Mmm, cinnamon, butterscotch, raisin, raspberry, blueberry, saidone. The undertone is one of mango, orange cream, marzipan, pineapple, milkchocolate, said another. Burnt molasses and mushroom, said a third. No, it is not the latest line from the Body Shop. I am in the middle of a coffee tasting session and for all your philistines, these are the flavours that the uber-discerning find in that cup that you take for granted, if you are partial to fine coffees.
The woman with the nose for these nuances and who is presiding over the ceremonies is Sumalini Menon, coffee taster extraordinaire. The tasting itself held by the Naandi Foundation which funds and markets coffee grown by tribals in the hauntingly beautiful Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh in an annual feature in which tasters from across the world participate. Growing up in a tea estate triggered Sumalini's taste for coffee. "As you go on the coffee journey, you begin to see beyond its walls," she says. Today, she runs the Coffeelab in Bangalore, which has become the gold standard of coffee certification for the connoisseur.
Working closely in the Araku project is David Hogg, the livelihood director of Naandi, whose knowledge of the many aspects of coffee right from thesoil to whether the bushes are frequented by mongooses is encyclopedic.
While a cup of coffee is just that to you and me, for Sumalini the acid test lies in how gritty it is, how tactile, how smooth, how acidic. The money made from the coffee which is exported goes back to the tribals, something which attracted Sumalini to this brand in the first place. But she says, "India is still not a world class coffee producer. We still don't put a premium on that cup of excellence.” Her work takes her to taste coffee in Brazil, Rwanda and Ethiopia among other places. The taster has to shun alcohol, smoking and spicy food to maintain a purity of palate, not a tough task for this Bharatnatyam dancer who feels that the rewards of the job include the fact that the tribals have seen a seachange in their livesand those of their children.
David Hogg is expansive about the qualities of beans that are ingested byanimals like the civet and then passed out, the process giving it a unique flavour. Now this may not be for the fainthearted but for the taster, this is the Beluga of coffee. So if Sumalini has her way, the future will not be in the tea leaves but in the coffee grounds.