Our coffees from the Balmaadi Estate in India offer an insight into just how exceptional Indian coffees can be. The farm is biodynamic, and it’s undeniable that this plays a huge part in the quality, but it’s not about specific techniques – it’s about an approach to farming and the land which the owner, Unna, truly exemplifies. With ethical, spiritual and practical elements, this ethos is not just about avoiding harm to the land and the ecosystem, but actually relying on and using the natural systems to help the farm succeed.
India is an extremely intriguing country - not just for coffee, but for food, religion, agriculture and its sheer size and amount of people. In terms of coffee production, India is the seventh biggest coffee producer in the world and produces around 5.5 million bags per year - yet it has one of the lowest coffee consumptions in the world at 0.09kg per year per person (compared with the UK at 1.7kg per year per person and New Zealand 1.3kg per year per person).
With a population of 1,342,512,706 - that tiny proportion of coffee consumed per year, and per person, works out to be around 1.9 million bags - so it’s safe to say that a large proportion of the Indian coffee production is consumed in their internal market. With the remaining bags being exported to Russia, USA and Germany, you tend not to see so much Indian coffee in the UK and New Zealand markets.
One of the Indian coffees which did make it to the UK was from the Balmaadi Estate. This biodynamic certified coffee was brought by our sister company Hasbean for several years. Unfortunately, the UK importer stopped bringing the coffee in and it was lost. Fondly remembered, but beyond reach, it was only in the last couple of years that we had an opportunity to go back and try to work directly with the farm to bring their great coffees back to the UK and into New Zealand for the first time.
Balmaadi Estate in Tamil Nadu state in the region of Nilgiris has been a family run farm for many years, with the current family taking over its management in 1972. The estate is part of the O’Valley group of plantations that were developed over 150 years ago by an enterprising Scotsman, John Ouchterloney. Home to the mysterious Toda tribes (many say they are a lost Greek regiment of Alexander The Great), the farm was a traditional coffee estate and had produced commercial grade coffee up until 2003 when Unnamalai Thiagarajen took over its management.
The first challenge Unna faced in 2002 was how to manage a farm that was producing neither quality nor yield. The farm was not covering any of its costs, and was in danger of being abandoned after ten years of no investment. In order to turn the farm around, Unna needed to implement some form of programme for fertilisation and regeneration. Unna attended many courses and gained agronomic advice and options for managing the farm, but it wasn’t until she met New Zealand biodynamic advocate, Peter Proctor (who was helping Indian coffee farmers become biodynamic), that she saw something in the biodynamic philosophy that really appealed to her.
The remoteness of the farm meant that artificial fertilisers and pesticides were expensive, near impossible to deliver along the bumpy roads and not readily available in the nearest city or town. This was the main reason why the yields on the farm had become so low over the years - no inputs or investment at all were being put into the land, which had led to plant disease and infertile crops over time.
What Unna liked about the biodynamic philosophy was that all the food the farm needed was part of a closed system. Everything that was needed was local, available and within the farm already. Self-sufficiency was essential for such a remote and isolated farm – and the perfect solution. Unna also held strong beliefs that she didn’t want to put poisons and chemicals into the soil. With Balmaddi having such an amazing array of wildlife - from elephants to monkeys, bugs, leeches, spiders and the like - Unna felt it her responsibility to make sure that all living things at Balmaadi were looked after, not just the people who worked and lived on the farm.
Finding inspiration through Peter Proctor, and not having inputs on the farm for such a long time, made the transition from conventional farming to biodynamics easy for Unna. Cows were already on the farm, and there was more than enough land to start introducing the biodiversity needed to help with biodynamics. Unna started introducing stevia, cardamom, tea and cinnamon to help invite good bugs into the farm and help fight the disease and pest they had suffered for many years. The process of certification was a whirlwind for her with so many changes on the farm – but the resources required were all readily available and in the vicinity of the farm which was crucial to the process.
A couple of years after taking over the management of the farm, Unna decided to enter her coffee to the ‘Taste of India’ awards, run by the Coffee Board of India, part of the Government of India Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Anyone is able to enter, and all coffees are judged on their cup quality in an anonymous system. Unna won this competition with her biodynamic coffee, which meant that a huge spotlight was shone on the farm. This was also a great motivator for Unna to position the farm as a speciality coffee farm (rather than the commercial commodity grade it had been producing in previous years), and to try and export the coffee rather than keep it in the internal market in India.
The success of Balmaadi is a good news story, but didn’t happen without its challenges. The sheer size of the farm (169 hectares of which 148 are coffee) means that the management of the farm is extremely labour intensive and very time consuming. The yields in this paradise remain low compared to other more conventional farms, and attacks by elephants and hungry monkeys stealing coffee do take their toll. But the introduction of huge shade trees, and the biodiversity changes implemented at Balmaadi, have meant that, although there is not a lot of coffee, it certainly is excellent coffee!
To export the coffee from India, we had to loan some of the payment in advance to help Unna get into a position to process and dry mill the coffee (a process where the coffee is sorted into export quality). Loaning payments in advance is not something normally done in coffee contracts, and our sending huge amounts of money to someone we had only met over the internet was not without risk. However, we’re pleased to report that it was definitely a risk worth taking! Working so hard to get this biodynamic coffee into our range, and to develop a relationship with Unna, was worth all the risk for this huge reward. Our journey into the world biodynamics has been a very interesting and fulfilling one, and one we hope to benefit all involved for years to come.