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The current state of specialty coffee in India

Like most coffee producing countries, India exports it’s best coffee. But there is a growing wave of local artisanal coffee brands seeking to change that narrative. To get the local market to appreciate locally grown specialty beans.

We spoke to the founder of one of those brands, Mithilesh Vazalwar, founder of Corridor Seven Coffee Roasters, about the current state of the specialty coffee industry in India.

Coffee isn’t indigenous to India. How did it get there?

There is a tale of a Sufi saint who was travelling from the Middle East (Yemen). He is said to have smuggled 7 green coffee beans and planted them in Chikmagalur in Bangalore, Karnataka, India. His name was Brother Baba Budan- and you can see his grave on the mountains of Chikmagalur

India is still a predominantly tea-drinking country isn’t it? Is specialty coffee growing in popularity?

A yes and a no. The kind of tea we drink is not the “OG” tea that there is. We have “masala chai” and I love it! So India is a massive chai drinking country, yes, but the way it has adopted to coffee is insane. It’s gone wild!

The consumption was 70g per person per year. I am sure that has gone up to a 100-120 g easy. Nothing compared to the Scandinavian countries but, still, its a huge percentage climb. The amount of roasteries and coffeeshops popping up, workshops, tasting sessions, etc., etc. – it just shows how coffee culture is picking up. Not to forget our farmers working on the processing and backend work! Its amazing.

Where are the majority of coffee farms based in India?

Majorly it is the Southern belt that includes – Kerala, Karnataka – areas like Coorg, Chikmagalur . There are regions in North East as well and centre of India too that are doing some amazing stuff!

Can farms sustain themselves growing only coffee?

I doubt it. They definitely need a different crop to support them all year round. As I understand with just 1 coffee harvest season in India, it will be tough to pull out the entire year with just coffee being your only crop. It could be the main crop – but the only crop is a tough call.

Are there any farms producing 90+ coffees? If not, why not? What do you think needs to happen to get there?

Well, not yet. But we are not too far! Maybe 2-3 years more and the snowball will begin. My understanding from speaking to estate owners, it was evident that there was some sort of community structure missing. But that is now shaping up right from roasters and brewers and cuppers too! Along with that, knowledge sharing has begun pretty well and openly. Other markets have eyeballs on us and the support system is just getting better and better.

Can you name some farms doing great things?

We have Ratnagiri Estate, Riverdale Estate, Baarbara, Kerehaklu and many more!!

Is there an education drive for specialty in India amongst growers, roasters, baristas and coffeeshop owners?

I will not say a yes. The hunger is there and in next few years we will see this happening easily and at a very high level / scale.

What is, generally, the Indian coffee drinker’s preference in terms of taste?

So the taste is evolving. It is just like how it happens with the beer industry. First you “strong” and bitter. Then your taste evolves smoother ones. Similarly, the Indian coffee palette is evolving rapidly. If earlier 95 of 100 liked the bitter coffee, now it is 80:20 – 80 bitter and 20 fruitier.

How much of the world’s perception of Indian specialty coffee is due to branding? How does the Indian specialty coffee industry need to re-brand itself?

Haahaha! Fantastic question! Well, branding is playing a massive role. But it will only take you to certain level – as seen in all industries if you don’t change / alter and keep your quality in tact and improving we will never reach globally for a long term. I think it’s time to bring in words like – traceability, transparency, coffee education. And its time to take them seriously. Only calling yourself “specialty” will not make you a specialty cafe. We need to go deeper and diversify our thinking more.

Can you name some coffeeshops doing great things?

Blue Tokai is doing great things. I also recommend Mon Petite Frere in Goa. And Curious Life Coffee.

About Mithilesh

Mithilesh is a TedX speaker, Q-Grader, India’s first ever Indian Aeropress Champion, a SCA Coffee brewer and roaster and founder of Corridor Seven Coffee Roasters.

Images from Mithilesh and Corridor Seven’s instagram pages.

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