Saturday, September 28, 2013

India's first female coffee taster Sunalini Menon: A Profile in OPEN this week

What was not to love about this story? It involved meeting a delightful lady whose passion has been coffee all her life. Her lab smells of coffee. I wanted to be able to go everyday and sit outside for a bit taking in those smells. Knowing her, I am sure she wouldn't mind. She gave us a bag each of coffee powder, pure, she said I ought to try it that way. That coffee is, but of course, fantastic.

Read the story below or see it on the OPEN magazine website here. The photograph is by Vivek Muthuramalingam.

A Life Aromatic

All that seems missing when Sunalini Menon begins her story is some classical Carnatic music in the background, if real life came with soundtracks. Some raga and thala would fit in perfectly with her memory of growing up in a traditional household where mornings always started with the smell of freshly brewed coffee. 

Her grandmother would walk down a long street to a mill where the man would powder the coffee beans using an old grinder. A heady fragrance would waft out of the grinder and dissolve in the room before it could be packed along with the coffee powder. It didn’t matter though. Menon’s grandmother would then make a tall jug of coffee and pour it into a silver samovar-like vessel which would then stand by the table when she and her sister woke up and came down at 6 am. Not that they were allowed coffee; growing up children had to have milk. 

This smell, taste and the forbidden feel of coffee was what Sunalini Menon, the first woman coffee taster in Asia, grew up with. That childhood love for good old South Indian filter coffee and life’s other little quirks has today made her a bit of a celebrity in the coffee industry.

My eyes keep darting to a gorgeous collection of silver bangles she has stacked upon on her wrist. Menon is telling me of how it all happened, how she did all that she has done, pausing just a while to say that after she married someone from Kerala, she also began drinking tea.

She had studied to be a food technologist and wanted to get into dietetics; she got herself a seat in an American university. “I happened to see an ad in the papers about an opening in the Coffee Board and applied, because I figured I would at least learn what it was like to give an interview,” she says. In that very typical government set up, in those days of the early 1970s, she was bluntly told that she wouldn’t get the job because women usually resigned after getting married, and the Board didn’t want to train her before she did just that, resign. One person in the interview panel stood by her and some tough decisions about the US versus home turf later, Menon joined the Coffee Board.

She dismisses the drama that ensued with a laugh, of how her employment turned into a Karnataka versus Tamil Nadu state feud among the staff – no one wanted to take orders from a girl and they didn’t see why someone from the erstwhile Madras had to be brought in to fill a post in Bangalore. But Menon remembers crying every day once she got home from work and says it was a hard journey. “I decided that I would spend time in each department. That way, I got to know everyone and everyone taught me what I needed to know. I learnt how to deal with people,” she recollects. 

The next of the hurdles was when her boss retired, just when she had finished training. Menon was 21 years old. It took another two years but by the time she was 23, she was heading the quality control department at Coffee Board of India. Predictably, that was a whole different battle, she says.

Good timing has followed Menon’s career. By the time she had put in two decades of central government service, the market was also getting liberalized. The whole quality department that she was heading was disintegrated. “We gave ourselves a farewell party,” she grins, “there was no one else to throw us a party.”

In a long distance marriage throughout, she was all set to use the downtime to be with her family when coffee growers in the state insisted she stay back. “That was how Coffeelab began, with just five others, two of them from my old department at Coffee Board. People laughed at me at first, because coffee prices were high and quality wasn’t much high on anyone’s mind. We couldn’t balance our books at first but things came around slowly,” she says. 

Today, Coffeelab Private Limited, based in Bangalore, is the only independent lab in the country that does purely lab work. Samples come in from all over the world. There are so many kinds of coffee beans that coffee powder is often dispensed off to friends, visitors, even passer-bys. Every visitor gets to sit in a very interestingly decorated front room of the house that serves as her lab and sip predictably delicious coffee. The lab is also a coffee museum of sorts, there are coffee mugs from all over the world, the tightly lined shelves groan under bags of beans, vintage brass coffee filters, antique grinders from Turkey and Russia and other paraphernalia. The air smells of coffee and the coffee addict in me lets out a silent whoop. “Our clothes, our hair smell of coffee by the end of a work day,” Menon says, though clearly she doesn’t look like she minds.

Coffeelab holds training programs and coffee appreciating workshops as well, once in a while. The team goes to rural places to test and evaluate coffee. “We carry almost the entire lab with us because we never know what we will get on the field. Over the years, even the cab driver we always go with has learnt about coffee tasting and tells the farmers what they should be doing!” she quips. Between promoting Indian coffee and creating blends for coffee chains and managing the activities of the lab, she also teaches as a “full professor” at the Universita del Caffe, illy Trieste, Italy. Every now and then, she slows her narrative to linger upon memories of people: a professor in Switzerland, who spoke only Swiss German and who, at age 70, took evening English classes for a year to be able to teach her, his talking parrot Coco, mentors, family, friends, farmers.

What does it take to be a good coffee taster? “You have to have the ability to describe what the coffee tastes like. It is all about establishing credibility, so you can’t get away fabricating notes,” Menon says, explaining how the vocabulary to define notes of coffee is borrowed from that of wine. She was amongst the first few women in the world to be professionally cupping, or tasting, coffee. That herd is still small but the industry is more open these days. “There aren’t any rules to follow, but you need to preserve your palette, and that means no smoking, no drinking, no late nights if you have to taste early in the morning. You never know what to expect, every coffee offers something new every day,” she says.

With her exacting standards, it must be hard to get a good cup of coffee elsewhere, I say. Menon grins and admits that she tries not to drink coffee outside. To her, Ethiopian coffee is the “most beautiful”, for its lasting finish in your mouth, for its inherent notes of jasmine with lemon grass. A good coffee, when you ask her, is something that leaves a lingering note on your palette. Ideally, without milk, without sugar. “But then it depends how you take yours,” she smiles. I mentally raise a cup to that.

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