It is six in the morning and the garden city of Bangalore is still wrapped in pre-dawn darkness. The air is cool and crisp, the quietness only occasionally broken by the chirping of birds. Joggers are just about readying to hit the asphalt as my car speeds through the tree-lined highway extending into lush green fields on either side.
My destination, the Tata Coffee kingdom in Coorg, is a six-hour drive ahead, but my Schumacher of a driver is determined to get me there in less than four.
An endless carpet of green flanked by tall silver oaks and flame of the forest welcomes you at the plantation. A narrow serpentine road, cutting through the farmlands, leads us to a bright red-roofed cottage bursting with exotic anthuriums, orchids, alamandas and multi-coloured hibiscus and bougainvillea.
Tata Coffee's Tannerhulla guesthouse, my address for the next two days, is a beautiful 90-year-old bungalow with manicured lawns and patches of purple and yellow flowerbeds. It boasts large airy rooms, warm wooden flooring, a red-carpeted staircase, fireplace and antique furniture. An exquisite chest of drawers has a place of pride in my room.
While I soak up the ambience, Pavan Muthappa, assistant manager with the company's Jumboor estate and my designated guide, arrives.
Over lunch, I learn that coffee in Coorg is a legacy of the British. One comes across many estates bearing British and Scottish names. Apart from this, Coorg is also famous for its oranges, pepper and cardamom.
With over 26 estates spread over 20,000 acres across the Coorg, Hasan and Chikmangalur districts of Karnataka, Tata Coffee, Asia's largest coffee producer, is involved in all the processes of the business from producing beans to installing vending machines. Tata Coffee aspires to be a vibrant FMCG company. According to managing director Hamid Ashraff, the company's business strategy is to eventually sell all its products in value-added form through branded products.
Our first stop, the Cannoncadoo Estate, is an hours drive away from the guesthouse. Here, estate manager SS Khurana joins us. He walks us through the plantation and educates us on the two basic varieties of coffee: Robusta and Arabica. True to its name, the broad-leafed Robusta is a stronger and better yielding coffee bean grown in the lower elevations of south Coorg. But it is the milder Arabica that's internationally preferred and fetches a better price too.
As coffee needs to be protected from sunlight, leafy trees like rosewood, orange, avocado, teakwood and silver oaks are planted at regular intervals between the bushes. The tall trees are also an excellent support for pepper vines. Incidentally, Tata Coffee is the largest producer of black pepper in India.
Walking on, the planters graciously take time out to explain the various stages of the growth of saplings, and the treatment and precautions needed to protect them from pests and diseases. If well cared for, coffee plants can live up to 80 years and grow about 6 feet in height.
"Coffee blossoms in spring, and presents a breathtakingly beautiful sight," says Mr Muthappa. Through March and April, snow-white coffee blossoms fill the air with their jasmine-like fragrance. Young coffee fruits are smooth and round. They gradually ripen from green to red, hence the term coffee cherry. Coffee picking is normally done between November and March. The cherry-red fruit is pulped, and the separated coffee beans are washed, dried and then sent for curing.
As we wend our way across the plantation, we come upon tidy rows of houses with colourful gardens. They are the labour lines, homes of estate workers. Most workers and the manager live on the estate. The estates have a clinic, recreation clubs and a creche. "Some [of our employees] have been here for generations," says Mr Khurana. "They take great pride in their work and have a deep bond with the place. The plantations are like their babies." Mr Khurana has been working on the plantation for 15 years.
As dusk gathers we halt for a while at Mr Khurana's porch to enjoy the last rays of sunlight retreating from the plantation. The evening is so quiet you can hear the leaves fall. When I ask him about his choice of profession, he says, "The romance and glamour of the plantation lifestyle attracted me initially. But you have to be in love with nature and your work to stick on." Adds Mr Muthappa, "The weather and people decide your day. No two days or situations are ever alike. You have to be completely involved."
Meanwhile, Mr Khurana's hospitable wife, Sarika, wheels in snacks and coffee. A speech therapist, she is thorough city bred, but seems completely in sync with her surroundings. She tells us that she has, in fact, come to dislike the city since she moved here. Gardening, community work, children, television, books and computers keep most planters' wives occupied through the day.
As twilight settles in, we decide to retreat to the guesthouse. On the way back, we stop at the golf course and the swish Bamboo Club, which comes alive in the evenings with planters and their families. Socialising, card games and drinks draw people here. An hour later, I am back in my room; a little tired, but I know I'll sleep well.
A hearty breakfast later, Mr Muthappa and I head for the company's curing works at Kushalnagar. One can easily spot Tata Coffee estates by their carefully maintained hedges. The soft morning mist rolling down the undulating mountain slopes, the villages and hamlets, and the flat plains beyond with swaying paddy fields make my drive to the works a memorable experience.
At Kushalnagar, after enjoying a mandatory cup of freshly brewed coffee, general manager (curing operations) SM Madaiah, gets set to take us around the state-of-the-art curing works plant. First, the dried coffee beans from the estate are cleaned for any twigs or stone. The husk is then separated by machines. Later, the grading machine sieves it on the basis of the bean size.
The 7.5mm Mysore Nuggets Extra Bold is considered the best coffee bean, but there is a market for every kind of bean, including the inferior ones. The electronic colour sorters separate the inferior beans, the browns and blacks, from the superior grey-blue beans. Technology is not the last word here; the final sorting is done by women. "They eliminate the flaws the machines have overlooked. They are better than machines," says Mr Madaiah. The segregated coffee beans are then mechanically packed and dispatched through conveyor belts to storage.
A strong aroma of coffee welcomes us as we walk into the roasting and powdering section of the works. Beans are roasted in large steel cylinders, then powdered and packed. "As every state has its own preference, the percentages of chicory and coffee in the mix differ. Hence, your coffee in Kerala will be distinct from the brew in Andhra Pradesh," states Mr Madaiah.
Tata Coffee has three brands positioned in the filter coffee segment: Tata's Coorg, a 100 per cent pure filter coffee, Tata's Double Roast and Mr Bean, the last two a 53:47 blend of coffee and chicory. In the instant-coffee segment, the Tata brands are Tata Caf and Tata Kaapi, a 70:30 blend of instant coffee and chicory.
The coffee-tasting session with Manoharan, senior manager (quality control), epitomised my education in coffee. From a largish spoon, I sip a small quantity of fresh black coffee. I let it rest for a moment on my tongue, before spitting it out. This is the way professional tasters determine the taste and grade the acidity, intensity, flavour and strength of the coffee bean. Each estate has its own flavour. My taste buds became immune to any new sense after three samples. Mr Manoharan is known to taste close to 150 cups a day.
On my drive back, we halt at the company's R&D centre. Assistant manager Vasanthi Amritraj enlightens me on the company's innovative effluent-treatment methods, bio-compost and fertilisers, organic pest control and tissue culture to produce superior and high-yielding varieties of coffee. Tata Coffee was the first manufacturer to initiate nutrient research in the coffee industry.
Our next stop is the Rural India Health Project (RIHP) hospital. As the nearest town is a few miles away, it provides much-needed and affordable medical facilities to the locals, including Tata Coffee employees. RIHP CEO Dr Kaveri Nambisan has successfully initiated several programmes such as child immunisation and family planning for the rural communities. The organisation is also planning to start a centre for mentally challenged children and destitute women in the near future.