What are the countries you think of when you think of coffee? Perhaps the first ones to come to mind for many are the major South American coffee producing countries such as Panama, Colombia, or Brazil. Or maybe their African neighbors; Kenya, Ethiopia, or Uganda.
This would make sense, as in these countries coffee is a key contributing factor of their economies – in Ethiopia (notoriously the home country of the Arabica bean) over 28% of their yearly exports are a result of coffee – and the country employs about 15 million of its citizens in coffee production. Brazil is no exception, being the largest coffee producer in the world for over 150 years, producing 2,595,000 metric tons of coffee beans in 2016. Of course, there’s Vietnam and Indonesia, some of the world’s most important coffee-producing countries.
But there’s another star player on the Asian continent with a particularly interesting story: India. A few quick facts about India: the climate, especially in Monsoon Season, is not very fit for cultivating coffee beans. India also has a famous history with tea – an entire story on its own – meaning tea is deeply ingrained in Indian culture, and coffee less so. Despite that, India produced 348,000 metric tons of beans in 2016 – mainly for export purposes, with Europe and Russia being the main buyers. These facts leave a few questions to be answered, the main one being: how did coffee even get to India, and how has it become such an important export for the country? The story behind these questions is one that will please every coffee-lover around, as it is strangely relatable and perfectly portrays the age-old love and dedication humans have had towards this strange bean.
The story of Indian coffee begins in the 16th century CE and is traced to a Sufi saint, Baba Budan.
Baba Budan lived in Chikmaglur, present-day Karnataka in the South West of India. During his time living there, Chikmaglur was tormented by a series of severe attacks from a local tribe. After every raid they left a trail of death and destruction, so Baba Budan was forced to move out. He and his followers moved into the caves of Chandragiri, but to no avail. Out of options, Baba Budan decided to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
As his followers were waiting for him to return in the caves where he left them, Baba Budan made it to Mecca. He spent little time there, and on his homeward journey, he stopped by the port of Al Mokka to regain the energy he needed for the long trip ahead. And what better way to do that than to enjoy a delicious cup of coffee.
Mind you, coffee had already been through a tumultuous journey to end up in that region of the world, and when it got there it was heavily regulated. Coffee was controlled by the cities and people in the Arabian Peninsula, and the drink was mainly brewed to keep fatigued Prayers awake. Coffee was sometimes offered to Pilgrims and travelers like Baba Budan, but the spreading and sharing of coffee beans was strictly forbidden. To enforce this, the beans were boiled and roasted before any foreigner could lay their hands on them.
No one knows exactly how, but Baba Budan single-handedly managed to break down this coffee-monopoly. He managed to smuggle several green coffee beans back to his home in the slopes of the Chandragiri Hills. Some records say he hid them in his hat, some say he wrapped them in his garment, other sources claimed he hid them in his beard (the original coffee hipster) – no one knows exactly how he managed to bring the first coffee beans to India.
He wasted no time and immediately planted the beans near the caves where he and his followers had settled. Delicious brews were made from the beans for the locals, and even to this day coffee is grown in these hills now known as Baba Budangiri.
What is so charming about this story is the genuinity. A single man – quite unknowingly – managed to break an intense coffee monopoly, simply to share what he found with his local people. And it truly was kept local for another 200 years, until commercial cultivation of coffee in India took off. It was the British who established the Arabica coffee plantations in the mountains of Southern India, but it was Baba Budan who planted that first bean.
If you’re a coffee-lover, you can trek to Baba Budangiri to pay respects to the saint himself, as this is where he is buried.
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