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India’s coffee culture is getting the update it deserves

Coffee experts talk innovative concept coffee bars, coffee rituals, and the desire for Indian roast blends.
araku cofeee india's coffee shop

Renowned poet T.S. Eliot once wrote “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” a sentiment that can hold true for most coffee lovers across the globe, whose mornings don’t start till they get that first whiff of their morning brews. Count me an exception, because despite my love for coffee, my body developed a caffeine intolerance, almost three years back and the booming coffee culture isn’t helping, coffee has now become like a persistent ex I’m trying so hard to forget. 

As for India’s love for coffee, it all began in the late seventeenth century when Baba Budan, an Indian pilgrim to Mecca smuggled in seven coffee beans from Mocha in Yemen and planted them in the Chandragiri hills of Karnataka (back in 1670, when this happened, it was illegal to take coffee seeds out of Arabia). Despite India being considered a tea-drinking nation, it was coffee that was first introduced to the Indian palette. By the 18th century, the East India Company had started investing in coffee production, levelling out the forested hills of the South and declaring coffee as a cash crop. Despite this convoluted history of coffee in India, the filter coffee continues to reign as India’s beloved accompaniment to breakfasts.

Now, a new coffee revolution has been brewing in India for a while. In recent years, the way we consume coffee has seen a significant change, there is now a “shift towards drinking black coffee. It’s important to note that as a nation, we’ve graduated from filter coffee to cappuccino, especially in cities. Now, there’s a clear trend of people appreciating coffee in its pure form and drinking it black,” says Manoj Kumar, the Chief Executive Officer of the Naandi Foundation and the co-founder of ARAKU Coffee.

marc's coffee india's coffee shop

Source: Marc’s Coffee/Instagram

Coffee culture demands coffee rituals 

Over the years, India’s love for coffee has manifested in various forms, the early 2000’s (experiencing a world post-globalisation) saw a curiosity for coffee beans from around the world. Then came in the Davidoff, the Nestle, the Barista, the Costa Coffee and the Starbucks, inviting all coffee lovers to experiment with their palette. The last few years, on the other hand, have catapulted to a renewed interest in homegrown coffee brands and trips to local coffee shops. This shift, most certainly, can be attributed to the coronavirus-induced pandemic years and its consequent focus on slow living. Kumar echoes this sentiment, saying, “The even more exciting corollary is the emergence of coffee drinking as a ‘ritual’, with people adopting habits and techniques to celebrate it. People now discuss how they brew and ask, “How do you drink your coffee?” This shift signifies an upward trend in the appreciation of coffee culture, which is encouraging for brands like ARAKU, aiming to promote coffee in its finest form. This upward journey also marks the beginning of an appreciation for fine taste, leading to the rise of speciality coffee as a distinct entity.”

In that vein, Eden Uriel Tormo Mir from Marc’s Coffee in Pondicherry adds, “Coffee profile wise, India is incredible because within itself there are so many terroirs translating to many different flavour profiles, from central south to the east and northeast, like Nagaland, each region has its own set of flavours. An easy comparison—the diversity India has culturally is equivalent to the diversity of coffee flavours and profiles.” Agreeing on this, Prasanna Gudi, the Director of Coffee at Subko Coffee Roasters adds, “Indian coffees are distinguished by their unique flavour profiles, influenced by our diverse terroir. The increasing demand for speciality coffees, both domestically and internationally, is driving innovation in unique processing, spotlighting Indian coffee.”

Coffee rituals on the other hand vary for most, and while some find themselves going to their local coffee shops for that quick caffeine fix, many others are now indulging in brewing their own coffees, experimenting with different techniques. As Kumar says, “These are fascinating times, and when it comes to social impact, in my conversations with individuals in the barista industry, they mentioned an extraordinary rush of youth in India wanting to become baristas. There’s a barista WhatsApp group with thousands of members, and every day there’s a demand for baristas. The question now is how long will this run? How long will this run last? When will it evolve into a distinction between good and bad baristas, good and bad coffee? Time will tell, however the momentum is fascinating.”  

subko coffee india's coffee roaster and cafe

Source: Subko Coffee Roasters

When coffee and concept collide

The emergence of these coffee rituals has also translated into quite a few exciting and game-changing concept coffee bars and roasteries. Take, for instance, Records Coffee by Veranda in Pali Hill, Bandra that offers artisanal coffee with a side of timeless vinyl records. “The most exhilarating trend I’ve noticed is the growing appreciation for locally sourced beans and the emergence of micro-roasteries. These small-scale micro Rroasteries are not only elevating the quality of coffee but also helping to highlight regional variances in flavour profiles, much like the wine industry,” says Gudi.

“It’s important to have these partners spring up in the ecosystem for brands like ours to spread coffeeology. Coffee is evolving from a commodity to a brew and now to a culture. As it becomes a culture, you need multiple players to be involved, and I’m excited that many are joining with various versions emerging. The livelihood angle in this is powerful; these experiments of enterprises create opportunities that didn’t exist before. I hope this will be a trendsetter to look at where it sets the tone for cafes to shift from places where one would exit by 5 pm to a place where you have meaningful conversations about coffee, beverages, and food. I’m looking forward to this transition,” adds Kumar.

On the other hand, Tormo Mir says, “It’s very easy to get caught in the branding and forget about your actual product, but there are a bunch of them who do a great job, for example, Ner Lu in Bengaluru is a multi roasters cafe meaning they buy from everyone who roasts good coffee and let the clients decide.” 

Another interesting development in India’s coffee industry (reflecting on the way we consume now) has been a larger conversation surrounding sustainability in the industry. Some homegrown coffee brands have been amalgamating more sustainable models right from the coffee producers they collaborate with to the supply chain. For the larger part, India’s coffee revolution reflects the modern consumer, who is willing to experiment but is also conscientious of their own role and impact. 

araku coffee india's coffee shop in indiranagar

Source: ARAKU Coffee

The sustainability debate 

Tormo Mir is quick to remind us that, “people love to talk about sustainability, they greenwash their brands, and add keywords as marketing tools. But when it comes to sustainability and action there are only a handful of individuals who are committed to the cause and are being legit about it.” Taking on this, Gudi offers an alternative experience, saying, “Sustainability is a key element in the coffee industry. Our strategy focuses on ethical sourcing and transparency throughout the supply chain. We have taken the initiative to adopt a village (K. Taddiputtu) in the Paderu region of Andhra Pradesh, which we now call Subko Village. Our engagement goes beyond merely purchasing coffee; we actively contribute to the community’s development. This includes setting up training centres for local youth, where we offer barista training programs. Additionally, we are involved in various social welfare programs to enhance the overall well-being of the village.”

To which Kumar adds, “I think that the sustainability conversation is spreading…One wouldn’t have thought it would go to food and beverages, I’m fascinated that humanity is catching up fast. Consumers are becoming more conscientious, driven not just by regulations unlike the case in Europe but by consciousness, with consumers and marketers pushing it. What I’m really excited about is that this conversation is moving from mere recycling and waste, and shifting from plastic to paper cups (which by the way is great!) to looking at ‘Where does the food come from?’ ‘How is the food travelling?’ To me, that’s where India could lead the sustainability conversation.”

Much like India’s gin renaissance in 2016, India’s coffee revolution is a celebration of Indian coffee and those who are bringing it to the forefront, this revolution has just started and we can’t wait for what is to come next!