However, in India, this ‘third wave’ – essentially coffee with a story, with an accent on the artisanal that made an appearance four to five years ago – seems to have stilled. Despite the presence of beanto-cup companies dependent on e-commerce, roasters like Blue Tokai and the odd barista or two in our midst, India’s new-age coffee story is not at par with markets in Europe, America, Australia or even Japan, another tea-drinking culture like ours that seems to be switching to the cult of coffee. Why is India lagging behind?
“We are neither a tea-loving country nor a coffee-loving country. We are a milk loving country,” says Vaibhav Singh, co owner of Perch, a wine and coffee bar in Delhi and Mumbai. Perch was one of the first places in the country to pitch itself as a coffee bar, offering customers single origin Indian and international coffees. It experimented with nitro brews (nitrogen is infused into coffee to expand it, give it a frothy and, therefore, silken mouth feel) and still does a popular cocktail – the coffee sangria, with its in-house blend.
However, those in the business like Singh feel that while experiments have been happening, thanks to producers, roasters and restaurateurs, customers beyond a small tribe of coffee nerds are lagging behind in taking to newer ways of drinking coffee. It seems a fair assessment, given the fact that currently the coffee being most talked about by foodies is the “beaten” version introduced by a food major, taking inspiration from phenti hui coffee, where instant coffee (the lowest grade of beans go into mass-produced instant coffee) is beaten with a fork to generate a foamy concoction. Phenti hui coffee is a ritual familiar to many from a generation or two ago — those who stayed awake late into the night chatting with friends or relatives, bonding over it. This nostalgia has now been bottled. Similarly, filter coffee, a way of life in southern India that grew out of a culture of coffee homes in the early 20th century, is gaining fresh ground in trendy cafes. Restaurants are also reviving “meter coffee” or “degree coffee”, familiarising these ideas to a new generation of consumers seeking novelty via nostalgia. However, as these repackaged ideas gain currency, the thing to note is that our pop dining culture is not paying attention to the quality of coffee, only to repackaged rituals of preparation.
Some coffee growers from Kodagu I spoke to say they are wary of filter coffee becoming a mass café phenomenon. It is laden with chicory, a cheaper additive that gives a distinctive bitterness and taste to filter coffee blends. If attention needs to be focussed on quality Indian coffee, attributes of taste must be associated with it beyond “sweet, strong and hot”. India is the primary producer of shade-grown coffee in the world; a way of planting that allows beans to imbibe flavours from plants and trees growing alongside coffee plants. This makes for a diversity of flavours akin to wine, where the notion of terroir determines complexity and quality. Customers should be able to appreciate these notes, but that is not possible in an overtly milky and sweet beverage.
“Life is too short for bad coffee”, reads the tagline at Dope coffee roasters, a small, Mumbai based startup that sources beans, customises roasts and sells coffees online, and at various outlets of the chain Social in Mumbai. “I think the idea that brewing coffee is complicated and time-consuming is a deterrent for consumers,” says co-founder Rizwan Amlani. Deep seated habits are not easy to let go of, but small companies like Amlani’s, peopled by passionate and self-confessed coffee nerds, are trying to change the way Gen Y drinks coffee.
Owners of these micro businesses feel there is enough interest to sustain them, both online and offline, as loyal communities get formed around a cuppa. The phenomenon of cold brews, where coffee is left to brew at room temperature over a long period of time, may be a solution for those intimidated by complicated processes of preparing it via the French press, pour overs, or the paraphernalia of brewing equipment endlessly debated upon by coffee nerds.
Cold brew can be as simple as mixing ground coffee with water and leaving it in the fridge overnight. You could strain it the next morning and use as you please – including in frappes. The world over, this is gaining traction, and bottled cold brews are popular. Many third wave coffee companies have attracted substantial investments from PE funds internationally, both in these ready-to-drink categories and café models with in-house roasteries and inventive applications.
For Indian speciality coffee to go mainstream, this is needed too. Most new-age roasters in India today have models that are a combination of selling online, B2B and cafes. These startups have been growing approximately 30% year-on-year, says Sharad Sachdeva, director operations at L Catterton, a PE fund. Many are seeking funding, but “they are still at the start of a very long road”, he adds. Once they are able to shake off age old habits and find wider acceptance, the road to better coffee can be traversed – one cup at a time.
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