On a trip to Coorg in Karnataka some months ago, I took a guided tour of one of the region’s many famed coffee plantations, and, in doing so, combined two of my favourite things – walking tours and coffee! For 2 hours on a chilly winter evening, as day passed into dusk and we were interrupted only by mosquitoes, our local Coorgi guide shared with us his stories about Coorg and, by extension, about coffee.
Coffee, a drink – even a word – familiar to cultures and countries across the world, was first discovered in modern day Ethiopia. According to the legend, a goatherd named Kaldi grew curious when his goats wouldn’t sleep one night after eating the berries of an unfamiliar plant earlier that day. What, he wondered, could have caused such a “kick”? Intrigued, Kaldi returned to the site the next day, collected more berries, and deposited them at the local monastery. When the berries succeeded in keeping the monks alert – even during evening prays – news of this amazing discovery spread quickly!
By the 16th century, the coffee drink had been embraced across the dry Arab world; an acceptable substitute for banned alcoholic drinks, it was commonly called the ‘wine of Araby’. It was drunk in the privacy of homes and served in public coffee houses that were popular meeting places and hubs of social and political activity. This dark drink also seduced thousands who travelled to Haj on pilgrimage every year. However, coffee production remained a closely guarded secret; whilst the finished product could be exported, no berries or cuttings were allowed to leave the Arab peninsula. In this way a monopoly over the coffee trade was attempted, successfully for a time.
Then, in the 17th century, a Sufi named Baba Budan, whilst on pilgrimage to Mecca, secreted just seven coffee beans through the Mocha port in Yemen, and into India. Of course! He planted them on hills known today as the Bababudan Hills in the Chikkamagaluru District of Karnataka, – and so began the story of South Indian coffee. The Bababudan hill region remains the largest producer of coffee in India, with Coorg a close second.