The Seattle Times has published a two-part feature that wonderfully describes the state of the coffee industry in India, which has for decades struggled to find its place in the specialty coffee market.
The country has always been a huge robusta producer, primarily selling its beans to Russia and other Eastern European countries, but as Part 2 of the Times piece points out, coffee leaders there have been trying to shed that reputation since the 1990s by improving quality as well as marketing efforts related to arabica. From the Times:
In the 1940s, India began pooling its coffee and paying farmers mostly for quantity, not quality. That continued until the ’90s and meant India missed the start of the specialty coffee craze in the 1970s, when roasters from Seattle and elsewhere began searching the world for gourmet coffee.
Mammen recalls being frightened during his first visit to the annual convention of the Specialty Coffee Association of America in 1996.
The piece also profiles a woman that many people credit with helping to take Indian coffee production to new levels:
For many Indian coffee farmers, the path to better flavor and higher profits started with a woman named Sunalini Menon.
Formerly head of quality at the Coffee Board of India, Menon took early retirement when the government agency downsized in the 1990s. Although the Coffee Board did not focus on quality, Menon had created a small program in which some farmers were paid more for better-tasting coffee.
Now her nine-person Coffeelab in Bangalore inspects coffee quality for cafe chains and advises farmers about how to improve the flavor of their coffee.
The full story: Seattle Times
Further reading: Part 1, in which the Times describes Starbucks emergence in India.