Food by VICE

The Rise of India’s Coffee Revolution

India has been growing coffee for centuries, but Indians themselves have almost always preferred a cup of chai instead. That is, until now.

by Barbara Woolsey
Dec 2 2016, 5:00pm

Indians have never been big coffee drinkers. Sure, the West's irreplaceable daily perk has existed in the South Asian country for centuries—as the story goes, those first prodigious beans were smuggled out of Yemen by an Indian Muslim saint around 600 years ago.

Since then, coffee production has flourished in the states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, but not for local consumption. British colonial presence made the beans a sizable export, but Indians themselves have always preferred to enjoy a hot cup of chai tea instead.

That is, until now. In the last few years, India's become privy to its own fledgling coffee culture. Sipping local roasts and hanging out at coffeehouses has become a real trend on home soil.

"Eight or nine years back, if you told a friend who was visiting from another city, 'Let's go for coffee,' they'd really scoff at you," said Ashish D'Abreo, co-founder of the Bangalore-based organic coffee startup Flying Squirrel. "It meant a five-rupee steel tumbler of instant stuff and it was very looked down upon. But now in Bangalore you can go and have a good Americano and espresso."

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Coffee cherries at Captain's Bungalow. All photos by the author.

D'Abreo started the company in 2013 with his partner Tej Thammaiah. The two were college friends in the southern state of Karnataka's capital and became frustrated with "no access to good coffee, only stuff that had been on supermarket shelves and was roasted in Italy god knows how many months ago." After all, the best domestically grown coffee was always exported, because that's where farmers were fetching the best prices.

Thammaiah's family had already been growing coffee over three generations, also for export. The 160-acre estate located in Coorg, around 200 kilometers from Bangalore, was started about a century ago by a Scotsman living in the British Raj. When he was forced to leave after India gained independence in 1947, he sold it to Thammaiah's grandfather.

So the pair had the idea to start their own brand by squaring off some land for experimentation. They created unique flavors by planting beans between citrus patches and vanilla plantations also growing on the estate.

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What started as a website offering freshly roasted coffee has spread to gourmet shops and coffeehouses, and now Flying Squirrel even has its own café in Bangalore.

That's only the beginning.

"Our research into what kind of scope there is for more coffee shops, as per existing data and trends, shows that Bangalore still has potential for double the cafés it has now," said D'Abreo.

India's new coffee culture is a vestige of the growing urban middle class, as young people—fuelled by curiosity and good incomes—have begun interested in trying new flavors and artisan products, from fast food to gourmet cheese.

The wave began in 1996, with Café Coffee Day, a chain of coffee shops reminiscent of Starbucks but more casual and affordable. Brewing its own coffee from estates around India's Chikmagalur region, the company now has more than 1,500 locations and is Asia's largest producer of Arabica beans.

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Believe it or not, India is actually the world's sixth-biggest producer, trailing not far behind Ethiopia. In 2015, nearly 700 million tons of beans were harvested here, but barely any of that stayed. The majority is exported to the US and European countries such as Italy and Germany, where it's packaged with a foreign logo and put on shelves.

The estate of Flying Squirrel co-founder Thammaiah continues to earn most of its business from exporting, and a mighty 98 percent of India's producers are just small-scale farmers. All the picking and drying is still done by laborers entirely by hand.

One of these places is the Doddankoppa Estate in the heart of coffee country, the aforementioned Chikmagalur region in Karnataka. The estate has become popular with domestic tourists as a homestay—a type of private house that offers tourist accommodation, basically the Indian version of a B&B—called The Captain's Bungalow.

Over 30 rambling acres, coffee plants flower up along hill tracts. The estate has been producing coffee since the 1850s, but now people can come and stay in a mansion overlooking a leafy emerald paradise and tour of Arabica and Robusta trees growing next to traditional spices, such as black pepper and cardamom.

A few years ago, the property was purchased by Indian airline owner and entrepreneur G.R. Gopinath. The homestay is actually his vacation house, an enormous stone mansion furnished with Gopinath's own antiques, family photos, and books. He's known as "the Captain" (thus the plantation bungalow's name) from his time flying in the Indian Army. He leaves it mostly open to guests as a vacation home, but does spend time there every now and then—arriving via helicopter, landing on a massive pad located at the base of the property.

"The Captain is a great guy to work for," said Natesh Gowda, who started managing the estate seven years ago.

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Gowda, a third-generation coffee farmer who grew up in the area, oversees production and takes care of homestay guests, offering tours for those interested.

For the Captain, growing organic, pesticide-free coffee is not so much a business venture but a means of "preserving the ecological balance and mixture of habitat of flora and fauna … in the very midst of the pristine Western Ghats of India," he said.

Guests are treated to as much coffee as they like while staying there, and according to Gowda, "it's the best in the world."

"Indian coffee is special because it's not grown on flat ground," he said. "Being on mountains gives it real flavor."

Business is steady at the estate on which the Captain's Bungalow is located, with customers in Germany and the US. While Flying Squirrel is tackling India's market by appealing to gourmands and harkening a hipster appeal, there is still a long way to go, according to D'Abreo.

He looks forward to the day when Bangalore or perhaps Mumbai, where his company has the largest customer base, become cities with distinct café scenes of their own—where "people queue up for coffee for a long time, just to grab a cup of coffee and nothing else," he said. "Just like San Francisco."