The Pathbreakers: Meet Sunalini Menon, the First Lady of Coffee in Asia

The Pathbreakers Series: Stories of senior women and men who were the first to try their hand at something new and brave and paved the way for others to follow.

Sunalini Menon is Asia’s first woman coffee taster and a pathbreaker in her field. Here’s her inspiring story.

For many of us the unique freshness of a cup of morning coffee is irreplaceable. The same can be said about the unique work done by Sunalini Menon, who is in her 70s and is Asia’s first woman coffee taster. She is also the founder of Coffeelab Limited, an organisation based in Bengaluru which evaluates the quality of coffee in India. The office has a charm of its own and gives the feeling of entering a museum, where you can find coffee pots, coffee cups and mugs from different countries around the world and collected by her on her trips.

The lab was started after the liberalisation of the coffee market in 1995, which before that was regulated by the Coffee Board of India. The quality department at the board was headed by Menon. Talking about her work, she says, “I don’t know if it was an inspiration or whether it was just destiny that sort of guided me to this profession, because the time that I was growing up, I don’t think there were any coffee tasters in India; even when I took on the profession there were no coffee tasters in India. It was a tough job.” Despite this, her family was very supportive and her mother motivated her to go ahead and live alone in Bengaluru for her work. Her husband, who unfortunately, passed away in December 2017, was very supportive of her work too.

Menon had to work hard to prove her worth.

“Coffee, even today, is a male dominated field. I was very young, just about 20, had no knowledge of coffee and nobody wanted to take instructions from a young woman, especially my staff, who were much much older than myself. First of all, to become the head of the department was a struggle, because my boss retired at the end of the two years of my joining the Board and I was the senior of the two individuals who were recruited. So, I was sent to Switzerland for training and when I came back, based on my tasting credentials the Board had no choice but to make me — a woman — the Head of the Department.”

Her journey started after this. The work demanded her to become an expert. Today, after 20 years in the Coffee Board she runs her own company and has become a pathbreaker in her field in India.

The one question everyone wants to ask Menon is about Coffee tasting. It isn’t an easy thing to do. Menon says, “I have to depend on my senses of sight, sound, smell and taste. I need to ensure that the acuity of taste that is innately present in me, is preserved, now how do I preserve it? Smoking, drinking, having hot spicy food, late hours could be detrimental for your senses. If I have had a late night, the next day I know I am going to have problems with my tasting so I tell my staff that I am not going to taste today. Hence, ensuring and maintaining health, is very important to preserve your sense of taste.”

Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is Menon’s favourite coffee and she describes the coffee bean as a live bean. Her knowledge and love for the work comes through when she talks about it. “Coffee is brewed from a tiny bean. When we harvest the cherry, the bean inside is alive, I can take that bean and put it into soil and I can have a plant growing, unlike tea, which is prepared from a manufactured leaf and a plant cannot be grown from this manufactured tea leaf. What I am trying to say is that the farmer goes through a lot of difficulties, a lot of hardwork, and his entire life is based on the cultivation of the plant, harvesting of the cherry/ fruit, extricating the seed, and preserving it very carefully as it is a living bean, which can deteriorate very fast in its taste profile. One never understands these aspects nor know these steps when one drinks a cup of coffee.”

On January 20, 2018, Menon was felicitated as the ‘First Lady’ of coffee by President Ram Nath Kovind. Describing the experience, she says, “My office people didn’t tell me anything, they all came as a big group and stood in front of me, I asked them what is happening and then they produced the email and I was so shocked; there was a letter from the Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi and from the President of India stating, ‘You have been selected as the first lady achiever in the field of coffee tasting’, and that was the most thrilling moment in my life. I went to Delhi and I was so fascinated to see so many women from different fields receiving awards, I was so happy to see professionals in professions I never thought women will be in. I think that was the crowning glory for me that my own country was able to fathom a tiny drop of coffee lying somewhere in a cup of coffee in one of the states of India and to identify that drop as the first of its kind in that aromatic cup.”

Menon is now working to build a brand of super special coffee. In her own words, “I am hoping that I am able to build and present an Indian speciality coffee to the world market; that is my ultimate goal, that it should be recognised, not by me saying that it is a speciality or a super speciality coffee, but I want the buyer and consumer to come back and say India produces this speciality or super speciality coffee.”

About the author

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Aakanksha Bajpai

Aakanksha Bajpai is a freelance writer based in Bangalore.

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27 May, 2019

[…] Like this story? You may also like to read:Â Meet Sunalini Menon, the First Lady of Coffee in Asia […]

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31 Dec, 2018

[…] 15.  Sunalini Menon, who is in her 70s and is Asia’s first woman coffee taster. She is also the founder of Coffeelab Limited, an organisation based in Bengaluru which evaluates the quality of coffee in India. Menon has broken through the glass ceiling in her field and created a name for herself in a male dominated area. Find out more here: […]

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