The couple showcasing coffee's dark side
Raghunath Rajaram and Namisha Parthasarathy are trying to simplify coffee with a radical approach that involves reinventing the flavour wheel and learning about coffee’s colonial hangover
We enjoy coffee from around the world, but fail to see beyond labels and brand names into the world of cultural identity and the farms and roasteries that work behind the scenes to bring us our daily cup of joy. It’s a topic that Raghunath Rajaram and Namisha Parthasarathy, a couple that co-founded coffee subscription company Ārāmse Coffee, spoke eloquently on coffee’s best brand ambassador James Hoffmann’s YouTube channel a month ago when the latter opened his channel to content creators.
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Ārāmse Coffee started out as a small in-person gathering organised by the duo with coffee lovers in Mysuru to understand the growing speciality coffee scene in August 2019. These were more informative for Rajaram who confesses that he used to drink filter coffee “with milk along with three spoons of sugar” before his wife introduced him to good coffee while they were staying in Shoreditch in East London. “That, along with an introductory class to the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) gifted by Namisha sent me down the coffee rabbit hole,” he says laughing.
When the couple came on a visit to India in 2019, the idea was to take up yoga but they landed up creating coffee workshops in Mysuru. “We started six-person workshops featuring two roasters and two different types of brewing. It was a tech-free way to spend half a Sunday and learn more about coffee,” Rajaram says about the beginning of Ārāmse Coffee.
Soon, the pandemic hit and the team had to quickly pivot from in-person meetings to something else. They went about it in two ways. First was to recreate the south Indian filter that Rajaram has grown up drinking since childhood and a prototype of which they are expecting to showcase at The London Coffee Festival later this year or in early 2022. The second was to create a community of coffee lovers online by starting coffee videos and later branching out to coffee products and a coffee subscription package to generate revenue. They are currently focussed on scaling up their subscription service and adding more content whilst in India.
Rajaram is especially happy with the direction of the coffee subscription model. “It’s a recommendation-based subscription that we offer through various roasters. We match the MRP so you are not overpaying for each subscription,” he explains. With a coffee experience tailored to individual palates and that can be further customised with ‘My Coffee Journey’ by the user, Rajaram says the system has been custom coded to scale, with the recommendation-based technology getting better with each order as it learns more about the user's palate.
Whilst creating content and working on their own filter, the couple were also keen on exploring the impact of colonialism on coffee in a producing nation like India.
The couple is flummoxed by the fact that despite being the seventh-largest producer of coffee in the world, we still bulk produce and send some of our best beans to Europe and other countries. “Historically, Indian coffee has largely been bulk processed, white labelled and exported to countries like Italy, Germany and Belgium,” they say.
Parthasarathy is, in fact, working on a project for her certification in the SCA Sustainability Program that explores the localisation of coffee flavour wheels as one small way of making coffee more inclusive, especially for producers in the Global South. It’s a topic that leads to the SCA Flavour Wheel.
The Flavour Wheel
Globally, the SCA has a flavour wheel that roasters, baristas and everyone in the business refers to while describing any coffee. Rajaram says, "The problem is that the flavour wheel was largely developed in the US and UK and this could lead to some implicit biases as to what flavours are desirable and which aren’t. Tasting notes like Earthy, which are very sought after in the subcontinent, would make coffee folks in the Global North cringe as this is considered a flaw amongst those circles.”
According to the couple, having a localised flavour wheel for each place would make coffee a lot more inclusive and accessible. “We have our own unique fruits and spices that could easily make their way into these wheels.”
It’s a topic that sounds familiar to Debabrat Mishra, founder of Koraput Coffee, that’s working with tribals in Odisha to make coffee beans. According to Mishra, the wheel needs new flavours that have not been considered until now. “Our coffees have notes of green chilli, white pepper and even gooseberry because of cross microbe activity between the trees and coffee plants in Koraput. The SCA flavour wheel and way of scoring coffees that prioritises automation over traditional methods needs to change,” he says.
The SCA needs to acknowledge the shortcomings in its flavour wheel and adopt a country-specific approach, which is unlikely; or, every country could create a flavour wheel that best represents the coffee flavours found in its beans, which is too ambitious. So technically nothing can be done at the moment, except more education amongst coffee lovers.
Another way in which we one could look at decolonising coffee would be to recognise and address cultural appropriation and preserve original names. In the video for Hoffman, they talk about turmeric latte and how it’s been appropriated from haldi ka doodh.
Here, however, Mishra disagrees and instead blames us for not taking haldi doodh seriously. “It’s not like haldi doodh is our national drink. In fact, we are at fault for not valuing it enough. How many cafes in India sell haldi doodh even now?” he asks.
Of course, it can be argued that cultural appropriation is not just over one particular drink and is something that we should keep an eye out for whenever we see it happening even apart from coffee and haldi doodh.
Taking joy in our daily morning cup of coffee come easy to most of us but the bean’s backstory, whether its from a historical perspective or trying to express itself through a more democratic flavour wheel, should probably give us pause from time to time as well.
The story was modified and some quotes were changed.
Priyanko Sarkar is a Mumbai-based journalist and writer covering the beverage industry.