Opinion: Revolution In A Cup - A Lot Is Finally Happening For Indian Coffee

Suman Das, 34, grew up in West Bengal's Rasan village, drinking chai in mud cups with his younger brother Subham and his family of six, including the parents. "Chai was our national drink," he says, smiling. 

Now, as a lead roaster at Blue Tokai, one of India's fastest-growing and biggest specialty coffee companies, Suman drinks 30-40 cups of coffee every day. As a roaster, sipping coffee and trying different varieties of what others may like drinking is part of the job. "Coffee kya hai ye mujhe Blue Tokai mein aake samajh aaya (I learned what true coffee is here at Blue Tokai)," he says. Before joining Blue Tokai over a decade ago, Das ran errands at an advertising agency in Delhi. 

Suman, who studied only till Class 10, isn't just a lead roaster; he also sets up and operates all the latest machines Blue Tokai procures for making coffee. His brother Subham is now among a rare few "Q Graders" based in Bengaluru. The Das brothers also take pride in the fact that they have converted the parents into regular coffee drinkers. "I love machines and opening them up, learning new things," adds Suman. 

Suman Das of Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters.

Suman Das of Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters.
Photo Credit: Pankaj Mishra

The New Coffee Economy

Co-founded by Matt Chitharanjan and Namrata Asthana in 2013, Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters is among a generation of specialty coffee companies riding a wave of coffee consumption in India, mainly triggered by the country's economic growth. India has witnessed a surge in economic prosperity in recent years; the per capita GDP soared by 7.9% to reach ₹2.12 lakh in FY24, nearly doubling from FY16. 

HumbleBean, Maverick & Farmer Coffee Roasters, Nandan Coffee, KC Roasters, and Araku Coffee are among other companies shaping a socio-cultural change towards specialty coffee in India. There are different, often varying estimates for the Indian coffee industry. From nearly $500 million in 2023, the Indian coffee industry is expected to cross $1 billion in revenues by 2032, growing at about 9% on average, according to Custom Market Insights. 

According to Statista, India's coffee market is set to generate a revenue of $0.5 billion in 2024. This market is expected to grow annually by 9.22% between 2024 and 2028. India's per capita revenue for coffee is estimated at $0.36 in the same year. By 2028, the total volume of coffee in the Indian market is forecasted to reach 62.5 million kilograms, with a 5.3% volume growth expected in 2025 alone. The average coffee consumption per person in India will be around 0.04 kg in 2024. This growth is driven by an increasing demand for specialty and artisanal coffees among Indian consumers.

Apart from the rising income levels of an affluent middle class in India, a more health-conscious young population is also drifting towards coffee, mainly black. One afternoon in January, I sat across Kamlesh Kumar, a 25-year-old real estate sales professional, in Delhi's Khan Market. As I ordered my cup of coffee, a light roast bean from the Riverdale Estate, Kumar went for his usual Vietnamese cold brew. 

"I first drank coffee while doing a weight loss programme, where I had to give up on chai and anything with sugar and milk," Kumar told me. "I have not returned to chai or instant coffee since then."

As the Indian coffee landscape matures, it's not just the cafes that are evolving, but the habits and preferences of coffee enthusiasts too. Pavitra Jayaraman, co-founder of Bengaluru-based mental health startup The PARC, wants convenience and quality, even on the go. "I use the Blue Tokai easy pour (Attikan Estate) when travelling. A pour-over in a travel pouch!" she says.

Yet, her current preference lies elsewhere. "But my favourite beans to brew at home right now are from roasters called KC Roasters. I prefer coffee with nutty and chocolatey notes. I like their Marvahulah and Kelagur Estate Coffee." Pavitra's choice reflects a growing trend among Indian coffee drinkers - a shift towards exploring and appreciating a variety of beans and roasts from different roasters. "I think the big change for me with this new coffee explosion in India is that I used to ask relatives and friends to bring me coffee from their travels abroad; now, I send them my favourite ones instead," she adds. 

Drinking coffee was always considered 'cool' among India's youngsters, much before the new-age specialty coffee startups came by. For instance, V. G. Siddhartha's Cafe Coffee Day and its tagline, "a lot can happen over coffee", appealed to a generation of youngsters growing up in the 2000s. Starbucks entered India in October 2012, though it took over a decade for the company to cross Rs 1,000 crore in annual revenues.

The Blue Tokai Story

When Starbucks launched its first India store in Mumbai on October 19, 2012, Matt and Namrata had started putting together Blue Tokai Roaster's initial building blocks in Delhi. Building a coffee company was among other startup ideas, including mushroom farming and a beer brewery. 

"That's when Namrata suggested coffee, primarily because we were struggling to find good quality coffee in Delhi," says Matt. "We got a tiny 500-gram roaster from Taiwan and a small grinder. We imported them as we needed more capital and wanted to start small, avoiding large loans or investments. We found this roaster made by an individual in Taiwan - not a company, just a guy known in coffee forums - and decided to go for it."

Matt Chitharanjan, co-founder and CEO of Blue Tokai.

Matt Chitharanjan, co-founder and CEO of Blue Tokai.
Photo Credit: Pankaj Mishra

Blue Tokai aims to become profitable next year and achieve Rs 1,000 crore in annual revenues within three to five years. From 94 cafes currently, Blue Tokai plans to keep adding 30 to 40 outlets every year for the next five years. 

"The goal isn't just valuation but building a globally impactful coffee brand from a coffee-producing country, benefiting India's coffee community and industry," says Chitharanjan. 

The world's top coffee-producing countries, such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Brazil, Mexico, and India, have been mostly exporting coffee. Now, as some of them achieve growth and prosperity, domestic coffee consumption is rising, led by an affluent class. "I believe there's an unfortunate power dynamic at play, where major coffee brands predominantly hail from the global West, while the global South is relegated to the role of a raw material supplier, primarily in agriculture. This imbalance often overshadows the rich contributions of these regions in the coffee industry," says Chitharanjan. 

Meanwhile, the economics of coffee production have undergone a dramatic shift. Farmers, once tethered to the whims of fluctuating commodity prices, are witnessing a significant transformation. "The rate we pay for green coffee has surged by over 100%," Chitharanjan explains. "What was once around 240 per kilogram when we started has now escalated to approximately 500," he adds. 

This steep increase reflects a broader trend: with traditional commodity prices lingering at dismally low levels, growers are increasingly focusing on specialty coffee. Here, they find higher prices and a degree of stability previously elusive in the standard market. While the pricing of specialty coffee maintains a correlation to standard commodity rates, it enjoys a markedly less volatile nature, offering a more sustainable and lucrative avenue for these coffee cultivators.

For Blue Tokai and others, convincing coffee growers to share their produce with the farm's identity was challenging during the early days. Most farmers were sceptical about whether Indian consumers would pay for expensive coffee, and also about the perceived "low value and quality" of locally produced coffee. Their advice was to blend our coffee with chicory or robusta, or to lower the price, as they felt the market wasn't ready to pay for the quality they were exporting. "Don't tell anyone where the coffee comes from," Chitharanjan recalls coffee growers telling him during the early days. The suggestion was to give the coffee a generic name, like 'Misty Clouds' or 'Jumping Berries', to prevent others from tracing its origins and replicating it. 

The challenge for fast-growing specialty coffee companies is to maintain consistency in quality, something mature coffee drinkers such as Pavitra are quick to spot. She notes a variability in experience: "At the moment, I find that the coffees across Blue Tokai outlets are inconsistent. A lot depends on who the Barista is, I guess." 

A Humble Farmer's Dream

Far away from all the glitter of venture-funded coffee startups and the noise of their hundreds of thousands of cafes, HumbleBean started as a quiet, cultural revolution, with coffee growers at the heart of the enterprise. 

Soomanna and Puja started HumbleBean Coffee in 2017 as a community movement of farmers who wanted Indian consumers to taste coffee in its purest form. More importantly, HumbleBean offers free assessments to coffee farmers, educating them in better processing techniques. 

Soomanna, 47, grew up watching his father struggle with maintaining his coffee plantations in Coorg. "Yields would take seven years and more, and it wasn't an open market back then, with the Coffee Board dictating pricing, etc.," recalls Soomanna. "Until then, it was a hand-to-mouth existence for a small and medium farmer."

Soomanna, Co-founder and CEO of HumbleBean

Soomanna, Co-founder and CEO of HumbleBean
Photo Credit: Pankaj Mishra

Later, in 2017, Soomanna gave up his decade-and-a-half banking career to return to his roots. "Relating to the soil teaches me resilience. I have woken up in the middle of the night to painfully watch more than half of my crops rained away twice," he recalls. 

When Soomanna started exploring how to get funding from investors, it was quite a reality check. "We need patient capital, but most typical VCs are looking for their next exits, and while they say they love the idea of sustainability, they mean something else," he says. Recently, HumbleBean raised fresh capital from an individual who backs autism-related initiatives. "A truly sustainable business like ours deserves conscious capital." 

As coffee growers such as Sujit Subiah agree, there cannot be a sustainable coffee business if the farmers don't see enough value to stay invested in farming.  Sujit's Kanamad Estate in Coorg, which has partnered with HumbleBean since 2017, is a testament to this belief. This collaboration has led to a significant uplift in the estate's financial returns - over a two-fold increase in the price of specialty coffee compared to standard commodity coffee. 

"You're not at the mercy of commodity coffee pricing anymore," says Subiah. "It raises our confidence in specialty coffee."

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Sujit's journey is its influence on his daughter, Veda Subiah. Recently accepted into Rice University in Houston, Veda has developed a deep interest in sustainable coffee. Her engagement with the subject went beyond academic interest; she conducted research and led an outreach programme in collaboration with HumbleBean. This initiative was recognised for its 'Highest Potential' by Harvard University's Sustainability and Innovation Program.

"I was pleasantly surprised when she said she wanted to pursue her interest in sustainability," says Subiah. 

Meanwhile, for a generation of new-age coffee consumers, such as Devika Chitnis in Bengaluru, the culture is shaped by the distinct blends and experiences offered by HumbleBean. "I fell in love with coffee because of my mum. First, it was a massive glass of milk plus a pinch of Nescafé. Then, where I would go, I would hunt and look for that comfort in a cup. Being lactose-sensitive after pregnancy, I was hunting for a cup of good oat milk cappuccino without sugar. From Starbucks to Third Wave, all had a very manufactured taste," she says. "My cappuccino with oat milk is the perfect sugarless blend I can have."

For Devika and many others who frequent HumbleBean, it's more than just the beverage. It's about being part of a community and the unique approach the place offers. At HumbleBean, a customer isn't immediately greeted by a Point of Sale (POS) system or an espresso machine, typically the most prominent features in a standard coffee shop. With the workflow of a brew bar, this deliberate design aims to create a different kind of first impression.

Apart from winning new-age coffee consumers, for Soomanna, the battle is to keep helping coffee growers become more competitive and efficient. 

"A farmer is free to sell this to anyone who offers them good prices. This is with the sole intention not to tie them onto us but build a level playing field for the farmer," Soomanna adds. 

Soomanna's fight for farmers highlights a crucial, often overlooked fact: 60% of a coffee's distinct taste, its very soul, is rooted in the green bean, a testament to the farmer's labour. Yet, these farmers receive a mere fraction of the revenue, a paltry 10% for their substantial contribution. This inequity not only undermines their livelihoods but threatens the diversity of coffee itself. Painstakingly nurtured over centuries, heirloom varieties and unique flavour profiles stand on the brink of extinction. Social media chatter, clever marketing, and paid content from more aggressive coffee brands make it even more challenging for purists like Soomanna. 

"The biggest challenge we face from the industry is that big VC-funded companies use words like sustainability, organic, D2C, etc. when they are not [practising all that]. Specialty coffee is not even remotely understood and is mentioned loosely in India. So, authenticity is challenged by paid algorithms on social media, which I call deception," he says. 

For both Soomanna and Blue Tokai's Chitharanjan, getting Indian specialty coffee on the world map is a mission. "We've been in Japan for about a year and a half, starting on a small scale as an experiment. We're now expanding there and looking at the Middle East, beginning with Dubai. Saudi Arabia is also a significant market we're considering," Chitharanjan says. 

Women at Blue Tokais office in Gurugram sorting coffee beans

Women at Blue Tokai's office in Gurugram sorting coffee beans
Photo Credit: Pankaj Mishra

Beyond the Bean: Faces of India's Coffee Evolution 

As I write this story sipping my favourite coffee, a unique blend from Riverdale, I learn the beans' journey from the Shevaroy Hills of Tamil Nadu.

Prakashan Balaraman, the man behind this estate, turned to specialty coffee as a lifeline when his farm faced the threat of closure. Inspired by his brother and a coffee expert from Melbourne, Balaraman delved into the art of coffee making, choosing a variety known for its enticing floral notes. 

Their process of using local red fruits for fermentation caught my attention. Imagine coffee cherries mingling with plums and fermenting for 90 hours to create flavours that dance between cranberry, red apple, vanilla, and caramel. This meticulous process brings out the coffee's distinct character, one that I have come to cherish in my daily cup.

I think of Suman Das, Blue Tokai's lead roaster, who played a significant role in perfecting the roast profile of this coffee. 

Ultimately, India's coffee revolution is more than just beans and brews. It centres around people. Suman Das, for instance, moved from rural chai traditions to the art of coffee roasting. Entrepreneurs like Matt and Namrata anticipated a shift in India's tastes. Professionals like Kamlesh Kumar and Devika Chitnis turned to coffee during personal life shifts. Most importantly, individuals like Soomanna work tirelessly for fairness and dignity in the often-neglected realm of coffee farming. 

Disclosure: The author was highly caffeinated while reporting and writing this story.

(Pankaj Mishra has been a journalist for over two decades and is the co-founder of FactorDaily.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.