Asia’s First Lady of Coffee | Uma Girish

from Gastronomica 7:4

There is no such thing as a coffee break in Sunalini Menon’s life. And on the occasion that she does take one, it is a break from coffee. Call it an occupational hazard, if you will, but when you’re in the business of sipping, slurping, and spitting coffee all day, a “coffee break” assumes a different meaning. I met Asia’s only woman coffee taster over a cuppa, and what a cup it turned out to be! Menon has had an eventful journey to where she is today—in a cozy office in Bangalore, southern India, safely ensconced as ceo of Coffee Lab Pvt. Ltd.

The mantel in Menon’s office runs the length of her office wall and is crammed with coffee memorabilia from the remotest corners of the world. “Coffee: the Bean of My Existence,” declares the slogan on a mug, which seems to define Menon’s personal philosophy. Coffee has personality. It is romantic; you need to get to know it better. “I was just tasting a blend from St. Helena; it had the fragrance of orange orchards,” she says, bustling in with good cheer. “With coffee you are handling a very sensitive living being that emotes as much as you do. You must feel for the bean as much as you feel for yourself. You have to learn to understand it,” Menon declares. I am convinced she has coffee in her veins.

Inside the lab is a staggering collection of everything coffee related: a one-hundred-year-old hand roaster; Our Lady of Coffee from Brazil, a beautiful statue of the Madonna, the protector of coffee farmers, with coffee beans at the base; a Saudi Arabian coffee pot; Cleopatra seated on a coffee pot (an Egyptian souvenir); coffee grinders, moisture meters, timers, and filters; a coffee pot from Yemen embellished with gems; balances, measures, and hooks for coffee sacks; home espresso machines; old-fashioned mortars and pestles; coffee-scented candles; tins of coffee spices; coffee mugs from every part of the world; and a coffee clock. Made from coffee grinds and roasted coffee beans, this clock not only tells time but also exudes a coffee aroma.

Sunalini Menon holding a davara, a traditional Indian coffee cup. Photograph by Prabhakar K. © 2006

As the only woman in her field, Menon is eager for others to understand her work. “Many people in India are not aware of what a taster’s job is all about,” she explains. “Very often I see a strange look come into people’s eyes when I tell them I’m a taster. ‘What?!’ they ask. ‘A taster! You must be having a great time at your desk, drinking cups and cups of coffee, taking a coffee break all the time, and even getting paid for it!’ Today I’m encouraging more and more young women to take up this profession, as I believe that women are more palate-sensitive, and their attention to detail helps in the organoleptic evaluation of coffee.” Living the credo she believes in, Menon has staffed her team at the Coffee Lab predominantly with women.

It was Menon’s childhood vacations in Munnar, a picturesque hill station in southern India where tea estates abound, that determined her destiny. She travels back in time to tell me the story of a little girl who watched, fascinated, as her uncle, a tea taster by profession, took a sip of the brew, playfully rolled it around his mouth, and grew thoughtful, his eyes taking on a faraway look. He then spat out the tea, saying, “This is bad,” and admonished the tea maker to monitor his processing methods more carefully. Menon loved watching her uncle repeat the process over and over again, like a childhood game. This “fun” performance lodged itself as a significant memory.

“To a seven-year-old, it seemed like magic that just by taking a spoonful of the tea liquor into one’s mouth, one could speak volumes about the tea leaves. It seemed fascinating … not only the tea tasting, but also the way the tea leaves were plucked, dried, and processed in the tea factory. During our holidays with my uncle most mornings would be spent in the tea factory, watching the tea leaves coming in and the steps that followed to make that perfect cup of hot tea. I did not think of tasting as a profession at that point in time, but now, when I look back, I think I must have stored those magical impressions in my Pandora’s box, which I opened when I saw an advertisement in 1972 in the local Bangalore newspapers calling for coffee tasters.”

Armed with a Master’s degree in food technology, Menon applied for the job. In a male-dominated beverage world even the expert panel that interviewed her was divided on the issue of whether to offer her the job, even though she had scored the highest marks in the written test and aced her interview. She did get the job and began working at the Coffee Board as an assistant cup taster, the first woman ever hired by the board. “Coffee has long been a male domain,” Menon notes. “Even today, there are not many women in coffee. Not only tasting but other aspects of coffee such as growing, curing, exploring, trading, and marketing have been a male prerogative. Maybe it has been that women were not inclined to these professions, or not exposed to them. In any case, with men dominating the arena, few women ended up in the field.”

But Menon continued to defy gender stereotypes. By 1978 she was the head of quality control, holding the post of director at the Board. “I made sure that I excelled in what I did, to prove that being a woman was in no way a disadvantage, and I went on to head my team.” It took about two years, Menon says, to get off the coffee high (tasting a hundred cups even if you’re doing the roll-in-mouth-and-spit drill can give you a kick, she confirms), get used to the job, and develop a taster’s tongue.

After two decades with the Coffee Board, Menon began to crave a greater challenge: She wanted to be an independent player in the free market. So in 1996 she launched her own consultancy in Bangalore, a one-of-a-kind lab in India, perhaps in the world. This lab boasts state-of-the-art equipment and offers a gamut of services from the seed to the cup, including coffee evaluation, education, consultancy and training, certification, and advisory services. The lab also assists in special preparations of coffee, such as estate brands and specialty coffees based on plant strain, region of growth, and the intrinsic properties of various beans. Butter Cup Bold, an estate coffee that the lab helped develop into a brand nearly eight years ago, is one example. This brand of coffee is now available in Korea. Juan Valdes, a Colombian blend well known in the United States, is also a product of her lab.

Formulating blends is a vital part of Menon’s business. Even the renowned Norwegian specialty roasters Solberg & Hansen use her lab services, purchasing coffees such as Monsooned Malabar, Plantation, and Robusta Kaapi to use in their own blends. “A farmer has sent his beans all the way from Ecuador to have them certified at my lab,” Menon proudly informs me. It is the technical aspects of coffee making that intrigue her most now—quality tasting, advising growers on how and when to sell the beans, preparing special blends. Where and how coffee is grown affects the size, density, flavor, and taste of the bean. On a plantation visit to Coorg in Karnataka, in the South of India, Menon discovered that coffee was being grown in the shade of chikoo trees. “Its smooth and creamy texture makes it an incredible palate glider,” she says. “Coffee grown in high altitudes is hard. Nilgiri’s coffee is hard compared to Coonoor’s in Tamilnadu, where the climate is very different from other parts of southern India.” While size, shape, density, flavor, and taste can be engineered through plant breeding, modulating or altering such aspects in coffee growing in a specific region can, to a limited extent, be carried out through cultural practices and processing techniques on the farm. What has already been engineered into the plant strain can be highlighted and clarified.

As one of the most influential people in the coffee world today, Menon regularly travels around the world to judge beans and brews and cupping competitions. Her passion for coffee is as rich as it gets. “This is one profession that must be mastered through the senses,” she explains. It is also important to use your imagination to experiment. When you say that a coffee is strong, you have to recognize the particular attribute that gives it the quality of strength and measure that. One must read a lot to update one’s knowledge of industry developments worldwide. And while the basic techniques can be taught, other important nuances have to be developed through one’s own initiative. Only those really interested in this niche field, who are prepared to learn all their lives through trial and error, will succeed. As for success, it is determined by how passionate you are about the job at hand, the inborn acuity of taste that you’ve unlocked to the intricacies of the coffee cup, the constant training you expose yourself to for however long you’ve been tasting, the integrity and humility that you need in abundance, and the acceptance that coffee knowledge is a never-ending road,” she declares.

Are tasters born or made? I wonder. “A good taster must possess a sharp acuity of taste, good concentration ability, excellent memory power, exemplary descriptive terminology, and communication skills. A background in food technology also helps in understanding the science behind coffee and coffee tasting,” Menon tells me. “With an acute sense of smell and taste and an aptitude to learn, understand, and absorb the art and science of tasting, one can develop a sensitive and discerning palate to the subtle nuances of the coffee cup. In a lighter vein, you need to have a pointed nose, a long tongue, and piercing eyes to be a discerning taster!” Coffee clearly hasn’t blunted Menon’s wit. “Seriously,” she hastens to add, “the three senses of sight, smell, and taste play a significant role in the science of tasting, and therefore, in the life of a taster.”

Menon’s acute sensitivity to smell, an asset in her profession, has a downside, too. “When I walk into a place I pick up even the faintest smells. At times it could be a good thing, especially when you find that you’re able to make out some off-notes in food that otherwise seems excellent. But you tend to be slightly fussy as to what and where you eat. Even entering a room and smelling odors no one else can discern does, at times, place you in an awkward position.”

She goes on to explain what an average coffee taster’s day is like. “The day would start by checking on how the coffee market fared the previous day; checking the samples that need to be evaluated; visually examining the quality of the samples; roasting them as per cupping standards; grinding and preparing the brew as per cupping specifications; sipping, slurping, and looking wise thereafter!” Menon emphasizes that coffee samples need to be evaluated both visually and in the cup according to buyer or consumer requirements. The samples are brewed to the necessary specifications and analyzed. Once prepared, the reports are checked, cross-checked, and then dispatched. The day might also involve discussions with farmers on the quality of their coffee; talks with new entrants in the field; and communication with consumers. “Reliability, repeatability, integrity, and creativity all come into play while evaluating the cup, and we in the lab follow these tools as our ‘coffee mantra,’” Menon affirms. Repeatability is especially important, she emphasizes, because the palate reveals new aspects on the second tasting, which one needs to make sure is consistent with the first.

Menon asserts that coffee is as complex as wine. “There are so many notes and flavors, and you have to feel it layer by layer.” She believes that exposure to other beverages like wine and tea is valuable for developing expertise as a taster. Understanding each beverage’s nuances and attributes helps the taster successfully evaluate them all.

Even after two decades as a coffee taster, Menon still finds waking up to the smell of coffee “very stimulating, satisfying, and energizing.” She confesses that the tiny bean has taken over her life to the extent that she can’t imagine not waking up to its smell and taste. But staying up until the wee hours or flying across continents does not go with the territory of coffee tasting, for fatigue affects the ability to taste. “It is for this reason that we ensure we’re well-rested, to give our best to the tasting the next day. Good health, combined with rest, is one of the basic essentials for being a good taster.” A periodic break from coffee is also mandatory. “It is important to rest the palate and the mind between tasting flights—one cannot taste continuously.” After a flight of about ten samples, which could entail evaluating fifty to seventy cups (the number depends on the type of tasting), the palate is usually rinsed with milk, although some tasters eat a cracker or a piece of bread between sessions. Tasters refrain from tasting for an hour before and after lunch. A break allows the memory to erase taste, which has a way of lingering on the palate. If the same qualities surface during the next tasting session, then the evaluation is presumed to be accurate. The rigid code of conduct that prevails at Menon’s lab includes abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and spicy foods. Maintaining a deep sense of inner calm is also encouraged so that tasters will truly commune with the bean and therefore be able to give a truthful evaluation. “Distress affects tasting ability, so if I’m upset or suffer from travel fatigue, I take the day off,” Menon says.

She slips back in time to pluck another childhood memory. “My grandmother used to store coffee in silver containers. In the morning, the aroma of fresh coffee would waft through the house, but we children were not allowed to drink coffee, only milk. We used to beg the elders for a few sips. Drinking coffee made me feel like an adult.”

Menon is excited about the vibrant coffee culture that is now sweeping through India, with new chains like Qwiky’s, Café Coffee Day, and Barista. “Give me a coffee culture over a pub culture any day!” she declares. Once seen as a dull beverage drunk only by adults, coffee in India today is considered versatile and hip. “Most Indians once liked their coffee strong, aromatic, and milky. All that has changed. And coffee pubs provide a good place for the young to hang out. As a mother, I’m quite happy about this trend.”

Menon’s favorite flavor notes, which she can expertly discern in beans from all over the world, include floral in a citrus dip, chocolate, fruit, caramel, mocha, lemon, and a mixture of fruit and nut. “My favorite is Ethiopian coffee, because of the diversity of coffee flavors in that country. Brazilian and Indian beans are the pillars of an espresso cup.” She adds, “My proudest moment was when I saw the words ‘Serving Indian Mysore Coffee’ in a café called Ricoh in London in 1997. Many years later I discovered Monsooned Malabar coffee served as a single-origin coffee in an Oslo café. Today, our “Dark Forest” blend, prepared solely from beans grown on a single estate in Chikmagalur, Karnataka, is being sold in Café Coffee Day in Vienna. Called Dunkler Wald in German, this blend now occupies pride of place for me.” Sunalini Menon is heartened that Indian coffee is becoming recognized as a quality origin, with flavors and tastes to suit many palates. Thanks to her pioneering efforts, its reputation should only continue to grow.

One thought on “Asia’s First Lady of Coffee | Uma Girish

  • Dear Sunalaini, its been a few years since we last spoke. My coffee shop in Varkala is going from strength to strength and i want it to get even better!
    In Kathmandu i tasted some lovely coffee at Himalayan Java shop, and noticed their Toper roaster.
    i spoke to Toper yesterday at the Cafe Culture show here in London, but 450,000 rupees would take a chunk out of my bank balance.
    So do you know of any Indian Roasters available at a better price? possibly with some training.
    We only used half a ton of beans last season, but perhaps we could become suppliers to the rest of the cliff ?
    Either way i would like your help in choosing one or two blends when i get back to Kerala in July.Last 6 years ive been using plantation A , which ive been fairly happy with. But I,d like to give our customers a CHOICE.
    Sincerely Les

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