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Rishi Sankhla

IWB Blogger

A Perfect Brew Of Coffee & Life: Meet Sunalini Menon, Asia’s First Woman Coffee Taster

  • IWB Post
  •  June 12, 2018

“It’s not blood, but coffee that flows in my veins,” says Sunalini Menon, Asia’s first lady of coffee. Inspired by the imprints of her childhood memories, Sunalini broke the stereotype and chose to become a coffee taster back in 70s. Being one of her kind in the profession, today she is the proud achiever of Lifetime Achievement Award 2005 and the title of ‘First Lady’ in the field of a coffee tasting, felicitated by President Ram Nath Kovind on January 20, 2018. 

I was excited to have a conversation with Sunalini, and I guess so was she. When I called, she greeted me with a very pleasant and cheerful voice. “Hello Rishi, how are you?” I was surprised and also moved that she remembered my name. These small but impactful gestures truly define a person. For the next hour or so, I was totally engrossed in conversation with her about her life and her brewing with coffee. Excerpts from the interview:

Congratulations on being felicitated by the President as “First Ladies” for being Asia’s first woman coffee taster! How does it feel to be awarded the title?

“It is the first time in my lifetime that I feel so elated, that my own country has recognised me as a tiny drop in a delicious cup of coffee,” she said. She also appreciated the Ministry for doing the marvellous job of identifying and honouring the women, for the first time, in their respective fields.

She said, “We all work in different spheres, in different parts of the country. We work behind the wing, nobody even thinks of recognising you or even identifying you. Part of the reason for women not being recognised is the gender and part of it are that women themselves don’t ask for it. We work without expecting anything in return because we love what we are doing, we want to strengthen ourselves, our home, our community.” Sunalini also believes that women are the core of any nation and they are ones who bring up the men and women of a country.

While sharing her experience on her recent visit to Delhi, she mentioned meeting with Maneka Gandhi. The tone clearly explained it all, how happy and wonderful she felt, having a conversation with her. She was taken aback when Maneka enquired about an organic farmer. She was deeply moved that she could remember a small farmer and ask about his well being.

Sunalini Menon

What inspired you to become a coffee taster?

“It is destiny and being at the right place at the right time is what brought me into this profession. Apart from destiny, it was determination, zest, zeal, perseverance, and strength to develop the profession.” Reliving her childhood memories, she said that while visiting her uncle, who worked as a manager at a tea garden, she would see him amidst cups and cups of beautiful golden brown liquid, where he would taste the tea and either appreciate it or fire the tea maker. She was fascinated seeing her uncle perform this activity, especially the spitting. She, her sister, and cousins would also have a spitting competition as to who could spit the farthest.

Sunalini firmly believes that “these childhood memories that leave a mark in your lives are the ones which help you in determining your future perspective.” After seeing an ad in a newspaper in Bangalore, calling for an assistant cup taster, it opened her box of childhood memories and she grabbed the opportunity. Since then, slowly and patiently paving her way through bumpy roads and facing challenges of being the only woman in the officer cadre, that too at a very young age, she crossed many hurdles.

What leadership advice would you like to give to women working in male-dominated fields?

“I was the only woman in a room full of highly qualified men with a doctorate degree and I was only a masters when I went for the interview. I knew I would not get this job but I wanted to have the experience of what an interview is all about.” She added, laughing, “I also did not know anything about coffee. Despite topping the written as well as the practical interview test, the internal panel was not keen on selecting a woman, for obvious reasons of migration after marriage and all, but the chairman of the coffee board, a very dynamic person, said, we cannot disqualify a person on gender, she should be given an opportunity. So I got the opportunity and I never looked back after that.”

Giving the mantra of working in male-dominated fields, Sunalini said, “First and the most important is believing in yourself, you can do it. Secondly, learn about the arena, which you have chosen to move into. Thirdly, you also need to have lots and lots of patience, you need to head very slowly, but very firmly. You have to be humble, be able to listen to others. You have to gently and beautifully fill in credits so that people start looking at you for advice, guidance, direction and, most importantly, start respecting you for your knowledge and your ability to be in the profession. In a nutshell, you cannot hold the attitude of ‘oh! I know it all.’ You will have to earn that place through hard work, knowledge, by being humble, patient, being gentle yet firm.”

What has been your biggest adventure, or which has been the weirdest place that coffee tasting has taken you to?

“Cofee tasting has taken me to most parts of the world and every journey has been an adventure for me, as every time I met new people, made new friends and learnt new things. These journeys have taught me so many things about life, about hardships, about farmers who don’t even have a meal. During a training workshop in Africa, where farmers, and mostly women, walked miles to attend the workshop and learn and go back to their farm to improve their livelihood, I realised they come empty stomach. I told the organisation who asked me to volunteer for the training, to first feed them and then we would start the workshop.”

Sunalini Menon

Is coffee a part of your family life also?

“I would never be able to achieve or be at the place where I am without the support of my family. I was blessed with good grandparents. My grandmother taught me what it is to learn to live with what you have. My grandfather taught me that in education, you have to be like a man, you have to excel, you have to be a topper, and to do that you have to gain knowledge and be very humble. His philosophy is today my philosophy, that every day, you should be able to put at least one smile on one person’s face and that is the biggest achievement that you can have in a day. My husband was always my right hand and my daughter is my friend, philosopher, guide.”

Dolefully, she said that she lost her husband last month, but he had always been an inspiration to her. He was the power behind her fame. “I was a very introvert person, always excelled in studies but never expressed myself. He always encouraged me, even when I joined the coffee board, he would say get the knowledge, be strong, only then people will not wipe their feet on your doormat.”

What is the condition of coffee farmers in India today and what problems are they facing?

“The Indian coffee market got liberalised in 1995, and coffer farmers now market their coffee on their own. As a result, they have learnt to become market savvy and quality savvy. The quality of coffee has improved tremendously. Today many buyers, many well-known roasters use Indian coffee as Indian coffee and not as a blend. There is fair trade, certain coffee farmers also belong to the fair trade movement. If the movement resolves to ensure that the farmers get at least the minimum support price for their product, a major part of the problem can be solved.”

“Unfortunately, the corporative movement in India does not seem to function very well. Usually, the farmers get the price that they deserve but sometimes the quantity is so much that it somehow gets lost in the enamel and they do not get the deserved price. But the government is trying to get small groups of growers together so that they can market the coffee together and get the price that they deserve.”

Are there any rules or protocols to follow to be a coffee taster?

“To be a coffee taster, one needs to know the science and chemistry of coffee, as it helps to understand why a coffee tastes bitter. You also need to have good acuity of taste. When you talk about being a professional coffee cupper, you have to be able to understand even the smallest of taste in your coffee cup. You should be able to describe it, you have to be able to relate it to what is the science behind it. You should be able to help the farmer as to how he can improve the quality of the coffee, you should be able to guide and highlight the positives in the cup to the processing techniques. Your palate is the one that is going to be your guide.”

“I also personally believe that in order to preserve your palate, you should avoid smoking and drinking and spicy food. It is not that I am against drinking or anything,” she jokingly added.

Sunalini Menon

If someone wants to be a coffee taster, what is the procedure and what are the career opportunities?

“The first important thing that you need to have to become a coffee taster is passion. There are lots of training programs and courses in India and overseas for the profession. It would be good to have a science background because it helps to understand the relation between the taste and the science behind it. And of course, it is important to have a sharp memory.

The career opportunities as a coffee taster are slowly developing in India. You can be a quality control person in a laboratory, in a factory, on a farm. You can be a roaster, you can set up your own cafe or a training academy.”

Tell us something about one relationship that you built over coffee?

There are many relationships that I have built over coffee and I think that is the beauty of it. Coffee is not only my bread and butter, it not only energises me and builds my creativity, but most importantly for me, it has built a bond of a lifetime friendship, with people from across the globe.

Coffee is delicious, stimulating and most importantly a lovable drink. Coffee may look black as hell, but it is the most beautiful and delicious and, not to forget, the most romantic beverage.

Ending the conversation on a very friendly note, Sunalini also offered to send me some filter, powder and the instructions to make coffee from the expert’s view.

This article was first published on January 22, 2018.

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