Sunalini Menon, Asia’s First Lady of Coffee

Sunalini Menon, Asia’s First Lady of Coffee

If you are a coffee connoisseur, then you must familiar with the name- Sunalini Menon, the First Lady of Asian coffee.

She grew up in a culture where coffee was a part of daily life, where mornings always started with the smell of freshly brewed coffee. A man ground coffee beans in an antique grinder at a mill where her grandmother would go a long way. A heady fragrance would waft out of the grinder and dissolve in the room before it could be packed in with the coffee powder. When Menon and her sister woke up and came downstairs at 6 am, Menon’s grandma would make a tall jug of coffee and pour it into a silver samovar-like dish that would be standing beside the table. But they were not allowed to have coffee, because they are still small, and they drank milk only. Sunalini Menon, one of Asia’s first women coffee tasters, was raised around the smell, taste, and forbidden feeling of coffee. She has become somewhat of a celebrity in the coffee industry thanks to her early love of traditional South Indian filter coffee and other small peculiarities of life.

After having a degree of food technology, sunalini Menon wanted to pursue further and got herself a place at an American university. But destiny was thinking something different. ‘I happened to see an ad in the papers about an opening at India’s Coffee Board and applied, because I figured I would at least learn what it was like to give an interview,’ she says. In that usual government set up, in the early 1970s, she was bluntly told that she wouldn’t get the job because women usually resigned after getting married and the Board didn’t want to train her before she did just that: resign. One person on the interview panel stood by her, though, and some tough decisions about the US versus home turf later, Menon joined the Coffee Board.

After lots of regional and patriarchal drama (as she was from Madras, and no one wanted to take orders from a Madrasi girl in Bangalore) she decided to face the situation, she learnt how to deal with people.     

Once her supervisor retired, the next obstacle appeared. On that time she was 23, just finished her training, she found herself as a head of quality control department at the Coffee Board! After two decades of government service, she left the job, actually forced to leave as India’s market was being liberalized and quality department was dismantled. But she achieved love and respect of local coffee growers and they insisted her to stay among them. She was then planning to spend her time with family, as she was in long-distance marriage, but somehow it ended up with the CoffeeLab. With five partners (two of them are colleagues of Coffee Board) when she started the venture, people laughed, because coffee prices were high and quality wasn’t much on anyone’s mind. They couldn’t balance books at first but things came around slowly.

Today, Coffeelab Private Limited is the only independent lab in India doing purely lab work. Samples come in from all over the world. There are several kinds of coffee beans, and coffee powder is often dispensed to friends, visitors, even passers-by. Every visitor gets to sit in an interestingly decorated front room of the house that serves as her lab and sip predictably delicious coffee. The lab is also a coffee museum of sorts. There are coffee mugs from all over the world; the tightly lined shelves groan under bags of beans, vintage brass coffee filters, antique grinders from Turkey and Russia, and other paraphernalia. The air smells of coffee and the coffee addict in me lets out a silent whoop. “Our clothes, our hair smell of coffee by the end of a work day,” Menon says proudly.

The team goes to rural places to test and evaluate coffee. They carry almost the entire lab with them because they never know what they will get on the field. Over the years, even the cab driver they always go with has learnt about coffee tasting and tells farmers what they should be doing! CoffeeLab often holds training sessions and coffee appreciation workshops as well. Apart from that she also teaches at Università del Caffè, Illy in Trieste, Italy.