The Forest In Your Coffee Cup

Arshiya Bose of Black Baza Coffee writes that nature is as important as nurture when it comes to that perfect cup of coffee.

Achukkegowda, a well-built, tall man with stark-white hair and a matching shawl draped over his shoulders, stands on the porch of his modest Mangalore-tiled house and looks out into his coffee farm. This was a forest once, where the Soligas — an indigenous community of the Biligiriranga Hills of Chamarajanagar District of Karnataka to which Achukkegowda belongs — would hunt and gather food. Evening rambles with his friends, deep into the forest, would often yield kaadu kumbala or wild pumpkin; there was even the occasional sighting of ‘river dogs’ (could these be small-clawed otters?) by the stream near the sacred Doddasampige tree. But in his younger days, Achukkegowda does not remember ever seeing coffee plants.

The Soligas did not grow coffee until the hills were declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1974 —Biligiriranganatha Swamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary, or simply, BRT. During this time, the state compelled the Soligas to reside in permanent hamlets — concrete houses in neat rows, and allotted them small parcels of land for agriculture. Achukkegowda’s family had first experimented with growing millets and vegetables, but they were easy food for foraging wild animals. A search began for something that wouldn’t be susceptible to wildlife — coffee was seen as a promising alternative.

M. Sannarangegowda on a coffee farm in Biligiriranganatha Swamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary  Image credit: Vivek M

M. Sannarangegowda on a coffee farm in Biligiriranganatha Swamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary

Image credit: Vivek M

BRT lies at the confluence of the Western and Eastern Ghats. It is unique in that this forest allows for movement of wildlife (and gene pools) between the populations of the two Ghats. Even within the 540 sq. km area of the sanctuary, elevation gradients range from 900 to 1800 Mean Sea Level, nurturing all major forest types — scrub, deciduous, riparian, evergreen, shola grasslands. This means that coffee from the upper reaches of BRT with shola grasslands tastes distinctively different from coffee grown in the lower, moist deciduous vegetation.

Last year, the team at Black Baza Coffee began working on a ‘Taste Map' for BRT where we cup-tasted coffees from 160 coffee producers, and mapped flavour profiles according to the natural vegetation or habitat that the coffee plants were grown in. What we found was fascinating. It turns out that habitat is to pre-harvest coffee beans what pulping, grading and roasting is to post-harvest beans. In other words, the forest and its critters all have a say in how the coffee in our cup eventually tastes!

The BRT sanctuary is home to a range of charismatic species that include the endangered Asian elephant, gaur (the world’s largest bovine), wild dogs, lesser cats, sloth bears, two species of arboreal primates, giant squirrels, leopards and tigers. A recent survey of tigers through DNA scat analysis revealed as many as 62 individuals within the sanctuary! Other mammals include the sambhar, spotted deer, barking deer and the four-horned antelope. BRT is known for its bird diversity too — 245 species of birds have been recorded, many of which are endemic to the Western Ghats. Although there are fewer reptiles and amphibians, scientists have recently discovered a species of microhylid frog, Microhyla sholigiri, named after the Soligas, the original human inhabitants of these forests, dating back millennia.

When coffee is grown in this thriving cultural and ecological landscape, interesting things begin to happen. Giant honeybees pollinate coffee blossoms during a window that lasts just a few days before the flowers wither away. Common crow, common mormon, plain tiger, tawny raja, common nawab and the common leopard join the party — all names of butterflies, not mammals! Smitha Krishnan, a scientist from ETH-Zurich, who has worked on pollinators for over a decade, finds that bees and butterflies can contribute more than a 20% boost to fruit set. This means that a higher density of insects delivers a higher yield of coffee! In fact, the Soligas gauge the quality of their coffee by the presence of these insects. “During the coffee bloom, we don’t step into our farms for fear of being stung,” says Sannarangegowda, another Soliga producer. “When there are no bees, we can be sure that coffee yields will be low, and that someone has sprayed chemical pesticides,” he adds. When not contributing to pollination, hunting wasps and spiders control the spread of borer beetles, a pest that has ravaged coffee plantations across the world.

A large ficus tree offers shelter to Achukkegowda’s coffee plants. This particular tree looks ancient — a few hundred years old at least, and his coffee farm is considerably younger — 20 years at most. Coffee farms have sprung up around the forest, and the forest has crept back into coffee farms in a perpetual battle for space. In some hamlets, the distinction between farm and forest are too subtle to see. “Being close to the forest helps the growth of our coffee,” says Kethegowda from Muthugadagadde hamlet.

We realised this too, when we began roasting and profiling flavours of coffees beans harvested from the shade of different species of trees. Beans grown predominantly in the shade of ficus trees seem to retain a characteristic nuttiness that is very different from coffee grown in the shade of silver oak, a tree cultivated in most commercial plantations. It is not the fruit per se that is responsible for the distinctive flavours, but factors such as mulching of ficus leaves that litter the farm floor. In fact, Maike Nesper, from ETH-Zurich, in research for her PhD, has found that the coffee beans harvested from under silver oak shade produced more peaberries than those grown under native trees. The silver oak is an exotic tree species that India imported from Australia for commercial timber planting in the early 1900s, and a peaberry in coffee bean is considered an anomaly — an incompletely mature coffee bean, pea-shaped, instead of with two seeds. The jury is still out on its flavour quality: some quality experts would say the pea-shaped beans’ density allow for a more even roast; others say the peaberries lack body.

The thumb-rule for coffee roasters is to respect the origin of the coffee bean. Coffee beans from BRT are certainly idiosyncratic: depending on where coffee is cultivated — elevation, tree canopy, leaf litter and various critters mid-air — the flavour of the bean varies in a subtle but perceptible way. Another thumb-rule for roasters is to standardise the beans – aim for point-scale consistency in pre- and post-harvest processing. But at Black Baza, we couldn’t disagree more. We have sought to highlight these idiosyncrasies, not mask them as flaws. Microlots, which are small batches of roasted coffee from a unique forest fragment, is one way to hold on to, and celebrate, the heterogeneity. These idiosyncrasies are a map to the true flavours of your cup of coffee.

Arshiya Bose has completed her PhD on sustainability certifications in coffee and has worked in this space for over 6 years. Her research findings led to her founding Black Baza Coffee. She travels nowhere without her Aeropress.