Coffee tasting: Coffee-bar culture career opportunities

Coffee tasting, evaluation, and certification have become critical functions which directly impact this magic bean related businesses

Once upon a time not long ago, the overwhelming majority of young people determined to do well in life charted out career paths in medicine, engineering, and/or business management. But after the historic economic liberalisation and deregulation initiative of 1991, a whole slew of promising new career path options have become available to youth. Among them: fashion design, event management, veejaying etc. To this expanding list of career choices add coffee tasting and evaluation.

Few people are aware that next to crude oil and its derivatives, coffee is the most heavily traded commodity of the contemporary world. Fifty nations around the world (including India) produce coffee in various climes and terrains. Though India’s share of global coffee production is small, surprisingly its standing in the international export market varies between fifth and sixth in the index table with Brazil which is the largest producer of this magic bean, also being the premier exporter. Following the abolition of industrial licensing, a host of coffee processing, packaging, marketing, and retailing firms have entered this agri-business with the US-based Starbucks coffee-bar chain inspiring the promotion of trendy coffee pubs such as Café Coffee Day, Barista, and Quickies, ubiquitous in shopping malls as also in traditional strongholds, transforming coffee into a lifestyle all-season drink for all people, occasions, and ages.

Inevitably the explosion of the post-liberalisation coffee-bar culture and multiplying retail outlets has opened up a host of new careers for growers, purchase, process, and retail managers as also for coffee graders and evaluators known for historical reasons as coffee tasters. But though growers, purchasers, processors, and tasters of the coffee business have been around for several decades, there is a conspicuous shortage of professional graders and evaluators. Given that there are four major types and 25 grades of coffee grown in India, tasting, evaluation, and certification have become critical functions which directly impact the bottom lines of growers, exporters, and coffee-bar chains which are mushrooming across the country.

“A professional coffee taster’s job is not merely sipping and spitting out innumerable cups of coffee — a process known as cupping — to evaluate the taste and flavour of the brew, but a much more pervasive involvement at every stage from estate to end use level,” says Sunalini Menon, a former director (quality control) of the Coffee Board of India and currently chief executive of the Bangalore-based Coffeelab Pvt. Ltd — a grain evaluation, education, consultancy, training and certification company promoted in 1996 by the Amalgamated Coffee Bean Co. Ltd which also owns the 585-strong Café Coffee Day chain of coffee bars strewn across the country.

A food technology graduate of Madras University, Menon joined the Central government promoted Bangalore-based Coffee Board in 1972 — which until the early 1990s was the monopoly exporter of Indian coffee — at a modest monthly salary of Rs.400. And over the years despite coffee tasting being a male-dominated profession, Menon rose through the Coffee Board hierarchy to the position of director (quality control) of the organisation and acquired the reputation of being the country’s foremost professional coffee taster.

Following that she was snapped up by ABC and appointed chief executive of Coffelab with a unprecedented salary and perks package. Currently, this ABC subsidiary evaluates and certifies the produce of a large and growing number of estate owners, curers, blenders, and the purchases of the Coffee Day chain.

Professional training for entry into the high-potential coffee tasters vocation is provided by the Bangalore-based Central Coffee Research Institute (a subsidiary of the Coffee Board). In 2002 the institute introduced a nine-month postgraduate diploma course in quality evaluation. Applicants need to be science graduates though this requirement is relaxed in the case of industry-sponsored candidates, that is, those employed in the coffee and related businesses to graduation in any subject. This intensive trimester study programme is priced at a thought-provoking Rs.50,000 payable in three installments. For further details write to the Director of Research, Coffee Board, 1, Ambedkar Veedhi, Bangalore 560 001.

For duly qualified diploma holders career prospects are good. Prospective employers include specialist evaluation and certification firms such as Coffelabs, coffee brokers, estate owners intent on developing their distinctive brands, major coffee marketing corporates such as Nestle, Tata Coffee, and coffee-bar chains such as Barista, Coffee Day, and Quickies among others. Start-up pay packages of Rs.8,000–10,000 per month are standard and career progression into brew-masters (coffee-bar chefs) and managerial positions could be rapid.

“Unfortunately because of the recent slump in coffee prices across the world, the shine has worn off the coffee bean and related industries. But given the size of the national population and the transformation of coffee drinking into a fashionable lifestyle phenomenon, the long-term future of those entering the coffee tasters profession is very bright,” says Menon.