Our Producer Series started with the idea to not only bring the rarest Indian coffees to you, but to also celebrate the producers who envisioned and brought these experimental coffees to life.
We’re excited to be featuring Ratnagiri Estate once again in this series. This time, it’s their Black Honey coffee that made it to the fourth lot! Very rarely used in India, this process requires coffee cherries with the highest sugar count to be double fermented using no water at all. For this lot, coffee cherries with a sugar count of 27 Brix* were used. This process changes the colour of the mucilage on the coffee beans to black which is what the coffee is named after. This rare light roast from Ratnagiri Estate has complex notes of orange zest, chamomile, brown sugar, and pomegranate which comes alive in manual brews.
*Brix: Brix is the unit of measure for sugar content in the coffee. A refractometer is used to measure brix, or sugar content of the coffee cherries to understand how ripe it is.
Ratnagiri Estate is a Rainforest Alliance certified farm in the South Indian Western Ghats near Bababudangiri, the place where coffee in India first originated. The Patre family has looked after the farm since 1927 and their approach to farming has always placed ecology and harmony with the environment at the forefront of their work. Ratnagiri literally means ‘Pearl Mountains’ and it gets this name from the dense Silver Oak trees that tower over its coffee plants, lending a silver hue to the hills where the farm sits.
Read on to understand how Ashok and Divya decided to process this coffee, what their usual day at the farm looks like and how their coffee journey started.
Q: When were the coffee shrubs for this lot planted and picked?
Divya: This lot was planted in 1994 and harvested on the 1st of March, 2020.
Q: This is the second coffee from Ratnagiri Estate in our Producer Series, could you walk us through the processing for this lot?
Ashok: When we harvested this lot, the brix of the fruit was 27, and that’s the reason we could go ahead with Black Honey Processing. This coffee was depulped without water and laid out on the drying beds on the same day itself. The coffee was spread out on the drying beds at a thickness of 4 inches, and we left it there to double ferment for about two days. This allows heat to build up inside the coffee cherries and allows double fermentation to happen. This process slowly starts darkening the colour of the coffee until it becomes black.
Q: Were there any challenges you faced while processing this coffee?
Ashok: The two days of double fermentation are critical to ensure that any mold formation doesn’t take place and that’s where weather plays a big role. Whenever we decide to go forward with Black Honey processing, we have to make sure that the humidity in the air is low. Since we have covered drying beds, it’s easier to adjust the shade and control the temperature. Even after the two days of double fermentation, the drying has to be immaculate. This is not easy with the thickness of 4 inches. Another very important step is the milling which is also very difficult in this case as Black Honey is very sticky and can cause some damages to the peeler polisher. All I can say is, this was a tricky lot but it did turn out really well and was definitely worth all this effort!
Q: What inspired you to experiment with this coffee? What were your expectations from this coffee?
Ashok: Firstly, this is a very good block in the farm. It’s a Catuai varietal and Its plant material, strain and varietal definitely stand out. Secondly, the brix was a determining factor since it was above 26, which is imperative to be able to process coffee using this technique. The opportunity to be able to process this coffee using Black Honey got us so thrilled because it’s so rare and we can only do a few lots every year. To be able to process coffee using this process, all parameters have to align - the brix level, the varietal, the humidity in the air and no cloud cover. A lot of these factors are not in our control so this opportunity really excited us.
It was difficult to guess the exact taste profile but I knew that since it was going to be a black honey processed lot, it would have good sweetness in the cup.
Q: What’s your preferred brewing method for this coffee, and how do you enjoy your daily brews?
Ashok: I like Pour Overs but of late I’ve been enjoying the Aeropress a lot, and even the Chemex. I prefer the extraction in an Aeropress and its intense flavour.
Q: Could you walk us through your journey in the coffee industry…
Ashok: Our farm is family owned and was started in 1927 by my grandfather. When I took over the farm in the late 80s, it wasn’t doing very well as the farm was attacked by a lot of pests and we lost a lot of plants. So I took it upon myself to replant the entire area. But at that stage, dwarf varietals in India were just being introduced. So there was a lot of talk about whether to go for dwarf varietals or to go with the usual Indian varietals like Selection 795, etc. I took the decision to move forward with dwarfs as I’d visited Hawaii, and during my trip I noticed that they were able to produce volumes of coffee because of close planting. At that stage, I wasn’t aware about specialty coffee at all, I simply wanted to increase production.
It was in the 90s that I replanted the entire farm and started exporting coffee in 1995. Slowly in the early 2000s my coffee was being appreciated in the United States and I got to meet experts who told me that my coffee had a lot of potential. However, during those times there was no clear direction about innovating with processing techniques, and the focus was always to get a ‘clean cup’. It was only around 2014-2015 that I got deeply involved in the industry and realised that the only way to improve the quality of coffee is to innovate with processing techniques. Since we lacked this knowledge, I decided to visit coffee farms around the world to get a better understanding of coffee processing and learn from them. It’s interesting to note that what might work in one farm may not work in another. It took a lot of experiments and a lot of failures to finally achieve great results with different coffee processing methods. It’s been an interesting journey and like I said before, this is just the beginning!
Q: From the many places you visited and tried coffees at, which one really stood out to you?
Ashok: I especially enjoyed the coffee in Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, Black Honey process was developed by accident. Due to their strict government regulations, they couldn’t use water to wash coffees. So they decided to completely skip water in the fermentation process. I thought this was so innovative since not only is it environmentally friendly but you also modify the entire taste profile of the coffee.
Q: When you started processing your own coffee, what were some of the biggest challenges and fears you faced?
Ashok: When you think of great coffee you often think of naturals from Africa. However, India has its set of limitations as the soil, varietals and the microclimatic conditions are not the same as in Africa or Central America. That being said, I realised that we have to work on the post harvest stages of coffee processing to be able to innovate with the quality of coffee we have in India. This is why we started experimenting with processing techniques such as anaerobic yeast fermentation, black honey, and the like. Initially, this was a complete trial and error run. We didn’t know when to stop the fermentation, and made a lot of mistakes. It was a really hard learning curve and was primarily focused on the fermentation period. So, one would only experiment with the total fermentation time. Back then we didn’t realise that the finest of atmospheric details can play a huge role in the fermentation process. We’ve started mapping all this data and have been doing this for the last 4 years to improve the quality of coffee by maintaining a record of all these details. The challenges we faced have helped us innovate and improve the quality of coffee.
Q: How do you think climate change will impact the future of farming?
Divya: Climate change is the biggest threat to coffee and especially to Arabica. We’ve been witnessing the drastic effects of climate change for the last 10 years at the farm. Firstly, we don’t get the April showers on time. Secondly, we have extended periods of rain during the monsoon. We don’t have distinct seasons anymore! The average temperature has also gone up by 6-7 degrees. This is a very serious issue not just for coffee but for everyone and we need to address it as a global community.
Q: Could you walk us through a day in your life at the farm?
Divya: Our routine at the farm is quite flexible so that we can adjust to the climatic conditions for the day. Once we’ve set our tasks for the day, I spend about two hours in my office and get all the paperwork done. I go for a walk around the farm and monitor the work being done. We usually wrap up work by 4-4:30 PM, unless it’s the harvest season. If it’s the harvest season then there’s a lot of hustle bustle! During harvest season, our day ends no earlier than midnight. That’s because the depulping and fermenting has to start instantaneously. No matter how long our days at the farm are, it’s always fun to be working with the team!
Q: What’s your favourite thing about your estate?
Ashok: I love the peace and tranquility we have at the farm and the fact that there’s no network connectivity makes sure that nothing and nobody bothers you! I personally really like to get away from the traffic of Bangalore so I enjoy my time at the farm. A usual day at the farm might sound rather boring to someone living in the city. But when I’m at the farm, I don’t even realise when the day is over as I’m always involved in some task while enjoying every bit of it.
To understand how Ratnagiri Estate’s Black Honey was roasted, we spoke to Tyler Ritchie, Lead Roaster at Blue Tokai. She worked in developing the flavour profile for the coffee to bring out its citrusy notes. Read on for our full interview with Tyler to learn about her thought process, the challenges she faced and how she feels about the outcome!
Q: What gets you excited about this lot from Ratnagiri Estate?
A: The process applied to this coffee is quite unique for India - a Black Honey process commonly seen in Costa Rica which often is done using no water at all, picking cherries based on the highest sugar count, maintaining the maximum amount of that sweet mucilage on the bean and drying in a thick layer on raised beds. This coffee was destined to be a rich, sweet and complex cup!
Q: Could you walk us through how you roasted this coffee?
A: Like the other naturals we’ve released in this series, this was a small batch roast of only 5kg with, again, a long caramelization faze to enhance the sweet syrupy notes, and a shorter development to retain that sparkling orange acidity.
Q: What surprised you about this coffee?
A: This is the Sangria of all coffees! I have fond memories of this coffee, which I first cupped when we were selecting samples from Ratnagiri in the early stages of the lockdown. I tried to savour this small sample for as long as I could as it was so different and delicious - with juicy, zesty acidity and rich winey notes throughout. As it cools, there are complex notes of pomegranate, sparkling orange zest and red currant which I enjoy. I expected this coffee to have deep dark chocolate and cherry notes, but this was a pleasant change.
Q: What flavours did you want to highlight while roasting this coffee?
A I really enjoy orange citrus flavours in coffee, so we wanted to make sure that came through as that’s one of the main reasons we selected this lot. This coffee quickly turns dark in the roaster due to the high sugar content in the beans so we had to be careful to not roast too far and lose those exciting complex flavours!
Q: Did you face any challenges while deciding the flavour profile?
A: Fortunately, no. This coffee has taste notes of juicy red wine with chunks of fresh fruits and citrus.
Q: Was the roasting technique different from the usual light roast coffees?
A: As this was a Black Honey, we found it quite dense, so a slightly longer roast was needed for this. And with that sticky honey so embedded in the green beans, this coffee turned dark quite quickly, so we had to pay close attention to make sure we didn’t over roast it.
Q: Could you share your preferred brewing method and recipe?
A: The Pour over is always good for these light roast naturals, but I also enjoyed this as a tightly poured double ristretto (first half of an espresso shot). My recipe was 19g in, 10 second first drop, 20 second finish, 25ml out. Syrupy sweet marmalade and brown sugar. You should definitely try it!
Q: Describe this coffee's taste notes in 3 words
A: Innovative, exciting, enchanting!
Click here to try Ratnagiri Estate’s Black Honey coffee from our Producer Series.