Coffee Plantations in India Blend History and Hospitality

Coffee lovers abound for Karnataka, India! Imagine savoring your morning cup directly at its source on a 19th century coffee plantation in the hills southwestern India. Surrounded by magnificent vistas, extraordinary flora, and rich history, Dan Packel of the New York Times shares this very experience.

LIKE many mornings, this one started with a cup of coffee.

Rows of dried coffee berries in Coorg, India. Coffee remains a key resource there, but plantations are adding lodging facilities to supplement income. Photo by Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg.

But while our group of four had traveled far to get to this quiet, mountainside veranda in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka — my wife, Katy, and I from Mumbai, our friends Franklin and Sarah all the way from the United States — our coffee had not.

Our perch was at the center of an old, but still active, coffee plantation, owned by Prasad Poovanna, and the beans that went into the brew we were sipping had been harvested directly from his estate. They had made the short trip to the nearby town of Virajpet, where they were roasted and ground, before being carted back to their source and brewed for our cups.

Savoring the earthy, deeply flavored blend, we watched mists drift across the plantation and the verdant, wooded hills of Coorg beyond. (While the official title of the region has reverted to its original name, Kodagu, the Anglicized version is still widely in use.) For decades, the area has been home to such plantations; now, as they begin to welcome visitors, they are drawing attention for the very hospitality that we were enjoying.

The area was not always so friendly to outsiders. Long ago, before the British began planting coffee here in the 19th century, neighbors feared the military prowess of the Kodavas, the original inhabitants of the region. The thick forests were also home to wild animals, deadly insects and feisty blood-sucking leeches. A lengthy monsoon, which can extend up to six months every year, compounded the menace.

When India gained independence in 1947, the original British planters sold their estates to Kodavas and other South Indians. While the Indian planters initially flourished, the liberalization of the coffee market in the 1990s ushered in an era of greater economic volatility. In recent years, as a strategy for countering the unreliable price of the commodity, these planters have added lodging facilities to their estates.

“It also gives additional income to the women and provides more work during the lean period,” said Suresh Chengappa, proprietor of the homestay Honey Valley, referring to the workers who hand-pick coffee beans in his fields. He and his wife, Susheela, first opened their estate to guests in 1994 after a virus eroded their income from beekeeping, which they still pursue to a lesser degree, along with coffee growing.

Coffee Plantations in India Blend History and Hospitality