There’s a magic lurking in Julien Peak. I sit upon a stone overlooking a reflective pond and watch kingfishers spiral and arc in an aerial dance. The air is damp from either a passing cloud or rainfall, I’m not sure which. The canopies above hum with excited insects, possibly celebrating our imminent departure. Sleep is crusted heavily in my eyes, but the aroma of brewing coffee promises reprieve from the clinging vestiges of sleep. It was only a day ago we arrived to the small stone cottage tucked among the green foliage of the Shevaroys Hills. From Auroville, we traversed the rural Indian roads lined with tamarind trees and slowly climbed our way up into the mountains near the station town of Yercaud. The temperature here drops significantly and provides reprieve from the ordinarily oppressive heat of Tamil Nadu.
Accompanied by Marc Tormo, a coffee hero hailing from Spain who works with biodynamic, UTZ-certified coffee producers in Southern India, we both hiked and tasted our way through Julien Peak. Marc hopes to not only valorize the production of South Indian coffee, but also improve the livelihoods of those involved in the supply chain. Having spent most of my days in Auroville stopping by one of the cafes he owns—Marc’s Café and Dreamer’s Café, it was an incredible privilege to see where his work begins—the verdant, mountainous landscapes of Julien Peak. Under the shaded canopies of cholla trees, a native citrus-bearing tree, the coffee plants enjoy the cool, mountainous temperatures and controlled sun exposure. Providing a dense canopy, the cholla trees not only regulate the amount of sun reaching the coffee plants but also imbue a notable citrus flavor in the beans. Our hike lasted several hours of climbing through the coffee plants, all the while tasting the changes of altitude in the fruit. If you’ve never seen a coffee fruit, it resembles a deep-red berry and is often referred to as a “cherry.” Growing from leafy bushes on the ground, the cherries ordinarily contain two beans. While the beans are rather bitter until dried and processed, the cherry has a semi-sweet, fruity flavor. There are two main varietals of coffee—arabica and robusta. Arabica is often the preferred varietal, since it’s believed to be the original cultivar and therefore more complex. The flavors are often subtler, whereas robusta producers bolder flavors with higher levels of caffeine. At present, many coffee roasters will produce either standalone varietals or choose to blend the two.
The coffee produced from Julien Peak is a single-estate arabica, which as you can guess means all of the beans are sourced from that property. For Marc, this is typically the best way to guarantee the purity and ethicality of the product. By knowing your terroir and knowing your producer, you can rely on the information and quality of a product beyond means of a label. What’s remarkable about the area is not merely the inspiring views of the mountainous landscape, but the entire ecosystem you encounter. At certain altitudes, pepper grows and is cultivated from trees near the coffee plants. The native gaur, a protected species of bison, timidly patrol the trails. Local Tamil people work tirelessly to pick and care for the production of the coffee—you can find wooden, makeshift shelters all over the estate. All the while, the cholla trees loom as leafy sentinels.
The system relies on each piece for its livelihood. Perhaps this is the magic of Julien Peak. By experiencing the origin of our food, from which many of us have moved far away, we can rediscover the magic within a landscape. While not all terroirs are quite as visually dramatic as Julien Peak, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have pieces that warrant equal attention and amazement. Marc pours us all one coffee before hitting the road. Bringing the tiny tin cup close to my face, I inhale the roasted aromas and sip. By no means would I call myself a particularly sophisticated taster—I certainly cannot pick out all of the flavor profiles, but I am certain that the taste of this cup of coffee will be embedded in my memory. The insect noises have become cacophonous as we shut the doors of the car—a lively festivity indeed for our departure.