Matt Chitharanjan On India’s Growing Coffee Culture & Trends
Image Credit: Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters

If International Coffee Day 2023 gives coffee lovers, producers and baristas around the world a chance to take a look back at the year or decade that was and how bright the future of the coffee industry looks, then Matt Chitharanjan is truly the right person to speak to about it all. The co-founder of the immensely popular homegrown Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters has always been an avid coffee lover, and since 2013, he and his partners behind this Indian brand have done their best to shape and grow chai-loving India’s coffee culture. 

As one of India’s leading specialty coffee brands, Blue Tokai has four roasteries, 80 outlets across eight Indian cities, does regular pop-ups in Japan, and has now joined hands with Deepika Padukone’s Ka Enterprises to make coffee more accessible to Indians. The actress has joined Chitharanjan’s team as an investor, and he says that this will help them take “experimentation, quality, accessibility and convenience a notch higher.”  

In an exclusive interview with Slurrp to mark the occasion of International Coffee Day, Chitharanjan opened up about Blue Tokai’s journey from a B2B to D2C business, the growth in the Indian coffee industry over the last decade, and how bright the future looks. Here is everything he had to say. 

Growing Up To Be A Coffee Lover 

Chitharanjan explains that coffee is something that he grew up with and as time flew up, he learned to appreciate the complexities of flavours involved. “My parents were big coffee drinkers, there was plenty of coffee in the house and they would always make it in the morning,” he explains. “When I moved to college, I was a big Starbucks drinker and I would usually get an Americano with an extra shot. It basically grew as a hobby and I started experimenting with that. And then when I moved to India and met Namrata [Asthana, co-founder of Blue Tokai], we both discovered that we were having a very hard time getting the kind of brewed coffee we like. That’s when we decided to start Blue Tokai.” 

So, did India already have a vibrant coffee culture, especially in South India, where the culture of filter coffee is quite well established. Chitharanjan says not especially since filter coffee tends to be milkier than most of the specialty brewed coffees people love today. “When I used to live in Chennai, I used to drink filter coffee. Coming from the US, filter coffee was something very chicory-like in flavour that I wasn’t very fond of. It was more of a functional drink for me, when you are having a dosa and you have a filter coffee with it. At home, I would get coffee from local shops which had roasted coffee—maybe not the best quality coffee but definitely Arabica and no other flavour added to it. So that’s what I would drink at home in Chennai.” 

Creating Blue Tokai For Indian Coffee Lovers  

Chitharanjan explains that when he moved to Delhi, he and Namrata Asthana found it difficult to get the kind of coffee they loved. “In Delhi there were only chains like CCD, Costa and Barista or expensive imported coffee varieties,” he explains. “We found other people were facing the same problem. So, we did our research on where in India we could find good quality coffee beans, but those farmers were focused on exporting. We went and met some of these coffee farmers and tied up with them to source our coffee beans.” 

And that is how Blue Tokai’s first roastery slowly came up with two coffee lovers working in tandem to make something they love more accessible for all. “In terms of work division back then, I used to do all the product stuff—so I roasted the coffee and handled the product while Namrata looked after the packaging and brand identity,” he says. “Even now, I look after the product side of the business along with finances and human resources and Namrata looks after the branding, marketing and communications. We also have a third partner, Shivam, who looks after the operations aspect of the business.” 

He further explains that the response they got was quite heartening and helped them expand steadily. “For the first six months, we were basically selling online and through pop-up markets,” he says. “Then we started selling coffee wholesale to other cafes. Our transition to café happened in 2014. We moved into a new space in Saket because it was cheap and we needed the space for our roasting and production. It just happened by chance that we had a bit of extra space where we set up a few chairs and had a sort of tasting café. To our surprise, many people started coming because they really enjoyed the coffee that we were offering, though there was no food at that time. That was very important in terms of engagement and building the brand.” 

With so many branches and dedicated followers across India now, what coffee experience does Blue Tokai want people to have? “Our goal for Blue Tokai is to bring both quality and acceptability, so the one thing we will never compromise with is the quality of coffee we offer,” Chitharanjan explains. “We work with 60 coffee producers across the country, sourcing the best coffee that they have to offer and our team spends a lot of time and effort to maximise the flavours that we get from those coffee beans. What we want to do is enable accessibility for consumers so that they don’t feel intimidated when they go to cafes.” 

Indian Coffee Industry And Culture: A 10-Year Growth Period 

The fact that India’s specialty coffee culture truly kicked off after Chitharanjan and Asthana started Blue Tokai is undeniable. So, how much has the industry grown till now? “If you look at 10 years ago compared to now, you’ll find that the perception back then was that if you wanted something good you have to get it imported,” he answers. “In the last 10 years there has been a transition where so many businesses have come which are doing great work both within the coffee industry as well as other consumer products, and taking Indian homegrown products to global standards.”  

Along with the homegrown brands that have come up, Chitharanjan says that consumer awareness about coffee has also improved. “Now you can go to any city in the country, not just Tier I but also Tier II and Tier III cities and there will be at least one to three places that serve great coffee—which was never the case before,” he explains. “Every year there are new coffee brands emerging which have a different approach and reach out to a new consumer base, and so we’re at a stage right now where brands aren’t necessarily competing with each other. They’re actually growing together to expand the market to every place in India.” 

So, as the Indian coffee industry grows, what is the responsibility of coffee-loving consumers? “I think it’s very important that consumers support these brands because they don’t really have the advantages that MNCs coming here have like years of experience backed by tonnes of capital,” says Chitharanjan. “So, when homegrown brands produce international standard products, they should really be appreciated by consumers, and I think Indian consumers are now doing that. They are gravitating more towards Indian brands rather than imported brands.”  

And what about the future of coffee in India? Does Chitharanjan observe any trends that are positive and heartening. Of course, yes, he says. “There is now a growing awareness about the quality of coffee that is coming from within India and more and more people are appreciating coffee and its flavour complexities,” he says. “More and more coffee growers are experimenting and developing different processing methods to improve the quality of the coffee they are growing. I think in the past the Indian coffee growers were more focused in the commodities market rather than the consumer market, and that’s changing too. On the café side, there is a lot of experimentation in terms of new beverages. That’s also an interesting trend in the industry right now.” 

In parting, Chitharanjan has a few tips for Indian coffee lovers exploring the emerging specialty coffee scene here. “My first tip is to do what works for you,” he says. “Do what feels right to you and don’t feel intimidated by what your coffee should be like. Find your homegrown café and try what you want to try, but also stay open-minded and push yourself a little to experiment and try something a little different. Try ordering a black coffee once in a while. Once you start getting used to the flavour complexity of coffee, an amazing world opens up.”