First Lady of Brewing

Asia’s first woman coffee taster, Sunalini Menon, talks about her initial challenges and the growing coffee market.

Published: 27th April 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th April 2014 03:37 PM   |  A+A-


Sipping cups and cups of coffee brews perhaps gives Asia’s first woman coffee taster and certified grader, Sunalini Menon, a high like nothing else. A professional coffee taster and expert, Menon’s career choice has been the butt of many jokes and amusements, among the uninitiated. “People would tell me that I had a coffee break all the time, so I would never tell anyone I was a coffee taster,” she says with a broad smile.

For Menon, entering the male bastion of the coffee industry in the early 70s was literally an uphill task. She was sent to Germany in 1971 after joining the cup casting unit of the Coffee Board in Bangalore, followed by several other training courses in Switzerland and other countries. “My sari and bindi would make me the centre of attention and raise curiosity, apart from the fact that I was the only woman in the room,” she reminisces.

Menon realised early on that she had to learn all she could about coffee and hit a major learning curve. She made it a point to sit with all staff in all departments of the Coffee Board. This even helped change attitudes on both sides. She also read up a lot. “The more you learn, the more people respect you,” she says. Yet, there were hurdles and obstacles and sometimes tears would roll down her cheeks at home, after a long day’s work, in front of her small daughter. “Mummy they are jealous of you, don’t cry,” is what her six-year-old child would tell her.

No doubt family support and sound knowledge of the subject have stood her in good stead over the decades. Her first boss, HGV Reddy was also a great source of support and encouragement.

After leaving the Coffee Board in 1995, after heading the quality control division since 1978, Menon set up a consultancy that independently evaluates coffee quality and other technical aspects. It is called Coffeelab Pvt Ltd and has conducted and organised several workshops with consumer groups, growers, schools and virtually anyone interested in the world of coffee.

Interacting with the charming and down-to-earth Menon in her fascinating office and coffee lab is bound to make anyone quite the instant expert on coffee. About 70 to 75 per cent of coffee is exported making it a major source of foreign exchange, she informs us.

 She is pleased about the rise and growth of cafes and café culture in urban India and declares that coffee tasting is as delicate and complex a process as wine tasting. In fact, she has done a few food-pairing sessions with different coffee brews for Japanese clients.

Coffee too is rich in anti-oxidants and a black and light cup with no sugar is the ideal way to savour this flavourful beverage which has its own wonderful natural aromas.

India is the only coffee-producing country where both the major strains of coffee—Arabica and Robusta—are treated on par, she says. Arabica has a sweetness to it, while Robusta, as the name suggests, is strong and grown mostly in Kerala. India is also the only country where chicory is mixed with coffee. Chicory is a tuber which looks like radish and its leaves are the endive leaves used in salads.

It is grown in Gujarat where the tubers are processed in warehouses to manufacture chicory. “Chicory gives to coffee a caramelised brown sugar note, an orangish colour and strength,” says Menon.

Menon has an amazing collection of coffee cups and mugs and a vast array of coffee filters from around the globe. It is a sheer visual delight to see all of them neatly arranged in her coffee lab. After experimenting with many filters and devices, she now swears by an electric coffee filter manufactured in Bangalore to brew up that perfect cup right at home.

Yes, coffee tasting is a great career option but it sure takes time for one to establish credibility and gain knowledge, wisdom and experience.

It has been a fruitful and immensely satisfying path for Menon who has numerous national and international awards and accolades to her credit. This year she is off to Seattle to receive the prestigious Alfred Peet Passionate Cup from the Specialty Coffee Association of America.


Enrich your coffee

■ Coffee is rich in antioxidants, and  a black and light cup with no sugar is the ideal way to savour it.

■ Chicory gives to coffee a caramelised brown sugar note, an orangish colour and strength. India is the only country where chicory is mixed with coffee.

■ In India both the strains of coffee—Arabica and Robusta—are treated on par. Arabica has sweetness to it, while Robusta is strong.


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