Appreciating the Complex

by Lacy Wood

After a long drive swerving through honking Indian drivers, mopeds carrying families, towns bulldozed for the purpose of building highways, and countless rice paddies, we finally arrived in the Shevroy Hills.

Julien Peak, located in the heart of Tamil Nadu in the south of India, is known for its coffee. Winding up the mountain, it felt as if we had just crash-landed in the Pacific Northwest, thousands of miles away from India or anything close to it.

As a coffee person, I have learned that the amount variables that go into a well-balanced shot of espresso are endless. When a barista pulls a bad shot, there is an internal list of possible mistakes: was it tamped evenly, maybe the grind was too fine, was it extracted for too long, or maybe the water was at the wrong temperature. With all of these variables, there are no rules, only taste and muscle memory. After visiting this coffee plantation, I gained an entirely new depth of understanding of this plant’s complexity.

For Ramesh, the farmer who owns the plantation on Julien Peak, creating well-balanced delicious coffee has taken years of trial and error. His family bought the land in the 1930s. Ramesh intermingles coffee with orange and pear trees, tall shade canopy trees, cardamom bushes, and pepper vines. All of these contribute to the richness of the soil and the complexity of taste in the coffee. This is called intercropping, and it is a much more sustainable growing practice than conventional methods.

His neighbors, for example, plant one variety of coffee in long rows with only a few shade trees. They weed their land, clear brush, and often spray fertilizer and pesticides. In contrast, Ramesh allows a thick compost to develop on the ground where animals make their home, creating a dynamic biosphere in the forest, eliminating the need to use fertilizers. Additionally, his plants are relatively healthy, allowing him to use pesticides sparingly – only on trees that are sick.

While he does process his coffee through the “wet” method, which uses about 2,000 liters of water per ton of coffee, he is working to buy a new machine offered in India that uses less water to wash the coffee. The beans are separated from the fruit, then washed and set out to dry for eight to nine days.

Ramesh reports that he does not follow the guidelines of Fair Trade certification. This is often a costly process with little direct benefit.  Usually farmers would need to buy new equipment, and conform to strict international standards that are not necessarily more efficient or cost effective. Instead, he invites buyers to visit his plantation and examine his growing practices. His personal set of guidelines and emphasis on quality push him to grow his coffee as sustainably as possible. Incidentally, quality is synonymous with sustainable practices.

With every sip, I enjoy a new appreciation for the time and energy that goes into growing a tasty cup of coffee. I will forever envision the coffee forest thick with compost, lush plants, and birds cawing.

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