An Interview with Pranoy Thipaiah of Kerehaklu Estate

By Russ Durfee

Aug 25, 2023

Father and son duo Ajoy and Pranoy Thipaiah have combined their knowledge of biology, agronomy, and agriculture at Kerehaklu Estate in the region of Chikmagalur to create some of the most exciting coffees from India that we’ve had the opportunity to taste at Passenger.

Three Educational Lots from India
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As an accompaniment to the release of three new Education Lots from India, we were delighted for the opportunity to join our partners at Osito in a conversation with Pranoy Thipaiah of Kerehaklu to dig into details surrounding varieties, his processing approach, conservation on the estate, and more. We are incredibly proud to share these coffees, and after speaking with Pranoy, the bright future of Indian specialty coffee that his project points to is truly compelling.

Thanks so much for taking time to speak with us Pranoy! We have a number of questions for you, but let’s start with the “selection 9” arabica variety. It seems like it's the majority of what you're growing at Kerehaklu. Would you speak a bit more to why this variety has worked for you?

Absolutely. To give you a bit of a background, I see it as a missed opportunity for Indian coffee that we have not named our varieties. Historically, we’ve just adopted the names from the lab or the plant breeders’ numbers, made when crossing varietals, and so ‘selection’ is basically just the lab strain or the lab genetic material that came out of the breeding process. Selection nine is a pure arabica cross between an Ethiopian varietal and a Timor Hybrid and, for me, it’s been the varietal with the most potential.

What I notice in particular is the density of the mucilage. It's a very viscous mucilage that surrounds the beans. As a result of a lot of learning that I’ve done over the years, and guidance from people like Lucia Solis, I like to go by my senses. I start off with the cherries, either right off the bush or that have been picked on the day, and I literally pop the beans out of the cherry into my mouth. In doing that, I realize that the mucilage is not only really sweet, but also really dense: it's viscous, thick, and consistently has a higher Brix reading. That's always a good indicator for me because that’s the fuel in the tank for the microbes, and that's where you work, that's where the magic happens with fermentation.

"One challenge with the variety is that it often starts to ripen early, and so the point or the time difference from flower to red cherry is the shortest among all of our Indian varieties."

One challenge with the variety is that it often starts to ripen early, and so the point or the time difference from flower to red cherry is the shortest among all of our Indian varieties. It's sometimes up to four to six weeks quicker than other Indian selections. Along with that, our rains have been thrown off in recent years. Our rains, or monsoon as we call it here, don’t finish until September or October now, and you’ll start seeing ripe cherries at that time. But what that challenge has made me do is push even harder to nail the washed process. There’s more we could get into, but that's some background on that variety specifically.

Can you tell us more about what the washed process looks like for you at Kerehaklu? I know that processing is something that you've devoted a lot of time and a lot of hard work to exploring and growing and learning. So if you think back about that entire journey so far, are there two or three moments that you think were breakthrough moments?

Yeah, absolutely. A few moments is a good way to put it. What we had traditionally done for processing in India is that the coffee would go from the pulper directly into the washer or the demucilaginator, and so we didn't allow for fermentation. I realized in my early days around 2019, that we weren’t giving the beans the potential to express themselves. It was just a very mechanical, quick process. So step one was basically - I have to stop the beans from going from the pulper into the ‘washer’, as we call it, and instead have these drums where we can ferment them first. Since then, I’ve really focused on hygiene and quality control in the fermentation process, and about two seasons ago I realized we're not far off. How I look at processing coffees is that I like processing coffees that I like drinking. I can't produce something that I don’t want to brew myself. I might be okay with it, and someone will like it, but if I can't drink it every day, I don't think I'm too proud of it.

More specifically, I've seen the process of the Kerehaklu Lot 1 described as an anoxic washed process, and the robusta that we purchased was described as an anoxic natural process as well. So what are the key steps in those processes?

To first describe what I mean by anoxic: by definition, fermentation is an anaerobic process. It's an anaerobic metabolic process. So to say “anaerobic fermentation” is a bit like saying “wet water”. Again, following Lucia Solis, using the word or the phrase “anoxic fermentation”, you're describing a sort of environment, you could say. And in this case, that environment is deprived of oxygen. The downside to the word anoxic is that there's no opposite. Anaerobic has aerobic, but there's no ‘oxic’ or anything like that. So that's the unfortunate thing. But it's a more scientific way of defining an environment deprived of oxygen. So in the washed process, I like to do what I call “in-fruit contact”. Some people like to pulp the fruit as soon as it comes in, but I prefer doing it the next day. It's just been a gut feeling that I've been riding with, and it's paying off. As an example, around 4pm our workers come in with the cherries. We roll out these big tarps to make sure the coffee’s not touching the ground, and the sorting process happens, which takes about 20 to 30 minutes, and then I like doing a float immediately. We use fresh water every day for the float, just because I like to promote a clean microbial slate. You don't want yesterday's microbes to be today's microbes. Once floated, we come in, we skim off all the floaters, drain the water, and then actually put the cherries into large square barrels where they’ll stay until around 9am the following morning. So if you were to refer to this process as a sequential fermentation, this would be step one, where the whole fruits have been sitting overnight. I feel like the exposure of the beans inside the cherry overnight gives you a bit of a microbial charge, which then sort of comes through in the cup. After they’ve sat overnight, we then bring these cherries to the pulper and, after pulping, begin step two of this sequential fermentation underwater. Finally, after underwater fermentation, we wash the coffee, and then I like to do an additional soak. We soak them for about 2-3 hours in ceramic tiled tanks, depending on the varietal. A lot of literature that I've read suggests that a soak improves clarity in the cup, and I agree with that. I think you can go too long, but 3 hours seems to be a sweet spot. We then begin drying the coffee, first on raised beds outside for two days to allow the surface moisture to evaporate, and from there we move into our polyhouses where they’re still on raised beds, but this time in a very controlled environment. It’s similar steps for the robusta where the floats are done and removed first. From there, we have very dedicated barrels for naturals, honeys, and washed, and the robustas go in as naturals only. They spend under 24 hrs in the barrel, and then go directly on the raised beds, and again in the polyhouse to dry. Harvesting the robusta cherries is a bit different though, and the beauty of robusta is that when it ripens and turns that beautiful crimson burgundy red that we all want, it actually holds on the plant a lot longer than arabica. With arabica, you’ll see that in about four days after being ripe, it's already turning black, and then the fermentation has kind of begun, whereas with robusta, it tends to hold a bit longer. And the variety for the robusta is CxR, or “C into R”, meaning the congensis species from the Congo crossed with the robusta species, which is probably the most widely used specialty, or fine robusta variety in India at the moment. We do also have once called Paradenia, which is actually a place in Sri Lanka, and one called TR9 which is a Vietnamese robusta. But the CxR is very hardy. It can take drought, it can take heavy rain. It's something that we're able to utilize so far to its maximum. We're very particular with our pruning for these trees as well, so we don't let it grow past five and a half feet, and we utilize picking mats beneath the trees so that the pickers can pick and drop the cherries immediately there to be collected later. It's amazing to see our workers, sometimes people will come back with 100 to 160 kilos a day, they're just unbelievable.

Since you’re talking about workers and pickers, I saw the estate is about 97 hectares, so how many seasonal workers are there or how many people are there on the farm all year?

Seasonal is a good way of putting it because, in season, during a harvest, we get on average between 60 and 70 people. When it's off season, there's still work to be done, like pruning and replanting and things like that, so there's between 20 and 25 at this point of time, and it's generally women dominated. Coffee farms in India, in general, have more women than men. We've got men at this point of year because they have to climb the trees and we manage our shade that way, and we have other specific roles like digging holes for the plants and things like that.

Do you have challenges securing the labor that you are hoping for to maintain the farm and to navigate a harvest successfully? Or do you find that there are always many workers available? Is labor a challenge for you as a producer?

Yeah, it's a massive challenge, but I understand. I think it's easy to be frustrated, but you’ve got to see, India is a big country, and poverty is extreme, and what people aspire to be and where they want to lead their lives and have families depends on where they're from. Rural India now wants to move to urban India. That's just where they want to be, and that's where they see their lives. So when I grew up at Kerehaklu in rural India as a kid, a lot of the older workers who had kids who were roughly my age or my brother's age, none of them are here anymore. Maybe in previous times, you'd have generational workers where sons and daughters of workers would get schooled and come back and work on the farms, but not anymore. So we refer to it as migratory workers or migratory labor now. And for the first time, about two seasons ago, we had a community of people from the northeast of India. And it was very interesting because India has 22, I believe, official languages. And the language we speak on our farm is called Kannada, and that was the only language that we always spoke, up until two years ago, where now we also speak Hindi. Hindi is obviously our national language, but you used to never hear it in our areas, so we've had to adapt. Luckily, we have one supervisor who's fluent, but another one who gets around on the bare basics, and so that's a challenge. You have to teach. You have to communicate. You have to start from not just zero, but sometimes minus one. Sometimes people haven't seen a coffee bush before, but you can't be picky with the workers. You need those hands, and you need those people to support you. It's a challenge, but, yeah, I'd like to think things have a way of working out.

What do you think have been the biggest reasons that, to some extent, historically, Indian coffee has not been broadly valued, especially in the specialty market?

I think about this a lot. I have to deal with the after effects of that daily. I always say, no reputation is better than a bad reputation. If you have a bad reputation, you’ve got to do a lot more work to lose that. And I think Indian coffee has historically been associated with low quality robusta. That's what we're known for, and probably rightfully so. It's there for a reason. I know of stories from my dad, from people around me, coffee professionals who tell me about how, 20 or 30 years ago, we were exporting very low quality coffee or trying to get away with quick deals and not being very transparent about what we were doing. I think that gives you a preconceived notion of what to expect or what your mental image of a place and its produce is. But I think Indian arabicas in particular are making waves, small waves maybe in some cases, but the coffees are speaking for themselves, so it's exciting times. For me, it always goes back to the plants. Having worked with agronomists, like Graeme Sait, I know that some of our soils are incredibly diverse, and you need that diversity, you need those microbes in the soil. You just put a shovel in the soil and there’s an array of earthworms and fungi and all kinds of things. So that's the benefit of Indian coffee, I think. The reputation is one thing, but on the other hand, the tools are there. I always say that we can be a powerhouse of an origin if we do things the right way. It's kind of unfortunate that we don't have a governing body to put us together and put us on a platform, and we have to do it ourselves, or as groups or individuals, in a sense.

Another thing that we are learning about, that we've certainly heard from Osito’s reports from their time in India, is a respect for the land and a valuing of biodiversity. This is certainly true from what I've heard of your farm, and of many farms in India as well, which sounds very unique in the coffee producing world. Can you say a little bit more about what you think is behind that valuing of the land, that valuing of biodiversity, how that connects with India, Indian culture, etc?

Yeah, absolutely, I think it's deeply tied to Indian culture. I think about my granddad and then my dad and then myself, the three generations I've interacted with on the farm, we look at the farms as pieces of land, not just coffee. We call them coffee estates on a label or on a business card, fair enough, but it's a piece of land which, if you are intrusive and extractive, you're going to fall off a cliff. Whether it's taking too much of the nutrients from the soil, whether it's pumping chemicals into it, whether it's cutting down all the trees, whether it's monocropping, it's always been a long game. It's always been: “how are we going to think about the trees that maybe 40 years from now are going to be dominating these canopies above this arabica block?” That sort of synergy and harmony of working with the environment around us is crucial, and it also keeps us going on a mental and emotional level. I'm sure any coffee producer you speak to here will tell you, we get excited by an elephant somewhere, or one of our camera traps going off and there's a tiger, or something like that, and it helps balance the monotony of the day to day. We're connected with the jungle, the forest, and so they’re passageways for big animals, and we're proud of the estate being a sort of haven or shelter for animals, big and small, coming back to the soil. Something I've been researching a lot is mycorrhizal networks, which are fungal networks which bind soil. So while you may have intensely developed root structures, fungi are what actually connect the roots, and allow the roots to communicate in a way. I don't like using the word ‘weeds’ because ‘weeds’ has a negative connotation. When we consider the topsoil, around and under the bushes, we get people to come in with what we call brush cutters, just to get everything except for two inches off these competition plants, because you need these plants to actually hold the soil together. So you can go to other estates and the earth looks almost scorched because they’ve used herbicides, which can go into your waterways, can poison your fish, can poison people, all of those things. Generally, people don’t associate agriculture with conservation, but we’ve tried to approach things differently.

So currently, are there chemical inputs or applications that you need to use?

Nothing at all. In August 2016, we did away with herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides, and we’ve really seen the soil rejuvenate since then.

How much do you think robusta is going to be a part of the future of specialty coffee?

When thinking about robusta, I have this analogy with the example of potatoes. If you were to think of, say, a ‘robusta potato’ - it’s just a starchy potato, and it's something that you cannot eat on its own, but maybe it makes really good chips or fries. An ‘arabica potato’, on the other hand, would be something that you can literally boil or mash or make a jacket potato, whatever you want. And so that's how I look at it. Everything's got a place, and there's a use for it, we just have to find that use. It's the positioning of it, because in a climate sense, robusta could be the future. I think we're trying to go maybe too far by saying, okay, let's do robusta on the pour over. I’ve encouraged roasters to try it blended into espresso, and in Australia in particular, a lot of people were blown away, particularly by the crema, but also the sweetness that I've been able to get through the natural process. So it's got a place.

If you had to describe it, what would be the characteristic taste of Indian arabica, i.e. its “terroir”, or “taste of place”?

Many of the really nice washed Indian arabicas I’ve had show great citrus qualities that can range from these Nagpur oranges we have in the neighboring state, to nice lemon zest or Kaffir lime zest. They’re also very sweet and clean cups for me, with nice neutral nuts like toasted pine nuts or toasted almonds. That's what I get, and I think the fermentation process has been able to amplify that terroir.

We don’t want to leave out your father, Ajoy! Tell us more about his role on the farm.

This would make six years of my involvement at the farm - six avocado seasons, but I've only done four coffee seasons. My dad Ajoy, on the other hand, has been running the show for over thirty five years. So I’ve learned very quickly from him, his ideas, his research and experience. He oversees things from agronomy to production to organizing the workforce - huge parts which, if I’m honest, I am not yet equipped to manage myself and so massive credit to him. My dad’s open mind and ability to hand over certain reigns is the reason behind our recent and small successes. We work well together as a team. Challenges are aplenty but a combination of experience and being modern is, in our opinion, the way forward.

I honestly think that we could speak with you for hours, and it would be endlessly enjoyable and educational, but we want to be sensitive to your time, so we can wrap things up. We're incredibly excited to present these coffees, Pranoy. We're very proud to roast them and to try to share an honest introduction to the estate, to your story, and to your work. It’ll be very exciting to see what additional information we can gather from our customers, from our guests, from our community, once they taste these coffees.

I share your enthusiasm, and I'm really excited to see this come together and hear how the coffees are received, so please let me know. I visited Passenger during my trip to the east coast in 2022 and to have Kerehaklu coffees there is a bit of a dream! I look forward to the launches of these coffees. And any follow up questions as well, I'm an open book!