The Curious Case of Coffee



There is nothing like a good filter coffee to give you a start in the morning, but you’d be amazed to know that the South Indian coffee that so many of us relish, has a great story behind it!

The story of Indian coffee begins in the 16th century CE and is traced to a Sufi saint, Baba Budan, revered by Hindus and Muslims alike, in Chikmaglur, present day Karnataka, where he lived.


The story of Indian coffee begins with a Sufi saint, Baba Budan, revered by Hindus and Muslims alike

Baba Budan lived in dangerous times. Records show that Chikmaglur, his home town was plagued by a series of attacks by a local tribe, that left a trail of death and destruction every time they came for a raid. Forced to move out, the Sufi saint and his followers fled to live in the caves of Chandragiri. However even that didn't help and Baba Budan decided to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca , while his followers waited in the cave for a year.

The port of Mocha, Yemen in 1680 CE
The port of Mocha, Yemen in 1680 CE|Wikimedia Commons

On his journey back from the Haj, Baba Budan brought back seeds of raw coffee beans from the port of Mocha in Yemen. In those days coffee was exported to other parts of the world in roasted or baked forms so that no one could grow their own plant. This was a ploy to ensure that Yemen had a monopoly over coffee. The story goes, that Baba Budan, managed to smuggle seven coffee beans wrapped in his garment!

After returning, he planted the beans on the slopes of the Chandragiri Hills, near the caves where he and his followers had settled. Coffee from the plants was served as drinks to the local people. Today, coffee is still grown in the hills and the area is well known as Baba Budangiri. It also houses the saint’s tomb.

Baba Budangiri range of hills on the Western Ghats in Karnataka
Baba Budangiri range of hills on the Western Ghats in Karnataka|Wikimedia Commons

Baba Budan brought back seeds of raw coffee beans from the port of Mocha in Yemen

The first reference to the consumption of coffee in India comes from the work of Rev. Edward Terry in the court of Emperor Jehangir, in 1616. Rev Terry was the chaplain to Sir Thomas Roe, King James’ Ambassador at Jahangir’s court.

Terry provides the first detailed account of the usage of coffee in India. He writes: ‘Many of the people there (in India), who are strict in their religion, drink no wine at all; but they use a liquor more wholesome than pleasant, they call Coffee; made by a black Seed boyld in water, which turns it almost into the same colour, but doth very little alter the taste of the water: notwithstanding it is very good to help digestion, to quicken the spirits, and to cleanse the blood.’

Coffee’s Colonial Comeback

Commercial cultivation of coffee in India however began over 200 years after Terry’s mention of Coffee drinking in India, in 1840.

Ironically, it was the British who established the Arabica coffee plantations throughout the mountains of Southern India. In fact, it was through the efforts of the British East India Company, that coffee became popular in England!



Rev. Edward Terry chronicled the consumption of coffee in the court of Emperor Jehangir, in 1616 CE.
Rev. Edward Terry chronicled the consumption of coffee in the court of Emperor Jehangir, in 1616 CE.|Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, it was the Italians who introduced coffee to the rest of Europe as caffe. This word derives from the Turkish kahveh, which in turn stems from Arabic qahwah, short for qahhwat al-bun, meaning “wine of the bean.” This poetic phrase led to the misunderstanding that qahwah also meant “wine.”



An advertisement for the UK’s first coffeehouse, St. Michael’s Alley in 1652
An advertisement for the UK’s first coffeehouse, St. Michael’s Alley in 1652|Wikimedia Commons

Italians introduced coffee to the rest of Europe as caffe

By the middle of the 19th century, coffee was being served at the many clubs that sprouted around India, the first being the Bengal Club in Calcutta 1827, followed soon after by the Madras Club in 1832 and the Bangalore Club in 1863. With the hill stations being set up in the north and in the south and British administration extending to the mofussil areas, coffee drinking also spread. Victorian style made it an after-dinner ritual, and coffee became de rigueur at many a banquet.

Filter Coffee
Filter Coffee|Wikimedia Commons 

Today, India is the sixth largest producer of coffee in the world. Indian coffee is said to be the finest coffee grown in the shade rather than direct sunlight anywhere in the world. There are approximately 250,000 coffee cultivators in India. India is also home to 16 unique coffee varieties. Coffee is grown in three regions of India with Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu forming the traditional coffee growing region of South India, followed by the new areas developed in the non-traditional areas of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha in the eastern coast of the country and with a third region comprising the states of Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh of Northeastern India.


Today, India is the sixth largest producer of coffee in the world

In urban areas, coffee shops and cafes have become extremely popular in recent years. The Indian Coffee House chain, played a large part in this. It was started by the Coffee Cess Committee in 1936, when the first India Coffee House was opened on Churchgate Street in Bombay on 28th September 1936. At the height of its glory, the India Coffee House chain, operated 72 outlets, and essentially introduced the coffee habit in the tea-drinking north of the country.

A Capuchin Monk
A Capuchin Monk|Wikimedia Commons

Did You Know

The popular coffee variant of cappuccino (coffee with milk), derives its name from the Capuchin friars (The Order of Friars Minor Capuchin) because its colour was so similar to that of the robes worn by the monks.

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