Indian Monsoon Malabar. It's everywhere. It's a darling of the specialty coffee industry. Baristas and roasters sing its praises. It sounds exotic (India? Coffee?) So what is it?
This coffee, often sold as a single-origin, is often an estate or regional blend of coffees (of one variety and grade) all grown in India and processed on the west coast.
Named after the processing technique rather than the bean, farm or estate, this coffee and process is entirely unique to India for one reason: it relies on the monsoon winds on the Malabar coast, a long and narrow coastline on the southwest of the Indian subcontinent.
It is said that in the time of the British Raj, coffee produced in India and transported to Europe by wooden vessel (a journey of 6 months or more) was noted to have distinct taste characteristics. This was to be expected - it was coffee from a distant land. As shipping technology improved hoewever, the coffee arrived more quickly but lacked the distinctive flavour characteristics it once had. It was determined that during the long journeys, the exposure to wind and rain had changed the coffee flavour for the better. The monsoon process was devised to replicate the same conditions as the windy, rainy journeys by ship and to extract the same characteristics, without needing to take the coffee to sea.
After being harvested, the coffee cherries are sun-dried. The dried coffee beans are sorted in size and trasported to a well-ventilated warehouse for storage until the monsoon season, which begins in June and ends in September. When the monsoon season begins, so does the coffee processing. During a period of of 3-6 months, the coffee beans are left in the ventilated warehouse and exposed to the monsoon winds. They are constantly raked and redistributed to ensure even exposure. The beans absorb the moisture from the air and swell in size, and turn a paler golden colour, indicating the processing is complete. The coffee is then graded and sorted further and prepared for export.
The effect of the monsoon winds is to reduce the acidity level (resulting in an almost pH-neutral coffee) as well as distinctly enhancing the sweetness of the coffee. The result is a hugely full-bodied, distinctly syrupy sweet and lightly spicy notes. It is a coffee with subtler flavour notes than for example Ethiopian or Kenyan dry-processed beans, and one that may not be immediately appreciated (but give it time).
The process is fraught with difficulty. Common problems include: mould/damp from the moisture if ventilation is inadequate, hessian taints from poor storage before or during the monsoon or a flat flavour if the acidity is completely removed.