Balmaadi Coffee Estate, A Photo Essay
Posted: January 5, 2014 Filed under: photos | Tags: balmaadi coffee estate, biodynamism, coffee in india, coffee processing, disruptive travel, gudalur, india, karnataka, mudumalai national park, Night sky, nilgiris, organic coffee, tamil nadu, travel
This December I was a guest ar the Balmaadi Coffee Estate in the Nilgiris. Balmaadi is led by entrepreneur Unnamalai Thiagarajan. Growing coffee at an altitude of 6000 feet in the wild Nilgiris is challenging. Unna sticks to principles of sustainable biodynamism to produce organic coffee beans that have been recognized in India and globally for their unique flavor. Like their coffee, my short stay there was both a journey through Unna’s vision and an experience into the coffee grower’s life in the wild.
Balmaadi can be reached by taxi from Mysore. The taxi dropoff is at Gudalur, the nearest town connected by road via the Mudumalai National Park, and Bandipur in Karnataka.
The drive to Gudalur is about 2.5 to 3 hours on the NH67.
At Gudalur, change over to a jeep as paved roads give way to mountain tracks leading up to the Lauriston and Balmaadi estates. With Coffee harvest starting in late November, travelers will miss out on getting through these tracks in the monsoon. Its recommended to travel in the day to avoid animal movement at night.
Dawn at Balmaadi finds the estate deserted. The night sky at the estate is unadulterated and an incredible experience. On our first night we watched a medley of stars, including a few streaking through the sky. Being unable to capture them with the digital I had, you’ll just have to trust me.
The emerging sun pushes away the mist. By 7.30am, the estate comes to life as the natives stream in on jeeps in time for the muster call at 8am.
Picking Line, Balmaadi Coffee Estate. Pickers form orderly lines to pick their way across the division and stay together at all times.
We joined in with the others to pick berries. We learned to differentiate between the ripe, first class berries from the others using their size, color and the feel of the berry.
A solar-powered electric fence keeps the larger animals out of the residential portion of the estate. To reach the division earmarked to be picked, we walked past the temple and the fence. One of the group carried a rifle. As we picked our way through we frequently came across fresh elephant dung and half-eaten remains of smaller animals, reminders that we were guests in the heart of the wild.
As the line closed in and the day wore on, we trekked to explore a nearby waterfall.
Dense shola trees shade the coffee plants and undergrowth.
Mid-day back at the Bungalow.
Once the berries have been collected and sorted by quality. They’re pulped at a facility within the residential portion of the estate. Floating the beans in water ensures ripe berries sink to the bottom.
Pulped, wet beans stream out as the screen separate the berry and the bean.
Manager M. Alageshan takes a closer look at the wet beans.
Left over berry husk.
Wet beans are readied for fermentation.
The mucilage around the beans ferments and dries out over the next few days. The beans are washed again to give them their recognizable polished look. This is the wet process. In the dry process, berries with the husk are left to ferment and dry whole.
Manager M. Alageshan walks us through organic fertilizer beds explaining the process and key ingredients.
A garden statue of Radha and Krishna outside the estate office.
As the day winds down, the estate comes to a standstill. Darkness and a near perfect silence envelops the estate broken only by hoots of owls.
We planted shola trees with the help of the estate staff on Christmas day. Guests at Balmaadi are encouraged to attach name plaques to their saplings as a reminder of their visit.
We started at dawn for Gudalur after three nights at Balmaadi. After hiring a cab at Gudalur, we passed through Mudumulai at 7.30am. The forest was alive and we drove past wildlife at intervals of almost 15 minutes.
A herd of Elephants congregating in the early hours at Mudumalai National Park.
Rathinam, the Estate Supervisor and our host. Rathinam who was born on the estate is a veritable task scheduler initiating a multitude of tasks all the way from picking in the field, managing the forty-odd pickers who were prone to verbal duels in tamil, tea, coffee, meals for the staff, guests and of course letting the domesticated hens out of their pens at 5.30pm precisely. We were glad to have him, practice conversation in english together, and discuss life on the estate. Early mornings we’d find him rushing about unmindful of the bitter cold. He’d come down to our bungalow in his traditional lungi, a thin shirt, wrapped in a blanket with a flask of hot coffee and apologies for the Upma breakfast as the cooking had been “urgent”. He swears by wood fire cooking and prepared delicious dosa, sambar and chutney for christmas. His kindness ensured our stay at Balmaadi to be warm and homely.