The brew code

Coffee has not only moved away from its instant, milky-sweet origins but is also stirring the world of beauty, food, drinks and more
Image used for representational purpose
Image used for representational purpose

It is a typical Sunday morning in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi. The well-heeled citizens of the capital descend on the environs of the Sunder Nursery arboretum. They inspect the organic vegetables for sale at the Farmer’s market, indulge in delicious regional meals cooked by migrants from different states, and shop for exclusive fair-trade cotton clothing made by new-age designers. Nothing, however, beats the popularity of the speciality coffee stall, where people patiently wait in line for their freshly brewed cuppa even as out-of-towners stock up on packets of coffee beans to take home for their favourite caffeine kick.

Coffee is suddenly everywhere, as its ‘third wave’ descends on India. This is a period defined by a more sophisticated consumer keen to learn about the origins, manufacturing process and method of brewing. It’s a far cry from the ‘first wave’ during the 19th century when coffee first became a saleable commodity. It came on the heels of the ‘second wave’, which was characterised in the US with the commodification by chains like Starbucks in the 1970s, and in India, in the early 2000s, with Barista, Café Coffee Day and more. 

One needs to only look at the numbers to see the change. According to Reogma, a data analytics platform for small and medium enterprises, India’s coffee retail chain market is projected to grow to USD 855 million by 2025. This is further corroborated by the findings of India Brand Equity Foundation, an initiative of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, which highlights that the country became the world’s fifth largest coffee exporter in 2021-22, totalling 6 per cent of the global output last financial year. 

“Gen Z and millennials no longer want to drink instant coffee like the kind sold by Nescafe,” says Ishita Sawant, founder of conscious consumerism e-commerce platform Meolaa. She adds, “As coffee is a commodity that is consumed many times a day, they want to buy a brand they resonate with.” Meolaa’s research on the e-commerce market for the beverage predicts the segment volume to rise to USD 52 million by 2027 from USD 27 million in 2023, at a CAGR of 17.8 per cent.

It’s not just in exports or consumption through cafés or online, coffee has also caught the imagination of a number of businesses, finding its way into skincare products, food and even alcohol industries. We tap into this latent success story. 

Variety of Flavours

When Matt Chitharanjan and wife Namrata Asthana first moved to Delhi from the US in 2012, they found it difficult to get coffee that was freshly roasted. When they learnt that the high-quality beans produced in India were being exported, and only average to low-grade ones remained for the domestic market, they decided to do something about it, and so was born Blue Tokai in 2013. “As speciality coffee lovers, we wanted to make it more accessible,” shares Chitharanjan.

Initially starting as a roastery located in a home kitchen in Gurugram—facing numerous problems along the way, such as the sealing of their first café before it opened in South Delhi’s Defence Colony—Blue Tokai decided to expand and use its spare space as a café, a concept that became an instant hit as they could offer a sneak-peek into the world of speciality coffee and address people’s curiosity about roast levels, brewing methods and flavour profiles. 

Consumers were ready for this change. A Delhi High Court lawyer, who requested anonymity, loved the milky-sweet instant coffees that are the signature beverage of the court canteen. He and his buddies would guzzle numerous cups in a day before the pandemic, but things changed during the lockdown. “We had gotten used to that pure sugar kick with just a hint of caffeine. It was only when we had to brew our own at home that we learnt to appreciate good coffee,” he recalls. He is now lobbying to open a speciality coffee outlet in the court premises. “It will be more expensive than the instant versions, but many will happily make the switch.”

This, in a nutshell, explains the phenomenal change in the coffee landscape in the recent past. Who can forget the viral Dalgona visuals that took over social media feeds during the pandemic? Driven by this collective obsession, Apoorv Agarwal founded Mumbai-based The Simple Brew, which makes craft coffee concentrates. It first began as an experiment in his kitchen during the lockdown, to offer the taste of brewed coffee with the convenience of instant ones. He credits the rise in appreciation for coffee to social media trends and the greater availability of good quality brew.

Bensan Varghese, corporate beverage head at Mumbai’s Cafe Noir, ascribes different reasons for this: the impact of Western culture, the inclination of a younger, more adventurous demographic towards trying diverse experiences, the need for a caffeine boost in fast-paced lifestyles, perceived health advantages, and the captivating visuals of coffee culture showcased on social media.

Does this mean that the brew is finally set to surpass tea in the Indian market? The verdict is tied. Farhaz, co-founder of Mumbai-based Breve café, says, “I believe so. The growing appreciation for speciality coffee, brewing methods, the complexity of flavours and the café experience it offers is appealing to a broader audience.” His thoughts are echoed by Vikas Temani, the business head of Paul & Mike café in Mumbai. “There is a massive change everywhere. The French are drinking more beer and less wine. Americans are drinking chai, and coffee is going to surpass tea in India,” he shares.  

Ahmedabad-based lawyers-turned-entrepreneurs Anurag and Chaitanya Bhamidipaty, however, disagree. As co-founders of Roastea, which retails tea and coffee through its on-ground cafés, vending machines and e-commerce store, they have experience dealing with both beverages. They say, “Frankly, India is a tea-drinking country. We do not envisage that coffee can ever surpass tea, but it has been catching up.” They highlight the importance of cafés multitasking as spaces for work, relaxation, meetings, and more, in perpetuating the popularity of Java.

Spirited Twist

Goa-based Anand Virmani is a brand curator, consultant and the founder of Nao Spirits & Beverages, best known for its homegrown gin called Greater Than. He compares the trajectory of Indian gin with coffee in recent years, with both having “caught the imagination of the urban youth”. Virmani’s first professional connection with coffee began when he was brought on board as a consultant for Perch Wine & Coffee Bar in 2015, which has outlets in Delhi and Mumbai. He recalls, “It was the first time I was seeing people get geeky about it. 

I wondered if all this attention to detail about pour-overs and presses was necessary, but when I tasted the coffee, it was worth it.” Hence, during the pandemic, Virmani and his then co-distiller Jai Dhawan decided to experiment with their gin flavours. In 2021, they launched a variant where they blended gin with cold brew coffee instead of water. It became a smash hit. “We are being pressured to reintroduce it and are planning to do so in small batches,” he says.

He draws another parallel between coffee and gin. “When we were growing up in the 90s, the word ‘local’ was looked down upon. People believed that anything made locally won’t be good quality,” says the entrepreneur. Hence, instant coffee ruled the roost and owning a Nespresso machine was considered the height of coffee snobbery. “Nespresso is a massive waste generator and it’s not even fresh,” Virmani declares. It’s not just gin. Rum too has explored a fruitful marriage with coffee. Mohan Meakin Limited, makers of the iconic Indian rum, Old Monk, recently launched its coffee variant.

The two ingredients blend well to produce a smooth, rich flavour that is balanced between sweet and bitter, which also makes it a good after-dinner liqueur. Coffee has also been an important ingredient in other liqueurs. One popular drink is Patron XO Café, made with coffee essence and Patron Tequila, which is drier and stronger than standard coffee liqueurs. “Shots of this were passed around at our wedding party to ensure that people had the energy to dance into the wee hours—the caffeine kept them awake and the tequila made them happy.

But it’s an expensive drink, so when my friends from abroad asked what I wanted as a present, I requested bottles of these,” laughs a young bride, fresh off her destination wedding in Goa, requesting not to be named. It also works the other way. Speciality coffee brands like Delhi-based Bili hu are experimenting with alcohol by storing their brews in upcycled rum, whisky, wine and gin barrels, which allows for the subtle absorption of the aromas before beans are roasted. 

Beauty and Bean

Coffee and alcohol make a delightful pair, but this versatile ingredient is also making its way into numerous other products. Skincare is a popular category with brands like mCaffeine resting their laurels on the use of coffee as the main ingredient because caffeine contains antioxidants that are anti-ageing, reduce puffiness and exfoliate dead skin. Its grainy texture also helps to tone and polish the skin and improve blood circulation. 

Cosmetology student and content creator from Delhi, Tanaya Singh, uses coffee-infused skincare from brands such as Love Beauty Planet, The Ordinary, Frank Body, The Body Shop and Origins. She swears by their exfoliation properties. “The caffeine also gives my skin a nice boost and helps reduce puffiness,” she shares. Mumbai-based content creator Ria Amin even whips up her own coffee-based scrubs at home. Despite the tedium of making it, she loves the results she has seen with consistent use, like the elimination of tan and exceptionally smooth skin. 

When Bengaluru-based dermatologist Dr Prakhar Narayan Dubey first noticed an unusual amount of hair fall, he was concerned. He decided to try the coffee-infused shampoo from mCaffeine and was happy with the results. “There are many products that use coffee as an active ingredient, particularly in shampoos. Coffee’s role in enhancing microcirculation to the hair follicles is well-recognised, and it can contribute to overall hair health and vitality,” he says.

There are a plethora of options to choose from. Just Human has a coffee caramel scrub that comes highly rated for its ability to stave off cellulite by helping to break down fat cells and increase microcirculation to promote better blood flow. SUGAR cosmetics has a coffee lip balm that removes dead skin cells, and Nykaa Cosmetics offers the same results on the face with a coffee sheet mask. 

Cook with coffee

Coffee has long been paired with desserts, but now chefs are incorporating it into cooking in a variety of ways. Pallavii Gupta and Arjun Shhetty opened the Kind Roastery & Brewroom in Bengaluru earlier this year and quickly garnered a fan following for their craft coffee fusions. One such is ‘Kaffe Lemonade’—traditional lemonade that is elevated with the addition of their signature espresso shot.
The Simple Brew’s concentrates, too, can be used in a number of ways—even as additives to savoury items. “We encourage our customers to experiment and love seeing the types of recipes they come up with,” says founder Apoorv Agarwal. Roastea married India’s two favourite drinks to create ‘Chai Latte’, which is currently making waves in their Ahmedabad outlets. 

Pallavi Mithika Menon, chef and partner at NĀVU in Bengaluru, enjoys playing with coffee as it lends itself to many ingredients beyond dessert. “I’ve used it with beetroot and black garlic, 100 per cent pure chocolate, whisky and meats like chicken and beef,” she says, pointing out that chemically all ingredients transcend stereotypical use. “If you match the flavour compounds, there are lots of interesting pairings to be had,” she adds. A dish she remembers creating contained beetroot, coffee, black garlic and mulberries, which boasted rich vegetarian umami overtones and several textures to surprise the palate. For a small tapas dish, she paired roasted beets with a sauce of sesame coffee and cocoa. “The coffee elevates the underlying earthiness and nuttiness of root vegetables while the aroma is reminiscent of cake and a hot cup of espresso,” she shares. 

Cup above the rest

Bili hu owner Bharat Singhal sheds light on what speciality coffee, an oft-bandied but complicated term, actually means: “The US-based Specialty Coffee Association lays out rules for judging the speciality tag on coffees.” They must be traceable to the origin, farm region, plot of land and date of harvest. There is a narrow window for defects and a lot of emphasis is placed on the post-harvest processing of coffee cherries, among several other factors, he adds. These measures allow us to bring a fair system for tasting coffee from around the world. “Each cup is judged on parameters like body, acidity, strength, aroma and aftertaste and given scores out of 100. Whatever scores above 80 is awarded a speciality grade,” says Singhal, who holds this prestigious tag for Bili hu.

Going by the exponential growth of this segment, the future of speciality coffee looks bright, yet one wonders if it is largely an urban phenomenon. Though the ‘third wave’ is limited to cities as of now, speciality coffee beans are available throughout the country on digital platforms. Two enterprising brothers, Shubham and Shivam Poddar, the owners of Delhi-based Hermit Coffee, offer a coffee consultancy to cafes in small towns across Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, with the aim of enabling them to elevate the cuppa. 

Sales are increasing, but there are serious problems too. If global warming and the present-day manufacturing practices implemented by large-scale companies continue, the future of coffee looks bleak. Perhaps, in times to come, our favourite cup of java rests in the hands of these few specialty brewers, both literally and metaphorically.

The Waves of Coffee Consumption

First Wave: Coffee is recognised as a saleable commodity and its consumption grew in the 19th century

Second Wave: It hit America in the 1970s, and India in the early 2000s, when cafes such as Starbucks transformed the drinking culture 

Third Wave: Specialty coffee gained recognition in the 2000s in the West and recently in India, and starts being purchased based on where and how it’s being produced 

Reasons for the Rise of the Third Wave in India

  • Increased exposure to global coffee-drinking trends
  • Availability of higher-quality beans owing to increased domestic demand
  • Diverse brewing methods
  • Complexity of flavours 
  • An appreciation for the café experience
  • Scope for experimenting with coffee brews
  • Rising appreciation for homegrown goods
  • Perceived health advantages
  • Higher disposable income of the youth
  • Rising demand for experiential over transactional events

The bean life

Coffee scrub: Removes impurities like blackheads and dead skin cells to reveal fresh and glowing skin 

Green coffee: Consists of unroasted beans that are made from coffee fruits, which contain more chlorogenic acid than roasted coffee. Also believed to offer greater benefits like reduced blood pressure and healthier metabolism.

Cold brew: It has a higher coffee-to-water ratio that is left to brew at room temperature for eight to 
24 hours

Sustainable coffee: When the process of growing, selling, trading and crafting of coffee is in line with fair trade principles and using sustainable farming practices

Buttered coffee: A tablespoon of butter is added to a cup of black coffee to make the caffeine component stronger. Butter can also act as an appetite suppressant.

What is Specialty Coffee?

The term refers to coffee that has received 80 or above out of a 100-point testing scale by a certified coffee taster from the Specialty Coffee Association in the US or by a licenced Q Grader, who is a professional skilled in the sensory evaluation of green coffee. Specialty coffees have distinctive characteristics such as being grown at the perfect altitude, at the correct time of year, in the best soil, and picked from the soil at a specified time. 

From the experts:

“Specialty coffees must be traceable to the origin, farm region, plot of land and date of harvest. There is a narrow window for defects and a lot of emphasis is placed on the post-harvest processing of coffee cherries.”

Bharat Singhal, owner, Bili hu Coffees

“As speciality coffee lovers who were in search of good coffee in India, we wanted to make it more accessible.” 

Matt Chitharanjan, Founder, Blue Tokai

“India is a tea-drinking country. We do not envisage that coffee can ever surpass tea, but it has been catching up, especially among the youth.”

Anurag and Chaitanya Bhamidipaty, co-founders of Roastea

“We are being pressured to reintroduce our blended gin with cold brew coffee. We plan to do so in small batches.”

Anand Virmani, founder, Nao Spirits & Beverages, known for its homegrown gin, Greater Than

“We encourage people to experiment and love seeing the types of coffee recipes some of our customers have come up with.” 

Apoorv Agarwal, founder, The Simple Brew

“I have used coffee with beetroot and black garlic, 100 per cent pure chocolate, whisky and meats 
like chicken and beef. It may not sound like they would work together, but these ingredients are chemically very compatible.” 

Pallavi Mithika Menon, chef and partner at NĀVU in Bengaluru

“There are many beauty products that use coffee as an active ingredient, particularly in shampoos. Coffee’s role in enhancing microcirculation to the hair follicles is well recognised, and it can contribute to overall hair health and vitality.”

Dr Prakhar Narayan Dubey, Dermatologist

“Coffee’s complexity of flavours and the café experience are appealing to a broader audience, making it a frontrunner in the Indian beverage scene.”

Farhaz, co-founder of Mumbai-based Breve café

“Gen Z and millennials no longer want to drink instant coffee like the kind sold by Nescafe. As coffee is a commodity that is consumed multiple times a day, they want to buy a brand they resonate with.”

Ishita Sawant, founder, of e-commerce platform Meolaa

“The impact of Western culture, the need for a caffeine boost in fast-paced lifestyles, perceived health advantages, and the captivating visuals of coffee culture on social media has led to the rising popularity of coffee.”

Bensan Varghese, corporate beverage head at Mumbai’s Cafe Noir

Related Stories

No stories found.