A Fresh Breath Of Coffee – In Conversation with Sunalini Menon!

Asia’s first female coffee taster!

Strolling through a park near her Coffee Lab in Bangalore, Sunalini Menon was kind enough to spare me her getaway time for the interview, the conversation with her was therapeutic, joyous, and as comforting as a warm cup of coffee. Sunalini Menon, Asia’s first female coffee cupper, was just 19 when she joined the Coffee Board of India in 1972, today she is one of the most recognised and respected coffee cuppers in the World. 

She is accoladed for numerous awards from the coffee industry including the Eminent Personality Award for Outstanding Contribution to Indian Coffee” from the Speciality Coffee Association of India, The “Alfred Peet Passionate Cup Award” from the SCAA, Asia’s First Professional Woman Coffee Taster award presented to her by the President of India. in January 2018. But for Sunalini, becoming a coffee cupper was almost an accident, her original plan was to become a doctor, but fate had other plans. While waiting for her Visa to arrive for the USA, she came across an advertisement for a job requirement for the role of a coffee cup taster in the newspaper. 

” It sounded so exotic, Coffee cup taster” Sunalini cleared the interview and was offered the role, which led to her aborting the plan to go to New York.  Sunalini’s primary motivation to remain in India despite obtaining her visa was rooted in her deep connection to her family. Particularly attached to her mother, Sunalini recognized her mother’s need for support, especially with her sister already pursuing a master’s degree in the United States “ I could see that it was making them sad” Sunalini, prioritizing family bonds, chose to stay, reflecting, “I just thought I could go to the US anytime,” ultimately opting to explore the role of the coffee cupper, Sunalini is a big believer in ‘things happen for a reason’, that things will work out in the end even if it doesn’t necessarily work out the way you wanted to at the moment.

When inquired about the hurdles she faced when she joined the Coffee board, ” I was terrified” laughed Sunalini, she was the only woman in this male-dominated industry she was also relatively younger than her colleagues and to add to that, she belonged to another state


This happened when the water disputes were all over the headlines “There was so much animosity back then, I didn’t know the language when I first came here ” she shared. Not only did Sunalini overcome these challenges but also managed to get promoted from Assistant coffee cupper to managing the officer cadre of Coffee Board India when she was just 22.  


She then went on to open the Coffee Lab in 1996,” When the market got liberalized, my colleagues said, the excitement is on the other side They moved on to explore the new coffee industry, as it seemed”. Sunalini almost bid goodbye to the coffee industry, she had decided to finally join her husband who was constantly traveling due to the nature of his job, along with her daughter. She canceled her plans when the farmers requested her to stay back and help them with improving the quality of their beans and that’s how Coffee Lab was born. Looking back she said, there were times when she wasn’t so sure about the venture  

“Business has its ups and downs”.


Coffee tasting is a very complicated process, on the surface it seems smooth and effortless but runs much deeper, discussing the process of coffee tasting, Sunalini humorously shared how people would make fun, they would say ” You’re tasting cups? And you’re getting paid for it ?”. 


She gives us an insight into the complex process, “Coffee tasting is about the aroma, the bean’s form, the acidity of the beans, to keeping up with the varietals in the market” ” There’s always something new to learn, there’s always an innovation, in brewing or roasting or how the bean is being cultivated. It’s science.” 


“Even after 52 years of being in the industry, I sometimes feel like a novice”. Sunalini owes most of what she knows today to the coffee-cupping experts from around the world who took her under their wings, guiding and molding her into the cupper she is today.

Sunalini attributes much of her current achievements to the value system she cultivated at her grandparent’s home. A Madras girl at heart, Sunalini reminisces her childhood days, participating in poojas before breakfast, playing around in the street of Nungambakkam, eating groundnuts with her friends, and accompanying her grandmother to get ‘Leo coffee’, life came full circle for her. Growing up in a conservative household, she said the discipline she gained back in Chennai is something that helped her throughout her career.

An advice she would like to give girls who want to pursue a career in this field is, to pair up coffee cupping with another discipline like brewing or roasting will give them an edge over the rest. The nature of the market is such today, it has become much more competitive than it used to be when I started. Go for it and not care much about the consequences, to not calculate what could go wrong

She iterated “ Where there’s a will, there’s a way. When you want something and you go after it, you’ll ultimately get it. “

Does she ever get tired of coffee?

“No, I could never get tired of coffee.”

 This little bean has taught her and given her so much, even when she had a plan for her life, she was surprised with something that altered the course of her life.  Isn’t that the perfect metaphor? no matter how small you think you are, you have the power to achieve whatever big things you set your mind to, just like how little Sunalini did when she was just 19!

back to top icon
More in People
‘Jaanu From 96 Has Been My Most Rewarding Role In My Career’- Says Gouri G Kishan !


I Miss Simple Family Entertainers, Nowadays Entertainers Have Become Action Films : In Conversation With Rohini!