From mother-in-laws to the Tatas: The piping-hot journey of coffee in India

It was undoubtedly Starbucks -- no matter how much connoisseurs lampoon its coffees -- that mainstreamed Coffee culture in the country
The Indian Coffee House in Shimla's Mall Road. (Photo| Instagram/ @sadaf_hussain)
The Indian Coffee House in Shimla's Mall Road. (Photo| Instagram/ @sadaf_hussain)

The great RK Narayan had written in his autobiography -- My Days -- that in traditional South Indian homes the ultimate sign of acceptance of a daughter-in-law in the family is when the matriarch allows her to make coffee for the family. Till then she would be considered an apprentice or understudy.

This, as I later discovered, was not an exaggeration. Coffee making is an art that takes years to perfect. Mysore filter coffee even more so because each step from preparation of the decoction to the temperature and thickness of the milk is critical for the final product. Old South Indian Ammas were, therefore, natural Baristas.

Outside of South India, for years Indians were fed with an imposter called "instant coffee" which was a travesty of the drink. In North India, coffee was a fashion statement in winters. At weddings and banquets some strange contraption called "Espresso Machines" popped up. But it was not close to real Espresso even by a thousand miles.

Espresso is made by forcing very hot water under high pressure through finely ground compacted coffee. What the 'tent-walla' Espresso machines did was pump steam into a mixture of milk, coffee powder and sugar inside a stainless steel jug raising its temperature to tongue-burning levels. But who knows one day it might make a comeback as "Steamed Latte" at gourmet coffee shops. 

Then arrived Barrista and Cafe Coffee Day (CCD). Though the Barista and CCD coffees may have been only a shade better than phony instant coffee, they to their credit taught younger generation Indians the pleasures of brewed coffee. A few other chains like Costas and Coffee Beans followed but they were not any better. However, it was undoubtedly Starbucks -- no matter how much connoisseurs lampoon its coffees -- that mainstreamed Coffee culture in the country paving the way for Blue Tokai, Third Wave Coffee and new bespoke coffee shops. 

Like tea, the journey of coffee begins from the estate. However, unlike tea -- where each garden and tea-growing region had its own character -- Indian coffee was more of a commodity made essentially for the export market where it competed at the lower end. The fate of coffee planters hung on the vagaries of international coffee prices which were linked to the production in major coffee-producing countries like Brazil and Colombia. Over time other countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, Vietnam and Indonesia got their acts together to produce their own differentiated varieties. But Indian coffee remained more generic.

A former boss -- a bon vivant -- would get his supplies of Colombia Blue Mountain Coffee from his trips abroad. I once asked him where I can  get good coffee in India. He told me with a straight face -- "go to the Indian Coffee House and buy some of their house-blend".  Lest I thought it was a joke, he went on to explain: "Look, you won't get good imported coffee easily in India. And, they don't make special coffees in India. So, you are best off buying the India Coffee House blend because they at least maintain a consistent quality."

From him I learnt that from the selection of the beans, the degree of roasting, the fineness of the grinding and the method of brewing all contributed to the end product. At that time, few in India had seen coffee makers other than the South Indian Copper or Stainless Steel filters and the pot stove tops used in Andhra Pradesh. Even the now ubiquitous French Press was rare -- let alone the modern-day contraptions like Moka Pot, Aeropress, Steel Pour Overs.

I knew about the difference between Arabica and Robusta.  Arabica has less caffeine content than Robusta and requires special conditions to grow -- and hence is more expensive. The distinction I make between Orthodox and CTC or Dust Tea. But the gentleman taught me Chicory is a kind of root that is added to pure coffee to make it thicker. It also adds a woody and nutty taste. It is sometimes blended into instant coffee to simulate the Filter Coffee taste and feel -- apart from making it more economical. 

The Tatas, who are one of the largest coffee planters of the country, gave Indian Coffee greater respectability by bringing Starbucks to India. This encouraged small plantation owners to focus on niche single estate production concentrating on notes and aromas quite similar to vineyard owners and winemakers. Mysore (now Karnataka) and adjoining areas of Kerala and Tamil Nadu were the original coffee growing regions of the country. However, the growing popularity of brewed coffee has encouraged coffee cultivation in other states.

Coffee grows best in altitudes between 3,000 to 6,000 feet. Like many other product categories Covid was a boom for the fledgling gourmet Coffee Industry. Blue Tokai, Sleepy Owl and some new e-commerce brands created a D2C market for premium coffees. 

Many parts of India, therefore, have conditions conducive to coffee. Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh has taken to coffee in a big way and made a name. Next time you go to Delhi's Andhra Bhavan Canteen for a meal check for Araku Coffee in one of the shops at the entrance.

The North East Hills and Kalimpong (which is at a slightly lower altitude than Darjeeling) in West Bengal is also growing a small amount of coffee. The Biswa Bangla Stores in Delhi and Kolkata stock Kalimpong Coffee. Neighbouring Nepal, which had for long toyed with the idea of growing coffee in its middle region, I believe is producing good coffee too. The Cottage Industries Emporium in Delhi also keeps some interesting Indian coffees.  Time to go Vocal for Local on Indian Coffees.

Read all food columns by Sandip Ghose here

(Sandip Ghose is an author and current affairs commentator. He tweets @SandipGhose.)

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