Sunday, September 13, 2009


India’s love affair with the brew has come a long way, as cofffee is increasingly becoming a lifestyle statement. GEETHA PADMANABHAN with Deepa Kurup in Bangalore

Mr. Ram, 70, wakes up at 5.00 a.m. and heads groggily for the kitchen. He puts water to boil, and begins a ritual common to millions of homes. He sets up a mini coffee-maker and, with immeasurable care, spoons in coffee grounds. He taps it just so an d pours boiling (not boiled) water gently in a circular motion to fill the filter. He places the lid leaving a small slat. He waits for the drip.

Mr. Ram cannot tell whether he wakes up for the coffee or goes for it because he’s awake. The distinction is perhaps irrelevant for people like him who were initiated to the habit early. What he does remember is learning what “degree” coffee meant as a kid. And never settling for anything even a degree less. In his impoverished Mandaveli home of nine members, the standard of this one item was never compromised.

Except for one detail. His mother bought raw beans, rolled them on a spit for an even brown roast and stored them in a glass bottle. Powder was ground every day, fresh for the day’s brew. The kids took turns to feed and crank the grinder, inhaling the rich fumes in anticipation of the afternoon cup.

To Mr. Ram andhis retired friends, childhood memories are enveloped in this “divine” aroma. His mom, however, gave up the routine when roasted beans began to be sold, and eventually coffee came home as powder in paper packets. The instant avatar invaded the stores, but she wouldn’t let this abhorrence defile her davarah-tumbler.

“Being allowed to drink coffee in the morning is a coming-of-age rite,” said Srinath Narayan, who promotes Dragon software.He remembers walking, robot-like, to a pottikadai half a km away for that glass of life-giving liquid during his hostel days.

Arabica, Robusta, Peaberry — someone smitten by coffee’s sensuous aroma must have suggested those names. Micky Kalappa, a coffee grower in Coorg, traces the royal lineage: “Kaffa in Ethiopia and Central Africa are reckoned to be the home of Arabica and Robusta respectively. Arabica is believed to have been introduced in India sometime in 1600 AD by Baba Budan, a pilgrim from Yemen — at Baba Budan Hills near Chickmagalur in Karnataka. Robusta came from the Indo-China at the close of 19th century. Malabar Muslims brought coffee seeds to Coorg around the 1820s. The British commercialised the plantations in the 19th century.” Coffee is grown in south India with a few parts of north-east under its acreage.

Credit for popularising Indian filter coffee must go to India Coffee House, which began an active promotion in mid- 1940s. A “coffee house culture” was launched in which grew a cast of celebrities. Coffee became the reason for get-togethers and brain food for conversation. Strong filter coffee was the star of “messes” and hotels. Coffee House regulars grew up, left to make their mark and money in the world, but came back for that shared sense of connection.

The destiny of India’s coffee has been controlled by the India Coffee Board, an autonomous body, functioning under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Set up under an Act in 1942, the Board focuses on research, development, extension, quality upgradation, market information, and promotion of Indian coffee. According to its website, the Board relinquished marketing in 1995, but runs 14 India Coffee Houses in the country. The India Coffee House brand of coffee powder was the preferred brew for many years.

In the 1950s the Board downsized the Coffee Houses due to a policy change. Under A.K. Gopalan, the workers took over the branches, and renamed the network Indian Coffee House. The Indian Coffee Workers Co-Operative Society was registered in Bangalore on August 19, 1957. The first ICH outlet opened in Delhi in October that year. Gradually, the Indian Coffee House chain expanded across the country.

On February 12, 1958, the Society started an Indian Coffee House in the Mangalodayam buildings, Thrissur. The ICH claims to be the biggest restaurant chain in Kerala, with over 51 outlets and associate canteens operating in all major towns from Thrissur to Thiruvananthapuram, and in government establishments like the Secretariat, Legislative Assembly, MLA-Hostel, medical colleges and universities. The Society also sells pure coffee powder at reasonable prices.

Pub culture

Then came competition. In the last decade, coffee houses have yielded their place to trendy “coffee pubs” run on post-millennium business practices. Ujjwal Grover writes a moving farewell to one in Jabalpur. “At this very same place, there used to be an old India Coffee House, renovated to make way for an ultra cool chill-out place for youngsters like myself. It would be a lie to say that I don’t miss that coffee house — a dingy place with ceiling like a dome; the cheap wooden tables coloured to give an impression of mahogany; waiters in long pagadis; the always-present group of oldies who looked like communist poets or war veterans or editors of forgotten newspapers; the glasses and the occasional plates of egg pakodas. I thought the oldies owned the place, but I realise they were there because that was the only place that had not grown younger as they grew older. The India Coffee House had grown old with them... Now a cafe stands in its place. I hang out there, but it reminds me of the coffee house and its surprisingly affordable delicacies… Not that this change isn’t good, but I want to know what happened to that group of oldies, those waiters, that manager and those tables...”

Today, the cash-rich young drive to the mushrooming (more than 500 and counting) coffee bars not really because of the coffee that comes in many flavours and temperatures, but because they offer more than just coffee. It is to “meet up” rather than “meet for coffee”. “The hip, laid-back ambience is the draw,” said Unnamalai Thyagarajan, award-winning organic coffee grower. “It’s a healthy trend to hang out openly to make friends, exchange views. I hear they are planning similar outlets for the elderly.”

As Café Coffee Days, Baristas and Café Mochas go on to open joints in petrol stations and in smaller towns, coffee will not be the sole ingredient of their campaign. Yes, there will be imported brands, but with merchandise like filters, mugs and T-shirts jostling for space. Menus already include teas, smoothies and non-local “health” foods.

One outlet in south Chennai has a shop-in-shop selling a Khadi line of clothes. Some others could let out space for book launches, film clubs and birthday parties.

Narayan is appalled. “Why make coffee an excuse for this outlandishness?” he asks. “You come to be seen here, drinking that Rs.50+ pretentious apology for coffee!” He is grateful that Chennai hasn’t become too urban to lose its old coffee places. “We meet once a month in places like Woodlands for coffee, cricket and Carnatic music. What is a coffeehouse where you can’t shout in Tamil, pack in steaming idli-vadai-pongal and sip filter coffee? The bill for about seven persons is never more than Rs. 300!”

Divided house

The coffee culture in Bangalore has also seen similar changes. Like a city divided, there is the café culture and the kaapi culture. The latter ensures that there is a minimum level of caffeine and chicory in Bangalore’s arteries. From the unique “by-twos” stretched out in minuscule steel tumblers — the average Bangalorean’s idea of a high-chicory shot — to its trendy, multi-flavoured, Italian counterpart, the fundamental purpose of coffee joints has hardly changed. While old-timers recall debates and conversations over their kaapi tumblers, young 20-somethings explain the concept of “chilling out” in their “happening hangouts”.

India Coffee House on M.G. Road may not offer different flavours or change the décor with the season — loyalists find solace in the dank walls and matter-of-fact tables — but it is packed. “Most of these old joints have been demolished and the new ones are too expensive. People are clinging to the remaining joints with a deep sense of nostalgia,” says Lakshmi Raman, a Coffee House loyalist.

Rapid expansion

Coffee giants like the Bangalore-based Café Coffee Day (popularly dubbed CCD) and Barista say that Bangalore is one of their most rapidly expanding markets. The first CCD at Brigade Road pioneered café culture with an Internet centre-cum-café as early as 1996. From wi-fi zones to periodically changing menu and décor, these cafes target a young audience that has the power to purchase and will pay to “hang out”.

“The market in Bangalore is very young and very cosmopolitan. Our studies reveal that the ‘out of home’ factor is what has driven this growth,” says Rini Dutta, spokesperson for Barista, which has 21 centres across the city. On the other hand, CCD (with 98 cafés in Bangalore) is in every nook and corner. “We record over 80 million walk-ins across the country in a year. Roughly 88 percent of them are between 15 and 29 years of age, either older students or young working professionals,” says Shyamala Deshpande, Sr. General Manager, Café Coffee Day.


But all is not well in the coffee realm. “Coffee cultivation in India is at the crossroads,” said Kalappa. “Just as prices were looking up came the severe labour crunch. Plantations are becoming unviable, due to fragmentation of holdings.” Instead of getting into the hot water of global demand/supply, freight rates and the rising rupee, the spigot should turn inward, he feels. We down 80,000 tonnes of coffee annually, shouldn’t we tap the local markets? The crop has no future in India unless the government can support it. Plantations are “neither industry, nor agriculture, and don’t get the benefit of either.”

Coffee estates, he says, now see a flight of eco-sensitive planters to cities, the properties taken over by people keen on converting hilly areas into resorts and hotels. To a committed grower like him it is loss of topsoil, local livelihood, mature trees and a fragile bio-diversity.

Coffee creates a community, uniting us in celebration and tragedy. It is a warm drink in more ways than one.

Coffee in literature
Rev. Edward Terry, chaplain to Sir Thomas Roe, wrote in 1616: Many of the people there (in India), who are strict in their religion, drink no Wine at all; but they use a Liquor more wholesome than pleasant, they call Coffee;

David Burton, a food historian, writes in The Raj at Table (1993): India’s first coffee house opened in Calcutta after the battle of Plassey in 1780. Soon after, John Jackson and Cottrell Barrett opened the original Madras Coffee House, ... [They recovered] their costs with the high price of one rupee for a single dish of coffee.