The Malabar Coffee Bandit
While India is not widely known as a coffee producer, it may have been one of the first countries to break the closely guarded Arab coffee monopoly. Legend has it that around 1600 an Indian Muslim pilgrim, Hazrat Shah Jamer Allah Mazarabi (a.k.a. Baba Budan), clandestinely strapped seven green coffee beans to his belly and slipped them out of Mecca undetected. He then successfully planted them around his home in the Chandragiri (Baba Budan) Hills near Mysore on India's Malabar Coast.
While Baba Budan's beans may have been the genesis of India's current 300,000-ton-per-annum industry, it wasn't until 1840 that the British began growing coffee for export. Today, most of India's coffee is consumed domestically. But with the privatization of the coffee industry in 1998, we can expect greater availability abroad and improved quality.
One Indian coffee worth seeking is the unique Monsooned Malabar. This dry-processed arabica is purposefully exposed to the humidity of the southwestern monsoon for 12-16 weeks. This is to replicate the character of Java coffee in the days of sail when the green coffee beans came into contact with the sea air on the long ocean journey from the East Indies to Europe. "Monsooning" mellows the coffee's acidity, enhances the body, and adds a signature pungency that I find quite pleasant.
If you like the bolder taste profiles of African and Indonesian coffees, then you'll find the Monsooned Malabar intriguing. It wouldn't be a coffee I would serve to dinner guests, though, unless you knew their preferences or enjoy springing surprises on the unsuspecting. It may take a little time to grow on you.
Java, on the other hand, is synonymous with coffee. The island led the world in coffee production until a lethal rust fungus wiped out all but the highest-grown arabicas in the 1890s. The scourge had spread from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where decimation of the coffee plantations led to replanting with tea. This turned the British into tea drinkers. On Java, they replanted with rust-resistant robusta, which constitutes 90% of Indonesia's coffee production today.
The classic taste of Indonesian coffee, however, is from the arabica that was first successfully transplanted by the Dutch from Malabar to an estate near Batavia (Jakarta) on Java in 1699. In 1706, coffee beans and a coffee plant from the estate were sent to Amsterdam and propagated in the Hortus Botanicus — what Dr. James Douglas called "the universal coffee nursery." Thanks to Amsterdam's botanical garden, arabica survived the rust plague.
The classic Java taste is full bodied—even syrupy—with moderate acidity and a prolonged aftertaste that doesn't want you to take it for granted. When savoring the rich, earthy aroma, I imagine the fertile volcanic loam it must have grown in. Today, however, this description is more characteristic of the unwashed coffees from Indonesia's other islands—Sumatra, Sulawesi (Celebes), and Timor.
East Java estate arabicas, on the other hand, are wet-processed and dried on a larger scale, resulting in a much cleaner, lighter-bodied cup. This was the first Indonesian coffee I experienced in a light roast, so it would be a good starting point (before getting into the meatier Africans or Ethiopians) if you tend to avoid the dark roasts. Try comparing it with a Costa Rica Tarrazu or Mexican Pluma Altura and consider the differences in aroma, body, and taste.