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Women's Day: Meet India's leading coffee taster

On International Women's Day, septuagenerian Sunalini Menon talks about foraying into the male-dominated world of Indian coffee more than 50 years ago

Sunalini Menon.
Sunalini Menon.

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Bengaluru-based Sunalini Menon has an unusual job. The 70-something sips, slurps, swirls and spits for a living. Menon became India’s first woman coffee taster more than 50 years ago. Her discerning tongue can detect the fruity flavours of a brew, or sometimes, the smell of cow’s urine. From her early years when she battled to be heard in a male-dominated field, Menon has gone on to gather numerous accolades such as a First Lady Achiever award that she received from the President of India and the Alfred Peet Passionate Cup Award from the Specialty Coffee Association of America. This ambassador for Indian coffee has helped India establish itself as a producer of quality coffees.

Menon’s foray into coffee began in 1972 when the Coffee Board advertised for the post of Assistant Cup Taster. After acing the written and aptitude tests and the interview, Menon, then in her early 20s, found herself heading an office where everyone was far older and male. “I used to come home and cry every day because the staff would never listen to me!” Menon recalls. But she persevered. She learnt to be resilient. And she learnt her coffee.

She met her guru in 1978, on a visit to the coffee fair in Trieste, Italy. People from around the world attended this annual gathering, the most important event in the coffee calendar. Menon was the lone representative from India. A sari-clad, bindi-wearing diminutive woman, she was setting up her stall, standing on a table fastening something, when she felt someone star-ing at her. She looked down into two astonished faces. “India? Coffee Board?” asked the older man, adding, “A young woman…We are surprised.” Says Menon, “I knew why he was surprised. I didn’t meet any women there in my line of work.”

They chatted briefly and then the elder man instructed his companion to bring her along to the roastery the next day. “And immediately,” says Menon, “my mother’s warning rang in my ears: Be careful of Italians!” That evening, when she described the encounter and her mother’s counsel to a fellow coffee professional from Ethiopia, he fell about laughing: The older gentleman was Dr Ernesto Illy, chairperson of Illy Coffee, and only the most famous man in coffee.

Of course, she went to his roastery the next day. “And what a journey it has been since then,” says Menon. Illy took her under his wing. On her next visits to Trieste, at meetings in coffee fairs elsewhere and over mails, Illy taught her the nuances of taste, the chemistry of coffee, and how to correlate flavour with the field.

Besides Illy, Menon also interacted with and learnt from coffee experts from Ethiopia, Gaute-mala, the USA and elsewhere.

Gradually, she mastered the art and science of cupping, one of the last but defining steps to evaluate coffee quality, “to determine what is distinctive in a cup,” as Menon puts it. Her analysis of the cup – invoking her senses of smell, taste and sight – identifies key attributes in the brew, such as its aromas and flavours, the balance between flavour and aftertaste, or between bitter and sweet.

As the person in charge of quality control at the Coffee Board from 1978-1995, she used her knowledge to advise growers on harvesting techniques and their influence on coffee quality. She also devised norms for curing, and for wet and dry processing of the beans.

But in the mid-1990s, she suddenly decided to quit the Board. Her husband was working abroad and Menon planned to leave the world of coffee to join him.

It was around this time that the Indian coffee market underwent a transformation. When Menon first joined the Coffee Board in the 1970s, coffee marketing was highly regulated.

Growers could not sell their produce directly to the market. The Board pooled coffee from all growers and then auctioned it to the domestic and export markets. The market was liberalised beginning in 1992, when growers were allowed to directly sell 30 percent of their crop. By 1996, they could sell 100 percent of their produce anywhere.

Coffee growers found they now needed new skills. “We became free to sell our coffee but no one knew what to do. We only knew how to grow coffee, we knew nothing about quality,” says Jacob Mammen, whose family owns Badra estates near Chikmagalur.

A few farmers approached Menon and persuaded her to help them navigate this new terrain. And so in 1996, Menon set up Coffeelab Private Limited, a consultancy which evaluates cof-fee and its quality right from the seed to the cup.

Like wine, coffee has terroir. Soil, temperature and moisture all affect its complex flavour. Once picked, every step in the processing and storage of coffee beans can affect their taste. For instance, Menon recalls once tracing an unpleasant note in a cup to a sheet that the beans had been dried on; it had once been used in a cowshed. A deep understanding of the factors that affect the quality of coffee was what made Menon’s inputs invaluable. Mammen, who was one of her first clients, says, “In terms of processing, fermentation, roasting, storage and so on, she was the only one in India who knew exactly what was to be done. She was our guiding light.”

Coffeelab’s diverse clients include small farmers, top local and international coffee brands, state governments looking to promote coffee growing, and entrepreneurs setting up coffee bars.

Many growers like Mammen, who is still one of her clients, have moved into the rarefied space of specialty coffees. Here, Menon’s expertise helps them add value to their products. She provides technical advice on processing “so that the taste profile of the coffee has some-thing unique and distinctive in it,” she says.

The sensitivity of the bean and a growing interest in specialty coffees worldwide ensure that there is always something brewing in Menon’s cup. She speaks about the challenges posed by climate change. She is excited about new methods for fermentation and experiments to under-stand how field conditions affect flavour. “I’m still learning. That’s what I love about it,” she smiles, as she reaches for her coffee.

Meera Iyer is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru.

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