The woman who brewed change

Asia’s first woman coffee taster, Sunalini N. Menon, is now opening a museum for coffee

Susheela Nair

The aroma of coffee wafts through the air as one steps into the Coffee Lab in Sadhashiva Nagar, a posh locality in the heart of Bangalore. Every nook and corner of the lab is adorned with mugs, coasters, antique jugs, filters and other coffee paraphernalia collected from all over the world. The Coffee Lab bears the semblance of a mini museum with its walls lined with a variety of packaged coffee and curios from around the world — exquisite grinders, scented candles, filters, mugs, and a whole shelf of good old-fashioned tumblers, a stark contrast to a regular sparkling white laboratory filled with shiny apparatus used for coffee accreditation and testing.

It also houses memorabilia, including tribal products from coffee growing areas, areca nut pickers, ancient milk measurement units and coffee pots. Each equipment throws light on the culture of the country it comes from. For instance, Italian pots have ornate carvings; the ones in Iran are known for their silver and filigree work; Pakistan has a recurring crescent moon pattern while Egypt sports designed Cleopatra. The star attraction of the Coffee Lab is the painting of Mona Lisa in coffee powder.

In the middle of the lab, inhaling deeply from one of the deftly prepared samples of green and roasted beans, in front of her, is the first woman coffee taster in Asia and ‘quality-control expert’ Sunalini N. Menon. After acquiring a Master of Science in food technology, Sunalini’s first choice was to become a dietician, but destiny had something more fascinating in store for her. She had to choose between further studies at the New York Institute of Dietetics or a job with the Coffee Board. But she chose the latter which was a turning point in her life.

From an assistant taster at the Coffee Board of India to the head of the quality control department (at the age of 28), and director (quality control) until 1995, Sunalini has traversed a long way fighting a lone battle against all odds at every stage of her career. Steering her way through the male-dominated world of coffee tasters and growers, recognition and acceptance as an accredited international cupper came her way belatedly, almost two decades later. She is a walking encyclopaedia on coffee and knows the coffee bean inside out. This coffee veteran takes 100 sips of coffee — all in a day’s work. Known as Asia’s first woman of coffee, she moved on to set up her own lab, the Coffee Lab in Bangalore, in 1997 for evaluating the technical nuances of Indian coffee.

The advent of liberalisation in the Indian coffee market inspired Sunalini to set up her own lab in 1996. She established Coffee Lab Private Limited, the first private sector lab of its kind equipped with modern equipment and accredited by the Coffee Board of India, in Bangalore. 

Explaining the main objective of her Coffee Lab, Sunalini says, “From the seed to the cup, we offer the entire gamut of services. We delve into the technical aspects of coffee-making, quality testing, advising growers on how and when to sell the beans, and preparing special coffee brands. Coffee Lab uses the time-tested techniques of visual and organoleptic evaluation for the quality analysis of Indian coffee. We conduct appreciation courses for homemakers and also classes for farmers.”

True to her social commitment of empowering women economically, Sunalini has employed women to handle the sensitive and critical steps of green coffee evaluation. Though there are innumerable problems plaguing the coffee industry, the coffee veteran believes that the burgeoning coffee culture in the country has the potential to impact the market.

Revealing her plans to start a Coffee Museum, Menon says, “A trust will be formed as it is a non-profit initiative. We will start the story of Baba Budan (who brought coffee to South India) and traverse through the cultural aspects of coffee, diversified cultivation pattern and types of seed material. We are planning a layout that is representative of a typical Indian coffee plantation. The exhibits will include antique coffee roasters, grinders, brewing equipment, mugs, cups and coffee powders from different parts of the world.”

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