A raku Coffee is a geographical indication (GI) tagged award-winning coffee brand produced in the northeastern reaches of Andhra Pradesh. Instead of resting on the laurels received by the company, Manoj Kumar, co-founder and CEO, is looking ahead. He wants the valley where the beans are grown to be known as the coffee capital of India, and to encourage a culture of appreciation for premium specialty coffee.

Excerpts from an interview with Luxe :

How did the Araku story begin?

The Araku region is an adivasi belt and was infamous for Naxal activity. While coffee plantations existed in the area even before Independence, they had withered away in the years after 1947. We revived them, and can proudly say that currently, we have over 1,000 farmer families who are partners with us in the process. David Hogg, a brilliant agriculturist who has been working with organic farmers in the region, gave us advice and guidance. Early on, we realised that in order to be able to give back to the farmers who produce the coffee, we would have to make the product a premium one, since coffee isn’t a profitable product anywhere in the world. Two decades on, I’m happy to say that my farmers are earning a net profit of ₹2-3 lakh per year per acre growing coffee, apart from the income from pepper (which is also grown there).

Araku Valley Coffee won the Gold Medal for the best coffee pod in the Prix Epicures OR 2018 award in Paris. What steps were taken to ensure it was the best specialty coffee of the year?

Coffee cultivation and processing has a crazy number of steps, much more than wine or whisky for that matter. There are a total of 21 steps, and at Araku, we pay attention to each and every step, which gave us a total of 88 points out of 100 at the Prix Epicures OR award. Around the world, industrial machines are mostly used to harvest coffee berries since manual labour is relatively expensive. However, we ensure that only the reddest berry is harvested, a painstaking process undertaken by our farmers. Again, our coffee beans are sun dried for two or three weeks, whereas in most plantations, they are dried using an industrial blower, and this makes all the difference. Everything, from the coffee berries to the packaging of the product, has had thought gone into it. Experts from Korea, Japan and France came to advise us. We ran a contest a few years ago called Gems of Araku to encourage competition among the coffee growers, and it really transformed the region. We realised early on that if we had to make a mark, we needed certification from coffee experts from around the world, and we worked to achieve that. Our first store opened in Paris in 2017, and France is one of the major exporters of Araku coffee.

What plans for Araku Coffee now?

There are many plans afoot, but I don't want to reveal them all. The current plan is to open a 7,000-sq ft barista in Indiranagar, Bengaluru, where we aim to change the coffee experience for enthusiasts in India. We want to cultivate an audience that appreciates premium coffee. The cafe will have staff who are knowledgeable about the product that we're serving. Coffee is a ritual, it’s a live product, so it’s different from other produce in that sense. We’re going to conduct half-day workshops on coffee appreciation. I would like the consumers to be more aware of the entire process — from the field to the cup — to understand the effort that has gone into each cup, and think about the environmental cost of it all. I want consumers to think about climate change affecting industrial farming, and appreciate the slow but sure fruits of biodynamic farming.

What are your plans for the coffee plantations?

On the plantation side, we aim to improve our farmers’ incomes. We currently grow pepper alongside coffee, which is also profitable. The area has 23 million fruit trees which add to the microclimate of the region and enhances the taste of the coffee as well as improves the area’s biodiversity. Apart from that, we are also opening what I believe is India’s first SCA accredited training campus in the same premises. (An SCA Premier Training Campus is a globally recognised member company or organisation certified by the Specialty Coffee Association as having met all the requirements of the Campus programme.) People will be able to join courses that will teach them about every aspect of coffee from cultivation to roasting, brewing and packaging.

Could you explain the logo of the Araku brand?

Our brand logo, multi-coloured leaf against a white background, is representative of the bright coloured saris worn by the women farmers, who do the majority of the work when it comes to coffee cultivation. Araku Foundation, apart from improving the income of the farmer partners, has also been working on several social programmes in the area of nutrition and literacy, as well as employment opportunities.

Payel Majumdar Upreti