Posted by Matt Chitharanjan on
Kalladeverapura Estate was the first farm we visited when we met with our growers in Karnataka. In this interview, we speak with Shravan, the CEO of Classics Synergy which owns Kalladeverapura Estate, and learn more about what makes Classics different from other coffee growers and about Kalladeverapura’s Pulp Sun Dried Arabica that has been really popular with our customers.
Image: Shravan DS, CEO of Classics Synergy (source: Classics Synergy)
Q: Hi Shravan, can you tell us a little about how Classics got started?
A: It all started with my father and my uncle, Purnesh, both of whom were involved in starting up the company along with other family members. Since the coffee market became liberalized in the ‘90s, we had wanted to do something different with our family coffee and wanted to improve the quality of our coffee and get a premium for it. So, Classics was really a formal representation of our family’s vision. And this goes back to ’95. We learned a lot about improving the quality of coffee by traveling with the Coffee Board of India to other coffee growing countries, and we slowly started forming a group of coffee growers. When the Specialty Coffee Association of India was officially formed, Ms Sunalini Menon was the natural choice as advisor for the group.
Image: Kalladeverapura was one of the first estates we visited (source: Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters)
Q: When did you get involved with Classics?
A: In terms of formally reporting to work, I’ve been a part of Classics since 2006 but I’ve always been unofficially engaged with and immersed in our coffee business since I was in school.
Q: What does Classics do that’s different from the normal coffee grower in post harvest processing?
A: Our long term goal isn’t just to process the best coffee in the county but, hopefully, in the world. So, it’s not just the post harvesting process but the entire harvesting procedure from the beginning to the end that is different. And it’s based on years of experimentation and trying different things and seeing what our customers like.
Image: Coffee picker selecting ripe berries (source: Classics Synergy)
It starts right from picking the right fruit. A number of planters just pick all the fruit together before processing them. But, we have three different rounds of picking on our estate. The first two rounds are when the ripened fruits are picked and the third round is when everything else is removed. That’s how differently we do things in the first phase.
The coffee is then stored on the estate. Another common mistake that growers make is that they pick their coffee and place it in gunny bags in the sunlight. We take great care to provide proper shelter for the berries during this time. We then carry out a round of manual garbling. We take out all the bad or defect berries from each specific day of picking. Then the berries go through a machine called a Green Sorter. So, anything like twigs or extraneous matter which isn’t removed manually is removed by this machine.
The berries are then placed into a pulping unit where they go through fermentation from anywhere between 12 to 36 hours depending on whether we’re dealing with Arabica or Robusta. This is also determined by the specific block on the estate from which the beans have been picked.
The drying phase is the biggest challenge for any planter today. We use raised African beds during this phase. We’ve modified these to be able to fit in a hot blower. Two days after the beans have been drying on the African beds, we place them in our drying yard and make sure the moisture levels go down to about 12.5%.
Image: Raised beds for coffee drying (source: Classics Synergy)
The next important thing is to store the coffee properly. During storage, the coffee beans need a lot of air circulation from all sides including underneath them to be able to breathe. I know this sounds strange but if you go into your storage warehouse and you’re sweating, there’s a very good chance that your coffee beans are also sweating! And the added moisture on the beans ruins the quality of the beans. We try to treat the coffee much like a human being which is funny for people to believe.
Image: Pulp Sun Dried Arabica beans from Kalladeverapura. These beans tend to come in different shades of red due to the manner in which they’re processed. (Source: Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters)
The other thing we do differently is that at the curing works, our beans go through a sorting machine to take that extra step to ensure that only the best beans go to our customers. Most planters do nearly all these steps but we do them with a little extra care.
Q: You had mentioned that you ferment anywhere from 12 hours to 36 hours. Can you let us know a bit about how the taste of each would be different?
A: A 36 hour ferment is done with Robusta. When we discuss the 12-16 hour fermentation, that’s for Arabica. With the Pulp Sun Dried Arabica we don’t let it ferment for too long. Generally, a Pulp Sun Dried is a lot fruitier and has a lot of body. A washed coffee, on the other hand, is a lot more polished and balanced.
Doing a Pulp Sun Dried is a very risky proposition and there aren’t a lot of estates in India that do it. None of us growers are scientists and we need to experiment as much as we can.
Q: Why did you decide to do Pulp Sun Dried if it’s a risky propostion?
A: We were comfortable taking that risk because without trying new things how will you know whether they work or not? And we’re so glad we took that risk – our Pulp Sun Dried is very popular and we have a number of customers who are willing to pay a premium for it.
Image: Manual sorting of beans, also called garbling (source: Classics Synergy)
I stayed in Scotland for three years and I realized that Whisky is so beautifully processed and marketed there, that, although it’s just an agricultural product, it ends up being much more than that. And that’s something we need to do with coffee in India.
Q: What are some of the future goals for Classics Coffee?
A: I think we’d like to size up our operations, get into cafes, retail more of our coffee and get into roasting. We’d like to be able to control the process of growing coffee beans to brewing coffee from the beginning to the end.
Q: Since you’re a part of the newer generation of coffee growers, what do you see as being a big difference between the elder generation of growers and your peers?
A: The older generation set the foundation for us. They were the ones who initially had to understand what specialty coffee was all about and set a structure for growing and processing it, and they were the ones who started meeting with our customers. They did that major part of the job and then they handed it over to us along with a set of very important guide lines. Our fathers established standards, associations and networks.
Of course, this is a growing market and there are always new challenges and competition that we need to face. When you look at my father and my uncle who entered the coffee business when they were my age, the market was in a different condition. We were such small time planters. Forget growing specialty coffee, growing good coffee in general was a challenge. Now it’s up to us, the younger generation, to take more calibrated risks and continue experimenting with the strong foundation that our fathers have left us with.
Q: Kalladeverapura was one of the first estates that we visited and we noticed how shade grown and bird friendly Indian coffee farms are. Can you talk a bit about what that means.
Image: A cow grazes on Kalladeverpura Estate which is shade grown and bird friendly (source: Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters)
A: Kalladeverapura is located in the area where coffee was first planted in India. 80% of trees in our plantation are natural forest trees which we will never cut. Some of them are a hundred years old. We maintain a balance between nature and the best planting practices. We make sure to give our coffee natural shade since coffee requires shade to grow. Secondly, it’s essential for us to keep the soil composition balanced which is done naturally in the forest, which also provides shelter to animals and birds, which in turn contribute to the balance of the soil. You absolutely need that mix to make sure your land is environmentally sustainable. Whatever you give to the soil comes back to help the growth of your plants. You have to take care of the land. That’s something that we have always believed in.
Q: What are three things you’d like our customers to know about your coffee?
A: Firstly, I’d like them to know that we take care of our product. We take extra care in every single step from planting to processing. This includes researching, experimenting and taking calibrated risks to make sure we constantly improve our product.
Image: Coffee tasting lab at Classics (source: Classics Synergy)
We also take care of the people who are taking care of our product. The happiness of the people who work on our farms means a lot to us.
Thirdly, we take care of the people who buy our coffee from us. After sales support means a lot to us. We have worked with a number of customers since we started and none of them has ever left us. If anyone has an issue, we make sure we deal with it.