I was one year old when Ray McAulliffe began his career in coffee.
It’s safe to say Ray has probably forgotten more about coffee than I will ever know. Which is why I was so thrilled that he agreed to tour me around the facility he manages in Mangalore, India, where Monsooned Malabar coffee is processed during the monsoon season (late May to September). I arrived at the end of the first week of heavy monsoon rains, in the second week of June. Perfect timing if you’re a duck. Or if you love, love, love monsooned coffee and are willing to brave kind of unbelievable foul weather to see it processed. And I’m not a duck.
For the unfamiliar, Monsooned Malabar is a very unique coffee produced only in India. Its name refers to both a processing style, and a place. It starts with a natural (i.e., sun-dried cherry) Plantation A or AB coffee (a rather generic name referring to large and medium-large beans from the Karnataka region of India). The coffee is then very carefully – I had no idea HOW carefully – weathered to result in a truly different flavor profile that is simultaneously low acid, woody, nutty and mellow.
The history of monsooning coffee is as interesting as the coffee itself. It dates back to around the 1930′s, when European buyers began to notice that the coffee they bought from India no longer tasted the same as in days gone by. They realized it was because shipping had improved considerably 9ver the prior decades, and the coffee was no longer weathering in the holds of sailing ships on the open seas. So they decided to fix it by “pre-weathering” the coffee. And the monsoon rains of the Malabar Coast are the perfect place to conduct a controlled weathering of coffee. All monsooning is done in the town of Mangalore, which is along the Malabar Coast, a couple hours drive from the coffee growing regions. There are about a half dozen monsooning facilities in town.
But as you might have guessed, there’s more to it than simply throwing the beans out in the weather and collecting them later. The rate at which the beans take on moisture is key.
The process starts with arrival of green (normally ready-to-roast) coffee to the monsooning facility in March. The coffee is double bagged when it arrives to limit the uptake of moisture in such a humid climate. Because we now want it to be moist, it is rebagged into single bags and stacked in a processing building. The building looks like a normal building, except that it has really large windows all around, and the windows never close, thus allowing the moist sea air to permeate the interior. Jute is hung on the openings, and adjusted to control the ingress of moisture, depending on the severity of the blowing rains. The day I was there it rained four inches, so we’re talking about quite a lot of moist air.
Once the beans have preconditioned for a few months, they become slightly swollen and faded, and just a little rubbery. As the rains begin (they were late this years and started just two days before I arrived – talk about timing!!), the beans are raked out onto the patio about 3 to 4 inches thick. They are then periodically raked, and even shoveled over, to regulate their moisture uptake. And if the moisture is seeping in too fast, the coffee will be rebagged about half full, left open at top, and stacked in windrows to slow the moisture uptake.
This process goes on until September, when the huge, ghostly white coffee is then polished and bagged for export.
If you haven’t tasted this special coffee, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. We make a beautiful espresso blend anchored with monsooned coffee, too. We guarantee it’s like nothing you’ve ever tasted before!