Wake Up And Smell The (New) Coffee

Gone are the days when our best bet for a good coffee would have been the filter coffee that Amma made. Or for Mumbaikars, the occasional trip to the South Indian restaurants in and around Matunga. These days, it seems, coffee is everywhere. About a decade ago, to most urban Indians, ‘fancy’ coffee meant a trip to Cafe Coffee Day or Barista. Cut to 2022, India is at the cusp of nothing short of a coffee revolution. And there’s a new term that we are also getting used to – ‘artisanal’ coffee. Blue Tokai, Araku, Black Baza, Halli Berri, Koinonia, Ainmane, The Flying Squirrel... are homegrown brands from India spearheading this very aromatic revolution of artisanal coffee.  

But what makes coffee artisanal? Ask any coffee snob about makes artisanal coffee better than the regular variety that’s widely available, they will say it is smoother, tastier, more distinct, and has a greater number of complex components. What could be the reason for this? The choice of high-quality beans, usually from a single source. A combination of high-quality beans grown in optimal conditions, plucked at the right time, handled with care, put through professional and world-standard processing methods including roasting and scorching – all with the care and precision of an artisan – is what makes for artisanal coffee. Depending on the type of bean, the extra attention and quality involved in the process result in a much higher quality cup that is smoother with more prominent flavours. These coffees are what are bringing about the third wave of coffee in India – high-quality beans from India's single-origin estates, hand-roasted in small batches to maintain freshness, then grounded per your preferred brewing method – Moka Pot, French Press or Aero Press. Coffee consumption now is a buffet of choices from which to choose a coffee that’s perfect for your taste requirements – whether it is a light, medium, or dark roast; or hints of other flavours including spices, honey, chocolate, fruit; or aromas ranging from nutty to floral to sweet to tropical. Artisanal coffee elevates coffee from being an item of one dimension to a delicacy offering a bouquet of options. That could explain some of the fanaticism that comes with coffee drinkers! Plus, it is locally sourced. What could be better than that! 

India is no stranger to coffee, of course. Most South Indians cannot imagine a day without it beginning with a cup of filter coffee. But it is a rather recent addition to our palates. Legend has it that coffee was brought into India for the first time in late seventeenth century. Baba Budan – a Sufi saint whose shrine (Baba Budangiri) still exists in Chikkamagaluru district in Karnataka – is believed to have smuggled seven coffee beans from Mocha, Yemen on his way back from the Hajj in 1670. Apparently, it was illegal to take raw beans out of Arabia at that time, but Baba Budan loved the taste of coffee too much, and who could blame him. He planted these seeds in the Chandragiri hills in Karnataka, and thus was the beginning of a beautiful love story that continues to this day. Of course, it took colonialism for coffee to take firm root in the country – and that’s where the Dutch and the British ‘helped.’ Initially Arabica was widespread, but huge infestations of coffee leaf rust led many farms to switch to Robusta or Arabica/Liberica hybrids. 

According to the Coffee Board of India, India exported 2.1 million 60 kg bags (the standard unit of measurement for coffee trading) in 1991. In less than 20 years, that number more than doubled to 4.6 million bags. The earliest whiff of this coffee boom was spotted by entrepreneurs like VG Siddhartha, who went on to set up Cafe Coffee Day. The first CCD came up in Bangalore in 1996, and it was an instant hit, paving the way for the hyperlocal coffee boom (among affluent urban Indians at least) that we are seeing today. 

Some of the best single-origin coffee brands of the world include Atlas Coffee Club and Volcanica Coffee Company. They source various single-origin beans like the Kenya AA Coffee, Yirgacheffe Coffee from Ethiopia, Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee among others. Indian coffees are yet to reach the same heights as these, but they are well on their way.  

Take for example Blue Tokai – they’ve roasted over a thousand tons of coffee so far. Their quality control standards have ensured that coffee growers are selling them their best stock as opposed to exporting them, which used to be the case earlier. Or Araku Coffee, founded and run by the Naandi Foundation in Andhra Pradesh, which won the prestigious Prix Epicures gold medal in Paris, beating blends from other countries. Subko, a familiar name to anyone in Bandra, sells single-origin coffees from Kerehaklu, Ratnagiri, Woodway, Salawara estates in Karnataka. Coorg-based Ainmane is even introducing India’s first civet coffee, the world’s most expensive coffee. Civet coffee is of course Kopi Luwak, a coffee that consists of partially digested coffee cherries, which have been eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet. Don’t be put off by the description – it is a globally desired premium item!  

Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamilnadu still account for over 90% of India’s coffee production. But recently, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, and the north-eastern states (specially Meghalaya) have also started producing coffee. It’s safe to say, the best days of coffee in India are still ahead of us. “Life blood of tired men,” as Raymond Chandler described coffee once, will also be supporting the livelihoods of several men and women.