Move over, Starbucks. The hipster coffee revolution has finally come to India

New and improved.
New and improved.
Image: Unsplash/Thomas Martinsen
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It’s been a long time since Rheea Mukherjee picked up coffee from the neighbourhood supermarket.

Instead, the 32-year-old eagerly waits for her monthly delivery of freshly-roasted grounds, procured online via gourmet coffee companies like Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters and Black Baza.

“I’ve definitively switched to these coffees for home and office use,” said Mukherjee, co-founder of the Bengaluru-based design laboratory Write Leela Write. The grounds, she noted, make for an excellent cup of her favourite black coffee, prepared using a moka pot at home and a French press at the office.

Mukherjee isn’t the only one waking up to the aroma of a new brew. Coffee lovers across the country are discovering the world of specialty grounds, thanks to a new breed of coffee enthusiast-cum-entrepreneurs that are out to improve the experience of sipping a hot cuppa.

What makes them stand apart from supermarket brands and cafe chains is one key difference: these gourmet coffee companies source their beans from estates in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and roast them on demand just days before delivering to the customer, thus ensuring maximum flavour.

In Indian homes, as in other parts of the world, the convenience of instant coffee has made it the favoured choice over the years. But coffee tastes best when consumed within 25-30 days of being roasted, and Indian entrepreneurs are taking note.

“All you got (before) was the stuff that was on supermarket shelves, which were ideally roasted about three months back,” Ashish D’Abreo, co-founder of Flying Squirrel Coffee, said.

The Bengaluru-based startup was founded in 2013 by D’Abreo and his college friend Tej Thammaiah. On its website, Flying Squirrel sells seven brands of coffee, with beans sourced from Thammaiah’s family estate in Kodagu, Karnataka. These are roasted during the week, based on orders, and then ground to the customer’s specifications, be it for an Aeropress machine or a south Indian filter coffee-maker.

While 200 grams of Nescafe Classic instant coffee will set you back around Rs425 in the supermarket, Flying Squirrel’s coffees are priced between Rs290 and Rs640 for 250 grams, not including shipping charges. And discerning Indian consumers are drinking them up.

“It’s a growing market, a fast-growing market,” D’Abreo added. He said though Indians are a long way from giving up instant coffee for good, the signs are encouraging, especially since the country is still predominantly a tea-drinking market, notably in the north.

Can tea be dethroned?

India may be the world’s sixth-largest coffee producer, but it is tea that has come closest to being declared the country’s national beverage. Popularised by the British in the colonial era, tea is to this day India’s preferred beverage, even in the southern states where coffee is produced.

That’s because it’s the most affordable drink in the country after water. Around 84% of urban households in India drink tea, while only one in 12 drink coffee, according to National Sample Survey Office data.

“Anyone who’s travelled the length and breadth of this country will be able to tell that Indians have made chai their own,” said Shweta Ghosh, director of Steeped and Stirred, a documentary on India’s relationship with tea.

Even in Karnataka, which produces around 70% of the country’s coffee, its per capita consumption trails that of tea.

Because of this relatively low domestic demand, most of India’s high-quality coffee is exported to countries such as Italy, Germany, and Belgium. Thus, it is difficult for consumers to find good coffee in stores.

But Indian coffee nerds are trying to change that.

Ask Ayush Bathwal, a techie who took to specialty coffee during his two years living in San Diego.

When the 25-year-old from Ranchi, Jharkhand, returned to India in 2015, he, along with his childhood friend Anirudh Sharma, founded Third Wave Coffee Roasters in Bengaluru to spread the love of good coffee. The two have spent the past year sourcing beans from various estates in Chikamagalur, Karnataka, and plan to begin delivering freshly-roasted grounds from September. That will coincide with the opening of their café which will serve coffee made with beans freshly roasted on site.

“We’re trying to educate everyone who drinks coffee,” Bathwal said, adding that the goal is to encourage Indians to drink up quality coffee, priced slightly lower than what’s sold at chains like Starbucks.

Incidentally it is chains like the home-grown Cafe Coffee Day (CCD) and Seattle-based Starbucks that have really paved the way for this incipient coffee revolution. In the past decade-and-half, young Indians have flocked to these joints to hang out with friends. In the process, coffee consumption has picked up. According to the Coffee Board of India, consumption has been rising 5-6% every year.

So far Indians have stuck mostly to cold coffees and cappuccinos. However, with increasing incomes, tastes are evolving, too, making customers more receptive to brews beyond the beloved traditional preparations such as the south Indian filter coffee.

And that’s the key, according to Matt Chitharanjan, co-founder of New Delhi-based Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters, one of the pioneers of India’s online specialty coffee business.

“It is really helping (to) build the market for better coffee,” he said.

Coffee classes

Blue Tokai, founded in 2013, has two cafes of its own in New Delhi and Mumbai where it hosts brewing classes to teach customers the fine art of preparing the perfect cup of coffee. From information on temperature, grind size, and brewing time to instructions for using French press and Aeropress machines, the classes offer an introduction to specialty coffee

Blue Tokai also maintains an informative coffee blog, packed with tips on storage and brewing, and sells equipment and coffee subscription packages. The beans it uses—sourced from nine estates in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu—are roasted twice-a-week before being delivered to eager customers across the country.

According to Chitharanjan, sales have been doubling every year. Earlier this year, Blue Tokai raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding from Snow Leopard Ventures, with participation from Bold Ventures, an early-stage investment firm.

But the company notes there’s a long road ahead. So far, the takers for gourmet coffee are urban Indians well-versed in global trends. But that’s not a big segment of the population so a lot of work needs to be done to educate consumers, says Chitharanjan.

That’s why Blue Tokai plans to open even more roasteries and cafes. And they’re not alone; The Flying Squirrel is opening its own roastery-cafe in Bengaluru next month where they will serve pour-overs and espressos made with beans freshly roasted on site, unlike in India’s existing cafe chains.

“People are beginning to discover that coffee is not just about caffeine and that was our whole premise right from the beginning,” The Flying Squirrel’s D’Abreo said.

“…If you really want to enjoy a cup of coffee that has various notes and fragrances, aromas and nuances, then this is the coffee you need to get.”