After the good old Indian Coffee Houses scattered across the country, where “filter coffee and masala dosa” was the ubiquitous order (and which are jampacked even today), India got a taste of contemporary coffee when Barista (initially called Barista, taken over by Lavazza in 2007) opened shop in the country in 2000. But more than the coffee, it was the experience that wowed the crowds. The seating was posh, the ambience cool and the menus offered French patisseries along with cappuccinos and espressos. With their orange vector logos and ice-cream-topped glasses of cold coffee, the Barista outlets were an instant hit. By the time a brand like Starbucks made inroads into the Indian market in 2012, coffee shops such as Café Coffee Day were synonymous with social outings, professional meetings or semi-formal gatherings, with coffee proving to be more than just a brew and becoming more of a social lubricant for evolving metro cities. And because these coffee shops meant more than coffee, these chains soon started offering a range of food to attract more and more customers. Somewhere down the line, the core ingredient, coffee, took a back seat. Few went to a café for just the coffee. Enter new-age entrepreneurs, who took stock of the situation and decided to bring about a change by introducing coffee drinkers in the country to gourmet coffee. The coffee was not run-of-the-mill, and the focus was on specialty coffee—sourcing it from the best of farms—and the process of roasting and grinding the beans right. In short, the cream of the cup. For Ayush Bathwal and Anirudh Sharma, both belonging to Ranchi, it was the unexpected flavour of guava in a coffee Bathwal tasted in San Diego, USA, that sparked the idea of gourmet coffees.
Bathwal was working with Qualcomm in the USA, but decided to move back to India. It was during this time that he decided to take up his passion for coffee as a profession. He visited several roasteries in San Diego and decided to give manually-brewed coffees a chance over the usual lattes after being “blown away” by the hand-brewed coffee he experienced there. He started researching specialty coffees and soon joined forces with school friend Sharma. Both agreed that there was a void in the gourmet coffee space in India. “Our passion for good coffee and eagerness to start something in this space led our way to start Third Wave. We moved to Bengaluru in 2015 to research, learn and connect with people from the industry. Bengaluru, because it’s closer to everything coffee and consumers here don’t mind trying something new and different,” says Bathwal.
They connected with people from the industry and quickly learnt the ropes. Third Wave finally opened in September last year in Koramangala, Bengaluru. Their outlet offers visitors a choice of coffee beans that have been sourced directly from farmers, majorly in Chikmagalur, Karnataka. Since opening, they have witnessed a steady increase in the number of people willing to try different manually-brewed coffees. Another player in the artisanal coffee market in India is The Flying Squirrel, a farmer-to-cup artisanal coffee brand founded in 2013. A group of coffee lovers discovered that a true coffee drinker didn’t really have much choice when it came to home brewing with quality coffee beans, as what was available on supermarket shelves was roasted anywhere between a month to six months ago.
Ashish D’Abreo, Tej Thammaiah (third-generation coffee estate owner and coffee connoisseur) and Phalgun Chidanand, entrepreneur and restaurateur, put in much research and effort that involved experiments at the cultivation, processing, drying, storing and roasting stages, and finally settled on seven diverse coffees. Soon, they launched an online store. The brand today supplies coffee to cafés and restaurants across India, and has sold over 6,000 kg of artisanal coffee to customers across 32 cities and towns in India. They have now launched their first The Flying Squirrel Micro Roastery and Café in Bengaluru, which is a ‘coffee-first’ space. “Most cafés in India are meeting and socialising spaces. While we may not be able to change that, we’d like to be known as a coffee-first space. At our cafés, everything centres around the coffee. The environment, the food, the experience and the communication,” says D’Abreo.
He adds that they are looking to expand to other cities and opening micro-roastery cafés and kiosks in larger metros as well. They also want to mark their presence in gourmet retail stores across the country. Their ‘functional’ kiosks and cafés are where people would get to experience artisanal small-batch coffees without overpaying, adds D’Abreo. The company also aims to convert customers into home brewers, ordering their coffee subscriptions on The Flying Squirrel website, which, as per D’Abreo, is bigger for them. The same desire for good coffee was behind Blue Tokai, started four years ago when Matt Chitharanjan and his wife, Namrata Asthana (both in their mid-30s), moved to New Delhi from Chennai. They were disappointed when the coffee beans they sought in the capital lacked freshness. “India grows great coffee, but a major chunk of it is exported. This made us feel that Indian coffee beans should be taken to local consumers too,” says Chitharanjan. Which is exactly what the couple decided to do.
After zeroing in on a handful of coffee plantations across south India, such as those in Chikmagalur and Nilgiri (Karnataka), Blue Tokai made its way into the market in January 2013 through direct-to-customer online sales on their website. “We prefer people buying beans from us (our website) because the traditional supply chain in retail stores lowers the freshness quotient,” Chitharanjan says, stressing that, for his company, freshness is key. After completing four years in the field, he welcomes other players in the market, as he feels that an increasing number of roasters means that more people will be educated about the different styles of gourmet coffee. Sensing more concentrated demand from metros, the founders of Blue Tokai have opened up two cafés, in New Delhi and Mumbai, this year to cater to their steadily growing user base.
Then there is 32-year-old Kunal Ross from Mysore. The founder of Theindianbean.com, a company that sells coffee beans online, says he felt the need to educate people about the origin of coffee and that’s the reason he started the website in 2013. His mission was to get coffee beans straight from the farmer to a customer’s doorstep, consciously making an effort to keep the flavours of the region intact. In fact, his company’s specialty lies in sourcing coffee beans from all over the country, be it Kodaikanal (Tamil Nadu) or Kodagu and Biligirirangana Hills (Karnataka). “The demand (for gourmet coffee beans) has increased,” says Ross, adding that with larger aggregates, the market for products similar to his has become larger, paving the way for more entrepreneurs like him. Once a customer places an order on Theindianbean.com, his/her choice of beans is shipped across the country within three-four days of roasting in order to deliver the product as fresh as possible. Among their specialties are Malnad coffee, signature south Indian filter coffee, and the exotic monkey-bitten coffee, which, as the name suggests, is actually bitten by monkeys and has a sweet taste.
Tuhin Jain of Bonhomia, a website that sells gourmet coffee and tea capsules, and also brewing machines, believes the emphasis is equally on the machines that brew the perfect cup. “This is already a norm in the West, where people have installed coffee-makers at home to drink perfectly-brewed cups of coffee whenever they want,” says Jain. In India, though, the trend is just beginning to take shape. Started in 2012 by Jain, a former Pepsi executive, and Kunal Bhagat, a former investment banker, Bonhomia offers various coffee brewer variants. Their machines can also be found in hotel chains, as well as on retail at gourmet food chains. In 2016, ITC also forayed into the gourmet coffee category with the launch of its Sunbean Gourmet Coffee. “Sunbean marks ITC’s entry into the luxury consumer market in India,” says Hemant Malik, divisional chief executive, foods division, ITC.
“All the coffee beans (both Indian and international) used in Sunbean are blended and processed by master blenders,” Malik says, adding, “This consumer segment may be small today, but we believe that there is a large unmet need for world-class coffee in the country. We are now in the process of rolling out Sunbean coffee in modern trade outlets in select cities.” Gourmet food store Foodhall COO Jay Jhaveri agrees that there is an increased demand for artisanal coffee in India. “With several new artisanal coffee brands coming up, consumers have also become more aware about it. In India, we have a large number of good coffee plantations in the southern part. With a lot of them entering the retail market, the awareness of good coffee has also increased. We stock several such brands, and they are all loved by our shoppers,” he says.