While none of us are quite ready to let go of our favourite instant coffee, homegrown brands are bringing a revolution in exotic, artisanal coffee curated for the masses.
India’s tryst with coffee is no overnight millennial fad. The first instances of coffee cultivation have been in India since the 16th century, well before the British invasion of India. However, the concept of ‘coffee houses’ began to gain popularity only around the 18th century, in erstwhile Madras and Calcutta. The Indian Coffee House was then started by the Coffee Cess Committee in 1936, and its first outlet was established in Mumbai. Back in the day, due to the racially discriminatory policies, Indians were not allowed in these coffee houses run by the British rulers. It was only much later, and after notable revolts, that the management of these coffee houses was handed to the workers of the coffee board. It is they who then formed the Indian Coffee Workers’ Co-operatives, and renamed the network as the Indian Coffee House.
However, despite the aristocratic essence of coffee connoisseurs, coffee production in India saw a sharp decline sometime from the 1870s, thanks to the emerging tea industry and India’s preference for the latter. I, too, am guilty to the latter. Interestingly, even until the very recent past, the preference towards coffee had a marginally elitist undertone to it, while tea has always been the everyday drink for all. It is only over the past decade or so, that India’s coffee culture has seen a brewing paradigm shift — nearly a century after it went on a decline. The artisanal coffee, which was once the fancy of the society’s elite, is now becoming a part of everyday, middle-class homes.
Our love for ‘fancy’ coffee
As Ashish D’Abreo, co-founder of the Coorg-based Maverick and Farmer Coffee Roasters says, “The consumer awareness is much higher today in India, where the knowledge of coffee beans, blends and roasting is something that isn’t alien. Earlier, there were only two or three players in the coffee roasting and farming field. Now, though, we have brands growing on a weekly basis.”
D’Abreo and his partners, Sreeram G and Tej Thammaiah, founded their company in 2018, with experience of almost three decades in the coffee business. They tapped into their ingrained, in-depth knowledge of traditional coffee cultivation, and backed it up with state-of-the-art farming techniques to bring out exquisite flavours of Indian coffee that appeal to the taste of the young, urban coffee lovers. Today, Maverick and Farmer has a roastery in Bangalore, and cafes in Delhi-NCR.
Be not misled, though — artisanal coffee is not a hipster trend, but has evolved into a way for people to rediscover the regional flavours of coffee from their own country. Each homegrown brand is quintessentially Indian in their bean-to-cup revolution, and words like aeropress, roasting, cold brew are now a part of the everyday vocabulary. Coupled with the influx of a wider market, such exquisite strains of coffee have also become more affordable, hence pushing up the overall quality of the homegrown coffee market.
Subhajit Sengupta, a Delhi-based senior media professional, is one such coffee lover who has really taken to the wide range of exquisite Indian coffee on offer. Explaining how much of his experimentation for coffee grew by watching YouTube videos of fellow coffee enthusiasts, Sengupta says, “Artisanal coffee has made it simpler to replicate the taste of a coffee brewed and served in a cafe, at home. It is what attracted me to these homegrown brands, and once I learnt the right tricks there was no going back.”
The birth of ‘coffee tourism’
Nishant Sinha, founder of Hyderabad and Kolkata-based Roastery Coffee, further adds that as a result of a change in consumption, the very nature of the coffee market of India is set to change. “Earlier, India had been a producing country because the domestic consumption of coffee wasn’t too high. Over the past decade, this very aspect has changed — more people are today brewing coffee at home. We expect this trend to grow in the next five years,” he says.
Sinha works closely with coffee farmers and cultivators, and through his experience, mentions how this paradigm shift has led to farmers getting their dues. Workers at coffee plantations are being recognised increasingly, and cashing in on this trend, many farms are also offering coffee tourism — with homestays sprouting in the farms. This offers people an authentic experience to see the entire process — from how the coffee is grown, to how it is processed and served. This shift has put the Indian coffee culture on the world map.
In fact coffee tourism may grow into the next big thing, with more and more cultivators planning to offer an experience. D’Abreo states that soon, tourists will be able to visit their farms for the experience. His coffee tourism plans would’ve ideally started in 2020, but was pushed to 2021 due to the pandemic.
Keeping roots at heart
Amidst all of this, while brands like Blue Tokai, Koinonia, Araku, Corridor Seven and Dope have found their takers in the common man of India, one still cannot ignore the love for instant coffee. This is where brands like Nescafe and Sunrise Gold still rule supreme.
Rhea Mitra Dalal, Mumbai-based home chef and blogger says, “I am particular about the brand of instant coffee I use, and ensure that I have enough in stock at home and also carry it with me when I travel. I like it for its taste/flavour, and I am habituated to it. I don’t like the texture/mouth-feel of ‘real’ coffee — I find it inconsistent and often muddy/gritty, and the flavour varies. One of the main reasons why I don’t explore artisanal coffee — Indian or foreign — is that I really like the instant coffee that I drink.”
Shubhra Chatterjee, a filmmaker and writer, also shares a similar opinion. “I think my preference for a coffee brand has to do with being used to a particular taste/flavour of coffee (which I love!) — and with being assured of getting that same taste with a consistently available coffee brand. The instant coffee is the fallback option, and it’s been the same brand for the past eight years. I travel a lot, and with everything changing — a new hotel room every night, different food and flavours etc, you seek some consistency,” she says.
Safe to say, that while there’s plenty of room for the exquisite, there’s no forgetting the old-school, packaged and instant coffee powder, either.