Waking up to real coffee
How India ditched the instant addiction to savour the best home-grown brewsat home
Two years of savouring a medium-roasted coffee with nuances of wild flowers and honeysuckle from MS Estate, Chikmagalur, Karnataka, and I admit to turning into a coffee snob. In my defence, so are increasing numbers of people across the country, a critical mass that seems set to acknowledge India’s status as the fifth largest producer of coffee in the world.
That last factoid comes from Tuhin Jain, co-founder of Bonhomia, which offers single-serve gourmet coffee capsules and coffee machines to go with them. “The hills of Chikmagalur, Coorg and Kodaikanal are lined with estates and plantations offering A-grade quality coffee beans, most of which are exported. Major multinational brands, including Nestlé Nespresso and Lavazza, use Indian beans," he says.
Over the last five years, Indian roasters and young, third-generation planters have tried to restore pride in indigenous coffee by using local high-quality beans to create rich, complex flavours while educating consumers about roasts, grinds and brews. And thus, slowly and steadily, single-origin and artisanal coffees from India have inched their way into the gourmet club at home.
The breakthrough, for the domestic market, came when café chains such as Starbucks (which opened its first store in India in 2012) started providing freshly ground coffee, roasted by trained baristas. “A good barista works like a mixologist: He or she knows how much to roast, what grain to grind the beans into, etc." says Jain. Building on the groundwork of the home-grown Barista and Café Coffee Day chains—which also witnessed an expansion around the time—a new generation of coffee entrepreneurs sought to take control of the coffee-is-cool culture, introduced hitherto-missing nuances and looking at taking the experience to the consumer’s home.
The hitch lay in the heavy equipment, priced at Rs5-6 lakh, used by the baristas—the percolators available weren’t appealing to the new coffee connoisseur—as also the low awareness about the kind of coffee to buy for home use. “Noting the rapid expansion of coffee consumption in India, as well as the high quality of beans grown in the country, we decided to leap into the market in 2012. We created single-serve capsules full of top-quality Indian coffee, individually sealed in nitrogen pouches to ensure they remained completely fresh," says Jain. “We also launched coffee machines and milk frothers (akin to Swiss giant Nestlé’s Nespresso machines) starting at less than Rs10,000. Cafés across the country use a five-bar (a pressure measure) machine, but ours are 19-bar machines, built to apply the perfect pressure to extract every last drop of flavour and texture from the coffee."
The capsules—each available for Rs35-50, in packs of five and 10—are retailed in leading supermarkets such as Nature’s Basket and Foodhall, as well as online on Amazon, and Bonhomia’s own online portal, with orders coming in from across India, including tier II and tier III cities such as Pune, Hyderabad and Ludhiana. These capsules are also used by luxury hotel chains such as Oberoi Vilas, Park Hyatt and The Ritz Carlton.
Kunal Ross, co-founder of Theindianbean.com, an online single-origin coffee brand based in Mysuru and Mumbai, too has tried to ease the process of extracting a good cup of coffee. “Early last year, we launched the cloth filter to go with our coffee. It is super-quick and portable. All one needs to do is take one tablespoon of coffee and pour 150ml of water over it. After steeping in a vessel for 2-3 minutes, strain it through the cloth filter," he says. This has reduced the brewing time drastically.
Both the single-serve capsule coffee machines and the cloth filter offer ease of use and cleaning, making them attractive to customers—mostly well-travelled, working professionals from double-income family groups. “There is such a variety (of things) that you can do with the Bonhomia machine," says Gurugram-based Gurbani Singh, co-founder of Bonjour Chocolates. “I just keep it stacked in one corner and you can opt for a cold coffee or an espresso at any given point of a day. Even a layman can use it."
She first came across Bonhomia coffees at Grub Fest, one of the largest food festivals in Delhi-National Capital Region, where they had adjoining stalls. “I love their hazelnut variant and have about 100 capsules at home at any time. It’s very neat and easy to maintain," says Singh, who is planning to serve Bonhomia coffees with her new savoury line, as well as desserts such as the apple cinnamon tea cake.
In the experimental township of Auroville, the Spaniard Marc Tormo has been offering organic, single-estate coffees since 2008. He first came to India as a tourist in 1992, and kept returning, sometimes to visit the slums of Kolkata and sometimes working on incense and marbled paper in Auroville. Between his travels, he started a coffee shop with his sister in Spain; like many Western European nations, coffee plays a huge part in the social fabric there. Returning to Auroville with his wife just after marriage, Tormo realized that India was producing high-quality, shade-grown beans—unlike, say, in Kenya and Brazil—and began to explore the possibilities of sourcing single-estate coffees.
The struggle for Tormo—shared by many other Indian coffee roasters and brewers—lay in convincing plantations to part with their A-grade beans for the domestic market. “The question I was asked was, ‘Why should we sell to you?’ And my answer always was, you are Indian, let the Indian coffee drinker enjoy indigenous, good-quality coffee and I will pay you a good price for that," says Tormo, who stayed on farms to understand the growing and post-harvesting process.
The coffees on offer at his shop, Marc’s Café—Roast and Taste, and at www.marcscoffees.com, are the Buma Devi, Jaivik Greens and Kaveri blends from Coorg, the Julien Peak from a UTZ Certified farm nestled in the Shevaroy hills of Tamil Nadu (UTZ Certified is the world’s largest programme for sustainable farming of coffee and cocoa) and the Deccan Bold from Andhra Pradesh. “The coffee board has divided the coffee regions of south India in 13 denominations, with each having its particular geography and unique traits. My aim is to have at least one single-estate coffee from each region," says Tormo.
Back in Delhi, in the by-lanes of Said-ul-Ajaib, where history meets urban chaos, lies the Blue Tokai roastery and café, the first outfit to do profile roasting in Delhi. As soon as you enter the café, a heady aroma of coffee envelops the senses, giving you an instant caffeine kick. In the next room, shut out by the sound of whirring machines, a team of roasters is busy controlling temperatures, duration and humidity to extract the oils and best flavours from the beans sourced from estates in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
Run by Matt Chitharanjan and Namrata Asthana, Blue Tokai has become a one-stop shop for those who want freshly ground coffee as well as roasted beans. The idea came to the couple in 2012, when they moved from Chennai to Delhi. Used to freshly ground coffee at the local coffee houses, Chitharanjan, an economist, was disillusioned by the lack of options in Delhi. He wasn’t keen on the coffee available at café chains—many, he says, would use beans roasted months earlier.
“Ideally, coffee should be consumed within three weeks of being roasted as, after that, the flavour compounds start breaking down. The store-bought coffee passes through a long supply chain before reaching the customer and becomes stale," says Chitharanjan.
Blue Tokai has moved on from being a mere e-commerce startup into wholesale, supplying to a host of eateries and hotels such as The Park Hotel and Oberoi, and to hordes of individual customers online. The couple opened a roastery in Mumbai in July and plans to start stand-alone cafés in the near future.
Indian Bean, which offers Appa Washed Arabica from Coorg, Malnad from the BR Hills, Karnataka Kaldeva from Baba Budangiri, Karnataka, and more, offers the option of customizing your roast. So does the Flying Squirrel, which offers single-origin artisan coffee.
“I ask the guys at Indian Bean to customize a dark roast for my espresso from beans which come from the Nilgiris," says Pawan Sadhna, who runs a gourmet store for the Japanese community in Delhi’s Sultanpur, Wakaba Japanese Food Co. “I used to ship A-grade Indian coffee beans abroad, while working with the Shipping Corporation of India, so I know what good beans are like. I used to wonder why we Indians don’t use our own local beans. Then an international buyer told me that the Indian roasting process is not as good, and that is critical to a good cup of coffee." With ventures like the Indian Bean offering state-of-the-art roasting, consumers like Sadhna have found the perfect way to brew a good Indian cup of coffee.
When Ashish D’Abreo and Tej Thammaiah set up Flying Squirrel two-and-a-half years ago, they knew the ace up their sleeve was the latter’s three-generation-old estate in Pollibetta, Coorg, from where they could source the best green beans; they have just launched their first café in Bengaluru.
“What gives the coffee a unique flavour is cross-cropping. We grow our coffees amid citrus patches, vanilla plantations, spice patches in heavily shaded areas or the more forested parts," says D’Abreo. The freshly picked cherries (as the pits inside the red/purple berry are called) are pulped, semi-pulped, fermented or sun-dried, based on the desired flavour profile. Then, depending on the kind of coffee and grain size that the customer has ordered, they draw up roast plans. Proprietary profile-roasting curves are used to balance the sweetness, acidity and fruitiness for each variant. The minimum order size at Flying Squirrel for a customized roast is 2kg; orders are pouring in from within India, as well as from the US, Australia and UAE.
The ABC of Coffee
Education plays a huge role when it comes to single-origin coffees. “India has always been a tea-drinking nation. But there are people who grew up on instant coffee and want to take their love for a good cuppa to the next level," says D’Abreo. So, ventures like Blue Tokai, Flying Squirrel and Indian Bean consciously carry information on their websites, blogs, and in the roasteries, to create awareness among consumers on what constitutes a good cup of coffee.
In sync with hipsters everywhere, “the Indian consumer wants to know more—where the coffee is coming from, for instance, its traceability," says Tormo. To that end, Blue Tokai packages carry the name of the sourcing estate, the kind and date of roast, along with artwork by a folk/tribal artist.
As social consciousness about food and drink grows among consumers, they want their coffee to be ethically sourced as well. Halli Berri, grown on the Kambihalli Estate in the Baba Budangiri in Karnataka since 1948, is now an entirely women-owned concern. “We provide AAA-grade coffee—that is, (with the) Rainforest Alliance Certified seal—in our effort to producing a ‘conscious’ coffee," says Tejini Kariappa, co-founder and director of Halli Berri Coffee and Cottages, which retails at Nature’s Basket and on Amazon, and is served exclusively at Indigo Deli and other gourmet set-ups. “We also support a migratory bird project, as we get nearly 296 species here. The iron-ore content in the soil reacts with the plants here, giving the coffee a unique flavour. Sunalini Menon, master cupper, has said in the past that our coffee leaves a sweet honey residue on the palate."
At the Bonhomia office in Ansal Plaza, Delhi, and at their workshops, terroir is a big part of the conversation. “The conditions that the coffee plant is grown in play a huge role in the kind of note it delivers—spicy, floral, fruity. How often has the plant been watered, what altitude has it been grown at, the temperature that it has been farmed at, all these details impact the coffee flavour, just like wine," says Jain.
The comparison with wine ends right there, however—coffee is believed to be seven times more complex. “While wine has 200-400 notes, coffee has 1,200. A layman can only pick up three-four of these," says Ross.
One of the roadblocks coffee makers encounter frequently is a snobbishness about blended coffees—a carryover, perhaps, of whiskies, or an assumption that the add-on is chicory. “Blends can also be single-origin, hailing from one particular region. At times, there is a need to balance out an estate’s flavour profile by blending flavours from other estates in that particular region," says Abhijit Shetty, who co-founded the Seven Beans Coffee Co. in 2012 to bring together the flavours of Indian beans from seven plantations in Chikmagalur with Italian roasting techniques, in collaboration with roast master Dante Cagliari.
The Froth in the Cup
Given the increasing demand for artisanal coffees, are brands seeing a growth spurt? “This is a niche segment. The growth is slow but the traction is great. We get a lot of repeat customers," says D’Abreo. These ventures are not investing too heavily in marketing as they consider this an affordable luxury product, with most coffee packs being priced between Rs290 and Rs650 for 250g.
“The more niche you get, the less you do. That has always been the method of luxury brand management," says Kariappa. “I am honestly not looking at Halli Berri becoming an overnight sensation, but am looking at building my consumer base day by day, and understanding what drives the same." And it is already happening, with Halli Berri seeing a high percentage of consumer retention, and more coming their way through referrals.
With the single-serve capsule category being the fastest growing format in the coffee industry internationally, Bonhomia, too, expects to grow in the next couple of years. “The market for ‘single-serve’ Nespresso-format coffee is currently estimated to be well north of $10 billion (around Rs68,060 crore) globally. We hold a first-mover advantage in the Indian market, which is estimated at around Rs200 crore," says Jain.
Before the roast
The secret to great coffee lies in the way it has been processed. There are two methods of processing coffee: dry and wet.
The former is the older method, born out of limited water resources. “The freshly picked cherries are simply spread out on huge surfaces to dry in the sun. In order to prevent the cherries from spoiling, they are raked and turned throughout the day, then covered at night or during rain to prevent them from getting wet," explains an article on the website of the National Coffee Association USA. This process is repeated for several weeks till the moisture content of the cherries drops to 11%.
The wet method involves removing the pulp from the cherry. The bean is dried with the parchment skin on and passed through water channels. The heavier, high-quality beans are separated from the lighter, lower-quality ones, and placed in individual fermentation tanks for a day or two. The beans are then rinsed and dried.
Once processed—either by the dry or wet method—coffee beans are milled and exported to be roasted and ground.
The perfect cup
How will you know if the coffee you have bought is freshly ground or not? “When brewed, your coffee should have a dark-to-golden crema, a foamy layer on top, a smooth texture, and not leave your throat dry," says Bonhomia’s Tuhin Jain.
Flying Squirrel’s Ashish D’Abreo adds: “When you pour hot ‘brewing temperature’ water on the coffee, it should bloom. That’s a very important sign."