a host of factors such as the soil content, the microclimate, the altitude at which it is grown, the geographical location of the estate, the time taken to ripen the coffee, and the place from which the coffee bean first originated. The unique flavour of the Nullore estate coffee was attributed to the presence of fruit bats in the block and shade cover available in this thickly wooded area of Kodagu. “We were surprised to see the profusion of fruit bats in the area. Because of the bats, the organic content of the soil is higher, at 3.35 percent, compared to the average of 2.4 or 2.5 percent in other areas,” says Nullore Estate’s senior manager PA Mandanna.

Tracking it right
Close monitoring was instrumental in getting the desired results. “We maintained the traceability of the coffee at all times, from the picking of the coffee beans until the finished product was finally dispatched from our estate,” says Mr Mandanna., who instructed workers to pick the beans in January, estimating that maturity levels would be highest then.

Each lot of coffee from this block was harvested and processed separately. The next step was coffee tasting to check for consistency in the crop quality and processing standards. Senior executives, including Ms Menon, personally tasted the coffee on multiple occasions to ensure that the unique flavour remained unaltered. Based on the feedback, two samples were dispatched weeks apart to the Starbucks facility in Switzerland for a quality check.

Nullore Estate initially processed 4,200kg of parchment coffee from this block, and sent 2,000kg to Seattle (the Starbucks HQ). At all times, teams maintained detailed logs on the harvesting and processing particulars, from the picking in the field to the dispatch to Tata Coffee’s Kushalnagar works where the lot was milled. Finally, the coffee was packed in hermetically sealed bags and dispatched for the final leg of its 13,000km journey to Seattle. The extra care and precautions were in keeping with the standards set by Starbucks, who wanted details on the soil structure, the organic water content, geographical coordinates of the block from where the microlot originated, the reason for its uniqueness, etc.

Tata Coffee is now waiting with keen interest for the world to wake up to the delights of its Nullore coffee. The growing demand for microlots, single origin coffee and other specialty coffees has opened up a new world of experimentation and passion for Tata Coffee. The company, with its decades of knowledge and legacy of sustainable practices, is well-placed to take advantage of this demand, and brew a stronger future for its business.

'A flavor we’re honored to share'
This is how Starbucks describes the Tata Nullore Estate coffee: “Our first-ever Starbucks Reserve coffee from India is a handpicked product from a distant storybook setting. At the Tata Nullore Estate, native jackfruit and silver oak create a lush world of dense shade and tiered canopies, home to elephants and civets, flying foxes and barking deer, fruit bats and jungle fowl. The award-winning Arabica that grows here among the oranges and lychees is a celebration of biodiversity, delivering a cup that tells the story of one of the world’s most beguiling coffee regions. Every bit as vibrant as the flora and fauna of its home, this coffee balances fruit acidity with savory undertones and round body — a flavor we’re honored to share.”

 

This article was first published in the October - December 2016 issue of Tata Review. Read the ebook here