In just under a decade, the culture of indie cafés that lay much emphasis on a good cuppa coffee brewed from homegrown beans has really boomed in the Capital. And while this “café culture” might just be a few years into its prime, India’s connection with coffee has a rich history that goes back centuries. A famous legend goes that in the 17th century a Muslim saint, Baba Budan, while on pilgrimage to Mecca, smuggled seven coffee beans from Yemen to Mysore by strapping them to his chest since the Arabs were very protective about their coffee beans. He brought them to India’s south and planted them on the Chandragiri Hills, which is considered to be the genesis of coffee plantations in India. We can’t give our complete stamp of affirmation on this because of geographic issues – Mecca is in Saudi Arabia and the beans were brought from Yemen…are you connecting the dots here? Coffee plantations in the country continued to boom under the British Raj and, in fact, it is the British and the Dutch who expanded coffee plantations in the south.
In 1996, Café Coffee Day was the first modern-esque café to launch in India and opened its doors in Bangalore’s Brigade Road. Anand Virmani, who leads marketing at Perch (New Delhi), says, “Indians take a lot of their consumption cues from the West but we have a much deeper connection with coffee than the western world. Coffee has always been around in the country, more towards the south and limited to filter coffee.” But before multinational and international coffee chains established a strong foothold in India in the early naughties, for most Indians, in the north at least, a cup of coffee entailed a teaspoon of Nescafe’s instant coffee powder and a tablespoon of sugar mixed in a glass of hot milk. However, in the south of India, the relationship of people with coffee is much stronger. Filter coffee is ubiquitous to the south and it’s what most people start and end their day with.
Around 2012, a host of aspiring entrepreneurs and restaurateurs saw that Delhi’s food scene was expanding at a fast rate and new restaurants were sprouting like mushrooms but this excitement wasn’t as palpable in the café sector. So they found themselves at a crossroads of cruising in steady waters or heading for the waves. Anand adds, “The opening of Barista and Costa Coffee was a big deal but as it happens with most things, you reach a saturation point and people want more, entrepreneurs sense this gap and I think that’s what snowballed into the culture we have going now.”
A forward-thinking couple also noticed this dryness in Delhi’s coffee market when they moved from Chennai to Delhi in 2012. Matt Chitharanjan of Blue Tokai began selling Indian coffee from local coffee plantations online because “the coffee in Delhi was pretty lacking. There were either coffee chains with a low grade of coffee or there was expensive coffee”. He saw a gap for freshly roasted Indian coffee and the coffee that was being produced was being exported because “people didn’t want to pay a premium price for homegrown produce”. They started selling online at a time when e-commerce was picking pace and he saw that people received their products well so they decided to open an independent café to bring their customers closer to their cup of coffee.
Chitharanjan adds, “Indian grown specialty coffee could compete with coffee from pretty much any other part of the world and when we started it was surprising to see that none of it was being sold domestically.”
India is the sixth largest coffee producer in the world and in 2015, the Coffee Board announced that coffee production reached a new peak in the country. An estimated 3,55,600 tonnes was produced in the year 2015-16, an increase of 28,600 tonnes from the previous year. Despite such a prolific production, India exports 60-70% of its coffee abroad to Italy, Russia and Germany, who are the top three buyers of Indian coffee. However, Jiten Suchede, Chief Chaiwala & Director of Jugmug Thela, believes that the “trend has reversed and appreciation for Indian coffee has increased. But there is a long way to go.”
Currently, however, along with the spread of indie cafes around Delhi being appreciated, so is local coffee from Indian plantations. Both Chitharanjan and Suchede believe this newfound appreciation for local produce has a lot to do with the Internet and travelling. “A large number of people have started travelling abroad and they want to experience similar things at home. A lot also has to do with identity. People want to be associated with places like themselves and the quality of their beverage now matters a lot,” says Suchede. Virmani mirrors his thoughts and says, “People want to be able to walk into a shop, where the Barista recognizes her/him and instantly makes her/him a flat white without having to ask the waiter.”
Delhites, now, are more experimentative and bold. They don’t just want to settle for a cold coffee on a hot day, they want to try the cold brew. Or a flat white they might’ve tried in Australia or seen it on television. The risk is being taken on both sides of the border – the producer and the consumer and the risks we think are paying off. Because look around, and you’ll see Blue Tokai, Perch, The Coffee Bond, Ivy and Bean, and the list goes on.
“It’s an exciting time to be in coffee,” Chitharanjan concludes, and we couldn’t agree more as it’s always exciting to enjoy a good cuppa coffee!
Photo Credits: Pulak Bhatnagar (Cover Photo), Perch, Blue Tokai, Jugmug Thela
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