The coming of age of India’s coffee palate

This story was originally published in TravelDine India by Vernika Awa

This International Coffee Day know how India’s coffee habits are changing from artisanal beans grown in the tropical hills of southeastern India to a stepwell at the center of a modern coffee.

For the longest time, coffee was a largely winter beverage in middle-class India. Driven by Nestle’s iconic Nescafe and a handful of other homegrown brands, coffee was largely reserved for occasions. Comparatively higher prices kept tea as the country’s favourite drink—but as the sachet culture from the ’80s took over, coffee consumption increased exponentially.

Fast forward to the present. The coffee culture of India is robust, varied, and increasingly geared towards a more aware consumer-base. There is a buzz, albeit in urban circles, when coffee retail chains such as Bengaluru’s Third Wave Coffee or Canada’s Tim Hortons, launch outlets in new cities. In the National Capital Region, homegrown chains such as Colocal and Roastery have been built on the back of a growing fascination for coffee.

All of this points to a definite trend—that of a steadily maturing palate for coffee.

Lending greater thought to process 

Talk to these homegrown brands, and they tell you about the increasing amount of thought that India’s coffee drinkers put into their favourite beverage. Araku Coffee, which grows its artisanal beans in ancestral farmlands located in the eponymous Araku Valley in eastern Andhra Pradesh, sought to promote a direct trade culture to the cultivators and add value to the human supply chain that dominates coffee cultivation in most parts of India today.

According to Aditi Dugar, chief brand advisor for retail and lifestyle at Araku Coffee, customers are responding to the sustainability factor, too.

A deeper dive reveals that the new Indian coffee palate has a clear demand for sustainability, rarity, and the ability to choose from varieties—especially in the urban segment. A senior official of a premium grocery retailer chain with outlets across NCR and Chandigarh—who requested anonymity to avoid association with any brand—noted that customers seek a wider selection on the coffee rack, particularly as the pandemic drove more individuals to experiment beyond their comfort zones, and tastes.

“Today, we see a larger number of customers asking about what blend a particular brand’s coffee is, and how different the texture is. We’d never before seen or heard of customers putting such granular focus on the finer elements of coffee, even in the posh retail areas,” the official added.

Pet-friendly to pastry-perfect cafes

In what is now a far cry from the erstwhile experience of India’s coffee houses, outlets today offer a holistic experience—replete with understanding the coffee drinkers’ affinity towards pets and pastries! Third Wave Coffee outlets in Mumbai, for instance, has succeeded in building a reputation for also serving great banoffee pies. In New Delhi’s Connaught Place, Blue Tokai Coffee’s chic outlet has increasingly eaten into the mighty Starbucks’ perennial reputation by being the perfectly cozy, quiet, yet lively meeting place.

With Roastery Coffee House, Nishant Sinha, its founder, says that the brand has been conscious of adding local elements, warmth and “lots of sunshine” in every outlet. What’s more interesting is how the brand has designed its fifth outlet—in Jaipur—with a stepwell at its centre.

“The stepwell is at least a thousand years old, and we put it right at the centre of the modern coffee drinking experience. It instils a sense of pride and gives our patrons a way to relish their coffee by a water body,” he says.

As Araku’s Dugar sums up, the market is ripe at the moment for “specialty coffee”. After all, as she puts it, consumers are finally growing to appreciate the “finer nuances” of coffee, “in flavour profiles, roast styles, and brewing methods”. At the end of the day, it is this growing awareness and keen interest that is driving India to up its coffee sales, much to the joy of homegrown brands and their experiments.

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