‘Specialty coffee’: The cup that cheers

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on December 08, 2020

A coffee revolution is brewing in India and growers are offering exotic varieties to a number of cafés and roasters

At the sprawling Harley Estate in Karnataka, DM Purnesh loves experimenting with fresh ways to delight coffee-drinkers’ palates. He recently aged a batch of ‘specialty coffee’ beans for up to 60 days in whisky casks sourced from Bengaluru’s Amrut Distilleries. The result, in the estate’s words, was a coffee that “imbibed the heady aroma and sweet nuances of fine single-malt whisky.” Now Parnesh is about to put specialty beans into barrels from Grover Wines and he hopes the ensuing batches will also hit the right notes for coffee connoisseurs.

Head northward to Delhi where 23-year-old coffee-roaster Manvi Gupta experienced a trial by fire after opening her El Bueno coffee-roasting business in December 2018. Gupta wasn’t from a coffee-growing family but entered the business after an entrepreneurship course in Singapore. “The city was buzzing with cafés serving specialty coffee. I thought there’s definitely scope for this in India,” she says.

Gupta rapidly built her business, selling 80 per cent to hotels and restaurants and 20 per cent to individuals. While her B2B customers were hit by the pandemic, the lockdown produced benefits: housebound people began experimenting and buying high-quality coffee. As a result, Gupta says her sales are back to 70 per cent of pre-pandemic times. “Home brewing’s grown. And while businesses prefer to buy blends, customers at home prefer single-origin coffee,” she says.

A coffee revolution of sorts is brewing in India as plantation owners focus on growing fine coffee for export and, increasingly, for the domestic market. “In the last two-to-three years, specialty coffee’s been booming. Home brewing’s also increased,” says roaster Dhiraj Vijay Agrawal, who opened a café in his home-town Nashik 14 years ago.

Despite images of south Indians gulping down cup-after-cup of hot coffee, India’s always been largely a tea-drinking country. India produces about 348,000 tonnes of coffee, of which, 100,000 tonnes is consumed within our borders. That’s changing quickly, though. Balanoor Plantations used to export 75-80 per cent of its coffee a few years ago. Now exports are down to 60 per cent. “That’s quite a change,” says corporate affairs manager Rohan Kuriyan. Notes Purnesh: “The last two years, we’ve seen a big boom. The new trend is many bars and restaurants and beer parlours are keeping good coffee and have good machines and trained baristas.”

Borrowing ideas

The new coffee-business players are borrowing many ideas from the wine-and-whisky trades where striving for exclusivity has become an art form. Just like good malts, there are single-origin, single-estate and upmarket blends now on offer. Many coffee growers are selling coffee “microlots” and “nanolots” from parts of the estate where they see the crop’s faring exceptionally well. “I’m able to identify every bean and which part of the estate it came from,” says Purnesh.

India’s also offering all types of different coffee. So you can buy Ainmane Estate’s Indian version of the famous ‘Kopi Luwak’ made from beans excreted by civet cats. Indonesia’s Kopi Luwak is one of the world’s most expensive coffees (100 gm of Ainmane’s Viverra wild civet coffee sells for ₹900). Alternatively, check out organic Araku coffee from Andhra Pradesh’s Araku Valley grown by small farmers and turned into international-grade coffee by foreign specialists like Hippolyte Courty. Or sample Halli Berri single origin, 100 per cent premium Arabica coffee or one of Purnesh’s six offerings sold under the Classic brand name.

“More estates are coming into the specialty game. That will give Indian coffee a lot of mileage,” says Pavan Nanjappa, who launched his coffee brand Papakuchi in 2013 and now sells to two key buyers in Europe and others in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

Then, there’s husband-and-wife team Akshay and Komal Dashrath who simultaneously run a tech company in Britain and the South India Coffee Company in Coorg which sells its own coffee in India and abroad and also buys from smaller planters. The couple live in London much of the time but have been riding out the pandemic in Coorg. Says Akshay: “It’s easier to run a tech company from Coorg than it’s to run a coffee estate from London.”

This year, Akshay and Komal are focussing on honey-processed coffees. The honey process, what’s called semi-pulped coffee, was started in Colombia and several Indian estates are doing it. One advantage of this process is it requires less water. Says Komal: “On our estate, we want to be sure we’re using our resources in as conscious as possible way.” Other planters use different processes like washed, natural and sundried. Says Kuriyan: “Pulp honey-processed coffee will give you different fruity notes.”

But the transformative change driving India’s specialty coffee culture is occurring across metropolitan cities and even Tier-1 and Tier-2 cities and towns, led by café chains like Blue Tokai and Flying Squirrel. “Blue Tokai came to us saying, ‘There’s a niche market for specialty coffee.’ Initially, I thought Indians weren’t interested in where a coffee comes from,” says Kuriyan. “Now if you go to a specialty café, they’ll give you a three-to-four-page menu with brewing methods you haven’t heard of. People are becoming fanatical about coffee.” Social media and online-selling have also raised specialty coffee’s profile. The new, artisanal approach means “Indian roasters are reaching a new level and are better than many overseas people,” says Kuriyan. To build roaster skills, Purnesh, who’s president of the Specialty Coffee Association of India, is also about to open the Coffee Plantation Research Institute where people can be trained and given certificate courses.

Testing times

But while more people are drinking coffee, times remain testing, especially for small planters. Arabica fetches higher market prices than Robusta coffee. But India’s Arabica crops have been attacked by the white stem borer pest prompting many planters to shift to Robusta cultivation. Also, weather patterns have become extremely erratic with a 2015-16 drought followed by two years of excessive rains. Robusta being a hardier crop can survive better through adverse climate conditions.

Coffee production is also labour-intensive. Some buyers also are now demanding a “Rainforest Alliance” certification stating whether the coffee is grown sustainably and checks working conditions. Most estate owners are strongly environmentally conscious. Coffee buyers also want to build a story for customers around the product they’re selling. Says Purnesh: “People are focussing on the ‘traceability’ of coffee. They write a story on what the customer’s going to drink.”

There’s still some way to go for Indian coffee. Says Komal: “If Indian coffees were looked at better on the world stage, it would be easier to sell our specialty coffee so it’s important we improve our overall coffee quality. Selling Brazilian coffee, which is mass-produced, mass-harvested, is easier than selling an Indian coffee. It’s all about branding which we really lack.”

Published on December 08, 2020

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