July | August 2021
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WHIPPED, A BAKERY IN DELHI, INDIA, is not known for its coffee. Over the years, the establishment earned a household name for its cheesecakes, baked goods and gelato. Residents and offices around the area order cakes on a whim, while others stroll in to order an assortment of goods or indulge on the spot. When Whipped moved up the road to a new location, a coffee section was added in collaboration with a Delhi-based coffee roaster who brought in beans from plantations in the south. The staff was trained to pull espresso shots and steam milk, along with their existing skills of slicing cakes and scooping gelato. Whipped is now a place where people stay longer mingling over in-house blends that change periodically, adding an element to the bakery that owner Alcie Arora never imagined creating when he began in 2009.
“Until last year, we had a push-button coffee machine in a corner and it was simply an add-on for anyone who wanted a cup, or to add in hot chocolate,” says Arora. “We are surrounded by artisanal coffee shops that have come up in the last few years and are serving a range of freshly brewed coffee, along with croissants and cookies. Our customers had also started asking questions about coffee that surprised us. While we are primarily a dessert boutique, we could not ignore this.” For a bakery to incorporate coffee into its remodel indicates the evolution taking place in the Indian coffee scene. More so, the fact that an aspiring coffee connoisseur like me noticed the bakery was pricing its Americano at double that of an espresso shot (and promptly pointed it out) is a testament to how consumers are also evolving in our basic knowledge of the coffee industry.
Baristas at K C Roasters. Photo courtesy of K C Roasters
In recent years, artisanal coffee shops, roasteries and homegrown brands selling beans to retail outlets and consumers have emerged in large numbers across Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Goa, Chandigarh, Pune and other parts of India where coffee has always been second to tea. Restaurants and cafes not previously focused on coffee now source from various brands to ensure a freshly brewed cup is always available. Even some convenience stores and salons brew a pleasant surprise while the customer shops or gets a pedicure.
Parallel opportunities are being created for manufacturers and importers of manual-brewing equipment, espresso machines, roasters, grinders and take-away cups. Design and packaging are taken seriously, putting an emphasis on artwork and identity. Brands rely heavily on social media to market, communicate and grow communities around their products, cafes and experiences. Tasting events, coffee-cocktail evenings and innovative promotions are becoming more common. Barista training facilities were established in a few cities, pushing the scope even further. While a lot of this is new, coffee is not.
Jugmug Thela Café in Delhi. Photo courtesy of Jugmug Thela
Indian coffee plantations, mainly in South India, need no introduction. Filter-coffee—a traditional method where the coffee is brewed in a two-section filter—is a morning ritual across homes, streets and establishments in the region. Coffee from plantations has also been available over the years in many non-traditional coffee cities, though initially was only available through The Coffee Board of India. In 1990, a rule was passed allowing roasters and wholesalers to approach plantations directly. In the early 2000s, the homegrown multi-city coffee shop chain Café Coffee Day popularized the cappuccino as a trendy alternative to Nescafé. Starbucks also made a grand entry in 2012 and now has over 200 stores across India. Costa Coffee and Lavazza have a significant presence in the Indian coffee industry as well. The social enterprise Araku Originals started in 2008 in Andhra Pradesh, bringing farmers and experts together to take coffee from the region of Araku Valley to the global coffee market.
Maverick and Farmer’s coffee estate in Coorg. Photo courtesy of Maverick and Farmer’s
There was a vacuum waiting to be filled though, and Keshav Devan explains it well. His father started Devan’s in 1962 in Delhi, selling spices and tea, along with coffee beans from plantations in South India (initially through the Coffee Board and later through direct relationships with plantations in the Chikmagalur region). They roasted the beans in one uniform manner for the small but loyal segment of non-instant coffee drinkers in the city. Today he roasts beans light, medium and dark and grinds them coarse and fine, while his son—who completed his barista training in Italy—runs a coffee bar next door with a variety of blends and brewing styles to choose from. “These new brands are simply doing what other coffee roasters and brands have already done the world over. They are buying from the plantations, roasting in their own ways and doing a great marketing job. We sometimes sell the same plantation’s coffee at half the price, minus the fuss,” says Devan, a seasoned roaster. Although he does not have a heavy social media presence, he boasts a long-time, loyal clientele across individuals, stores, cafes and restaurants that stock his coffee in the North Indian belt.
Devan’s at Lodhi in Delhi, a coffee shop and roastery in Delhi. Photo courtesy of Devan’s Coffee
While Devan bursts the bubble with a prick, it is exactly what he is not doing that the new wave of young Indians in the coffee business are doing. They have bet their business plans on the fact that there is a large number of people in cities and towns across the country who have an appetite to try the next new trend. There is also an abundant artsy and corporate crowd that seeks to visit out-of-the-ordinary cafes. The mix of the two characteristics leads to conversations around products and places that make those who have not experienced them feel left out. Specialty and single origin coffee (from within India and imported from other countries) may have been around for the loyalists, but this growing segment of people had not tasted it. Plus, they also have the money.
Together, the combination of characteristics was enough for Matt Chitharanjan to start Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters, Rizwan Amlani to bring in some funk with Dope Coffee, Ashish D’abreo and Tej Thammaiah to join with a tennis player’s plantation and create Maverick and Farmer, Ashwajeet Singh, Arman Sood and Ajai Thandi to take a chance on cold-brew with Sleepy Owl and Manvi Gupta to set up El Bueno. The list only gets more innovative with names like K C Roasters, Bili Hu, Third Wave Coffee Roasters, Ainmane, Black Baza, Woke Cold Brew, Corridor Seven Coffee and others who do a mix of brews—hot and cold—and work with business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) models.
Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters founders Matt Chitharanjan and Namrata Asthana. Photo courtesy of Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters
"The majority of plantations were growing commodity coffee, which gets sold as arabica or robusta blends or mixed later with chicory for South Indian filter coffee," Chitharanjan says. "We felt there would be other consumers like us who were not looking for this traditional filter-coffee flavour but wanted the variety and flavour that you find in specialty coffee. So we went down south and visited farms that were producing high-quality coffee that was specialty grade in contrast to the normal commodity coffee. Hence, it also became important to us that we roast the beans ourselves, highlight the farms that we were sourcing from in our packaging, and also have some education to explain to customers what the difference between this and the traditional filter coffee or instant coffee that they had been drinking." When they started Blue Tokai nine years ago, it was just Chitharanjan and his wife Namrata delivering coffee to people from their home-roastery in the National Capital Region (NCR). They opened their brick-and-mortar shop to an enthusiastic welcome into the market, as Blue Tokai was the first cafe with a roastery to open in Delhi.
Currently, Blue Tokai is potentially the fastest growing venture in the industry with cafes in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kolkata, along with a huge online clientele for its beans and a host of hotels and restaurants serving its blends. The expansion is the result of major funding that came from serious investors along the way. It is now common for start-ups to get a seat at the table and pitch for funding, provided they have the right blend of marketing, social media and product. Sleepy Owl is another enterprise that raised two rounds of funding to support its expansion. However, it cannot only be about the coffee.
Blue Tokai Coffee in Oshiwara. Photo courtesy of Blue Tokai
“We look at Dope Coffee Roasters as a platform where Indian street artists can showcase their work on our packaging and branding,” says Rizwan Amlani, founder of Dope Coffee Roasters. “Creative people can splash themselves across our social media and web, and ‘Its Dope’ is our initiative to recognize and acknowledge people and initiatives across the country that are making it a better place every day. We’re loud and proud about our coffee plantations and want that to show in ways that go beyond [the coffee’s] gorgeous taste!”
Dope Coffee Roasters founder Rizwan Amlani. Photo courtesy of Dope Coffee
Other brands are also showcasing a mix of artwork on their packaging, with themes ranging from wildlife to regional landscapes, languages and fonts. Telling a ‘story’ is integral in selling a brand. “You can now have coffee without sugar, because it tastes so good,” is just one of the many interesting ways in which Shannon D’Souza—who owns the quaint roastery and brand K C Roasters in Mumbai—convinces first-timers that the coffee from his family estate is worth trying.
Another common strategy across brands is to help customers understand the basics of different styles of brewing and roasting, and how a coffee’s origin, processing techniques or variety can impact the flavor of the final beverage. Videos, posts, events and information on the packaging communicate the methods used. No question from a customer can be considered too basic, as the ego in this segment is large. Being perceived as a snobbish brand will be detrimental to business. “We always say ‘this is how we suggest you have it, but please feel free to play around and reach out to us if you need any advice whatsoever,’” says Bharat Singhal of Bili Hu Coffee.
With the amount of manual-brewing equipment available for sale across cafes and online portals, the number of people ‘playing around’ with coffee continues to rise. A French press and Moka pot have become quite common in many homes where they previously were not. Every now and then a guest or friend will come over who hasn’t had this coffee experience and a moment of pride follows—I know it well. Over the past 11 years, I went from sipping my first Sidamo in a French Press, to keeping a mix of blends at home and brewing in different styles. For me and many others who previously only knew instant coffee, the cafes are where a lot of people get introduced to the experience of specialty coffee.
Location is key for artisanal brands: a modest lane in the art district of a city, an open-air space in a mill turned theatre and shopping zone, high up in the mountains gazing over the plains, a sea-facing promenade, malls and vendors in the upmarket areas, and the shop-in-shop model where many brands set up coffee stations and bars in stores, bakeries, organic markets, or wherever a sync is available. According to Amlani, Dope Coffee is profitable because it follows this model.
Whatever the location, the blend of people at the cafes equates the variety of blends offered. Some come for a quick take-away, while others spend the day on their laptops and phones. A solo sipper perches by the window and in another section, a group of hearty laughers gathers at a table for four. A muffin alongside a flat-white for some, while a pour-over pairs with a full post-run breakfast for a morning crowd. Ages span the spectrum from college students and young professionals to middle-aged men and women and a few retired oldies who demonstrate the best example of slowing down. The world is a small place, considering this can happen simultaneously in other parts of the globe. In fact, people from other parts of the world are tapping into it.
In Mussoorie, a Dutch baker and her brother-in-law run a cafe named Lotte’s with a small roastery attached. The cafe at the Korean Culture Centre in Delhi, serves coffee roasted by a Korean roaster who visited, saw the potential and started sourcing from Indian plantations. An American couple opened a similar venture with the I-heart Café in the small hill-town of Bhowali, adding pancakes of course.
One story that brands sell is how the Indian coffee farmers are benefiting from their endeavors; this is a rather gray area. In my conversations with farmers and brands, only the farmers who deal directly with the roasters see an increase in revenue. However, the many farmers who sell the green bean to an intermediary and play no role in where it goes afterwards, have not seen an improvement. Yet, images of smiling farmers plucking cherries are portrayed by brands in a way that leaves the reality of the farmers in the dark.
Arshiya Bose, Founder, Black Baza Coffee. Photo courtesy of Black Baza Coffee
“To put the ‘Indian coffee farmer’ under one large umbrella is not fair because a lot of small-scale farmers that own just an acre or less of land get no benefits from this mainstream boom,” says Arshiya Bose, owner of Black Baza Coffee. “They are not well-known and many don’t produce specialty coffee. So a lot of brands go directly to the well-known and bigger plantations, as it naturally makes more business sense.” Bose refers to her company as ‘a social enterprise’ that works with the small-scale and tribal farmers.
While the dynamic presents ethical challenges not uncommon to this region of the world, the growth of specialty coffee culture in India has opened up opportunities for many baristas to step into a career path that did not exist before. Some baristas moved on from roles at chains such as Café Coffee Day and Starbucks, while fresh recruits join with no prior experience and, in some cases, never having tasted anything beyond instant coffee, as many come from traditional tea-drinking homes.
Barista Ranju Singh at Greenr Cafe, Delhi. Photo courtesy of Greenr Cafe
“Initially, when I worked at a cafe, my parents were embarrassed to tell people that their daughter serves coffee for a living,” says Ranju Singh, manager at the Health Bar at Greenr, a plant-based cafe in Delhi and Gurgaon. “This was also because of the general expectation of our society, where certain careers are looked at as less rewarding, but I stuck with it and went on to get a silver in the National Barista Championships. Today I design coffee and food menus and also train people. My family is fully supportive of it.” Singh’s 2-year-old daughter surely seems to be at ease with it, as she sits on the coffee bar sifting through videos on her mother’s smartphone. The chance to rise through the ranks creates hope for Singh and her family.
Dope Coffee’s Polaris Cold Brew Blend. Photo courtesy of Dope Coffee
“In our company, even a janitor can become a barista if he or she is interested. In some other coffee chains here, this is unheard of. In fact, working conditions are quite rigorous and there is no payment for overtime,” confirms Krishna Joshi, who went from being a barista at Blue Tokai to training aspiring ones in the course of a few years. Joshi’s story is one of many in the company, seemingly a happy bunch, apart from some who were laid-off last year when the company downsized due to covid-19.
A few privately-run training facilities have opened with various courses available, conducted by Indian trainers who are certified by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). The Coffee Board of India also offers training programs for new cafe owners and baristas to learn about best practices and preparation techniques, but many baristas are trained by specialty brands through in-house trainers on how to prepare every style of coffee on the menu. The fact that the menu offers a wide variety of options circles back to the very reason these cafes and brands exist.
Sleepy Owl Cold Brew packs. Photo courtesy of Sleepy Owl
“It was time to go beyond notes of chocolate and caramel and start giving the Indian coffee drinker an experience that taps into the finer nuances of our coffee. That is what we are trying to do with Maverick and Farmer,” says Ashish D’abreo, the ‘Maverick’ of the Bangalore-based brand. Baristas, who are the face of the cafe’s brand, must be able to go beyond their technical training and learn how to answer many questions coming their way daily from new customers. It could be one person who wants to know the difference between roasts or another who is curious about a particular estate’s blend. Tedious brushing up is required as progress is being made.
Manvi Gupta, Founder, El Bueno Coffee. Photo courtesy of El Bueno Coffee
There is no doubt that the third wave of artisanal roasting is rising in India and the new roasters and brands are surfing it well. While some brands have received criticism that they are growing too fast, too soon and not paying enough attention to detail, India’s expanding specialty coffee industry means that good coffee and roasteries are accessible in places where one would least expect it.
Maverick and Farmer’s coffee estate in Coorg. Photo courtesy of Maverick and Farmer’s
Due to current restrictions related to covid-19, the functionality of the cafes and businesses mentioned in this article could be temporarily affected.
RESHIL CHARLES lives in New Delhi and has been tracking emerging Indian trends and culture for 18 years, across television, web and print.