Great Read

A coffee culture begins to stir in India

Three generations of Tarun Cariappa's family have grown coffee on their highland farm in southern India, 38 rolling acres of dark green bushes interspersed with towering jackfruit and mango trees — and the occasional wild elephant.

But to that universal question "Coffee or tea?" Cariappa, like most Indians, has always answered, "Tea."

"Dad and Mom started their day with a cup of tea," Cariappa said as he surveyed a patch of leafy plants studded with bright-red coffee cherries. "So I've never drunk coffee."

Although India has long been one of the world's major coffee producers, the country's name is practically synonymous with tea. For most of the last century, it was the world's biggest tea-growing nation, renowned for its Darjeeling and Assam varieties, and it's still among the top consumers, with roadside chai stalls a fixture in every throbbing city and distant hamlet.

Ask for a cup of joe in most of India, though, and you'll get instant coffee crystals drowning in hot milk and sugar, or served over ice with even more sugar. So few Indians drink brewed coffee that virtually all its best crop is exported to countries such as Italy, where the beans are used in name-brand espresso blends and sold at a huge markup.

Now, however, a handful of Indian farmers and entrepreneurs are trying to hook some of their compatriots on coffee by selling gourmet, freshly roasted Indian beans to a burgeoning urban middle class.

Cariappa, who has the broad shoulders and sober bearing of a career farmer, said his family acquired the Udayagiri estate in the coastal state of Karnataka in 1958, a decade after India gained independence.

For years, all 15 tons of coffee picked, pulped and sun-dried on his farm annually were sold to a middleman and ended up abroad. Most of his plants are arabica — the more expensive variety favored by top coffee roasters — but he's considering switching to the cheaper robusta variety, which is easier to cultivate.

Two years ago, he began selling a small portion of his arabica to Kunal Ross, founder of TheIndianBean.com, a website that sells coffee to domestic consumers and businesses from four family plantations in southern India. Ross roasts the arabica and markets it under the name Appa's.

The brewed coffee has an earthy, nutty flavor — and scores of glowing customer reviews on Ross' website — but Cariappa hasn't tasted it.

His mother recently returned from the nearby city of Bangalore and reported that the Marriott hotel was stocking bags of Appa's in the rooms.

"And you didn't even take a picture!" Cariappa chided her gently as they sat on the veranda of their peach-colored farmhouse, built by his grandfather in the 1950s.

"I feel like there's some identity to my coffee now," Cariappa said. "Where the bulk of it goes once it's exported, I still have no idea, but those who buy from Kunal know where Appa's is coming from."

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The effort to build a domestic market for Indian-grown coffee is among the latest signs of this country's economic expansion. It also represents a bid to lift farmers from the bottom of the supply chain and connect them with Indian consumers who have long viewed coffee as an exotic luxury item.

The shade-grown coffee bushes that spill across the gently sloping hillsides of southern India are, for most farmers, simply a cash crop, Ross said. He compared it to West African cocoa whose farmers have never tasted chocolate.

"A lot of farmers barely know they're growing coffee," said Ross, a 34-year-old former advertising man who launched his company in 2012. "To them it's just another crop they sell to the West."

Until recently, consumers in most of India couldn't even buy homegrown coffee, at least not directly.

Before India began liberalizing its economy in the early 1990s, all growers were required to sell their beans to the government, which traded agricultural products for items such as weapons from the Soviet Union.

In southern India, the only region with a coffee-drinking culture, local beans are mixed with chicory and sometimes cane sugar for a strong, smoky finish, but that drink hasn't penetrated the rest of the country.

"Coffee drinkers are pretty starved for choice here," said Matt Chitharanjan, 32, a former hedge fund trader who runs the New Delhi-based Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters.

Born in Wisconsin to South Indian parents, Chitharanjan developed a taste for high-end coffee during stints living in New York and San Francisco. When he moved to the Indian capital in 2012, he found that the expensive Italian brands were often stale by the time they reached stores, and that ordering an espresso even at an upscale restaurant usually resulted in a disappointing concoction of instant coffee, milk and chocolate powder.

He contacted farmers, persuaded them to sell him beans directly and began roasting them at home. In January 2013, he launched Blue Tokai, which sold 7 tons of coffee across India in its first year, each brown paper package printed with the name of the farm that produced the beans.

"The farmers were a little skeptical. They felt there would be no demand for the quality of coffee they were growing," Chitharanjan said. "But the response has really been great."

Not everyone is ready to convert, he acknowledges. Chitharanjan's office is attached to his in-laws' house, but their morning beverage of choice is still the instant Nescafe that for decades was the only coffee Indians could buy.

Some first-time customers, he said, have tried dissolving his ground coffee in water like Nescafe.

"I tell them it doesn't work like that," he said. "There's still some education that has to be done."

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The average Indian consumes less than a quarter-pound of coffee a year — compared with more than 9 pounds for the average American — but that figure has nearly tripled in the last decade, according to the Coffee Board of India, a government body.

The growth has accelerated with the success of two chains that sell mass-market Indian coffee: Cafe Coffee Day, a Bangalore-based company with more than 1,600 outlets nationwide, and Starbucks, which arrived in 2012 and brews its espresso drinks exclusively with coffee from Indian farms owned by its corporate partner, the Tata Coffee conglomerate.

Small start-up retailers are hoping to take a bite out of the behemoths' business by marketing coffee from single estates, giving consumers a direct link to farmers. At about $6 for a half-pound bag, the coffee is costlier than Nescafe but cheaper than what Starbucks sells.

"They have started making the consumer open to the idea of appreciating coffees that are local and distinctive," said Sunalini Menon, founder of Coffee Lab India, an institute and training center in Bangalore. "How much the Indian coffee consumer is willing to appreciate these nuances — it will take a little time."

Menon has trained Indian farmers such as Tej Thammaiah, a third-generation farmer in Karnataka, to improve the quality of their beans for both domestic and international consumers. Thammaiah has begun growing coffee alongside cardamom, vanilla, citrus and other plants in an effort to infuse his beans with different flavors.

"We're a tea-drinking country, but coffee has a lot of flavors and possibilities you don't get with tea," said Thammaiah, who sells roasted beans from his farm and others through the Flying Squirrel, a website he helped launch last year.

Born into an industry family — his grandfather was a Coffee Board executive, his uncle a Tata Coffee vice president — Thammaiah says Indian consumers are awakening to the merits of local growers and the sustainable farming methods that many family-run estates practice.

Workers on Thammaiah's sprawling, 140-acre farm live in dormitories with satellite dishes affixed to the roofs. The farm pays school fees for their children, some of whom have grown up to become engineers, Thammaiah said.

On Cariappa's estate, one woman who picks coffee was hired by his father and looked after Cariappa when he was a baby. As his 2-year-old son, Appayah, toddled near the workers sorting sun-blanched beans, Cariappa smiled and said, "He's the fourth generation of this farm."

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

Bengali was recently on assignment in Chettalli.

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