Book Shelf

The Connoisseur’s Book of Indian Coffee

Planting times

Elite Clubs of India
Café Culture in India
Apna Coffee House, Mera Coffee Bar

By Aparna Datta

Coffee has a certain buzz. And that buzz is at its loudest in an unique social environment: the café.

Throughout history, across continents, coffee bars have been places to talk and time pass, romance and revolutionize. Interestingly, these retail outlets seem to reinvent themselves in every age, in every culture, creating a distinct café society. India, too, has its own special café culture, spanning some three generations, with traditional and contemporary avatars.

India Coffee House – an institution
The golden age of the coffee house in India belongs undeniably to the India Coffee House, which had its hey day from the 1940s through the 1970s. Subsequently, the younger generation in India took to colas and soft drinks in a big way, and the India Coffee House chain operated by the Coffee Board was gradually downsized to rationalize costs.

For a certain age cohort, though – that generation swept up in the political maelstrom of pre-Independent India and through to the revolutionary sixties – the India Coffee House with its liveried waiters brings back nostalgic memories of the salad days of one’s youth.

The first India Coffee House opened on Churchgate Street in Bombay on 28th September 1936. Much like the coffee houses of Europe, the India Coffee House quickly became a rendezvous for the intellectual and the dilettante alike. But the outlets themselves were part of a larger strategy to promote coffee consumption in India, which for a long while was termed “coffee propaganda”. At the height of its glory, the India Coffee House chain numbered 72 outlets, and essentially introduced the coffee habit in the tea-drinking north of the country.

Coffee bars – the contemporary scene
A fresh new aroma wafted in during the 1990s, with a whole new trend in coffee retailing in India. Coffee bars today capture the spirit of the age, not only because of the customer profile, but also in terms of the entrepreneurial flair that is demonstrably on show.

The specialty coffee movement has gained much of its momentum through the efforts of Starbucks Coffee Company, which from its home-base in Seattle has expanded to some 5,400 stores around the world by 2002, and Peet’s Coffee & Tea, based in Berkeley, California. Together these two chains, both from the West Coast of the USA, have become the model for the contemporary coffee shop and have inspired entrepreneurs around the globe. Strongly influenced by the Italian espresso bar, the café latte culture has become a rage in Silicon Valley.

Is it any wonder, then, that in India, the trail of the reinvented coffee shop should start in Bangalore, the IT Capital and the Coffee Capital?

The Café Coffee Day on Brigade Road, Bangalore serves some fine coffees and happens to be the first ‘cybercafe’ in the country. This particular outlet is where the contemporary trend in coffee-pubbing started, and it now has a special place in the history of coffee retailing in India.

When the Amalgamated Bean Coffee Trading Co. (ABC) launched the first Café Coffee day outlet in November 1996, it truly was a leap of faith. It was early days for the Internet in India; and ‘coffee shops’ were either of the five-star hotel or dhaba variety. But ABC, as one of India’s leading exporters of coffee, were clued into the international scene and saw a business opportunity in fusing two distinct trends – the cyber craze and the yen for gourmet coffee – and the concept of an independent, stand-alone coffee joint, rather, cybercafe, was born.

Since 1996, when Café Coffee day was the first commercial Internet service provider in India, the scene has evolved significantly, and the rapid increase in home Internet connections has meant a decline in the ‘cyber’ revenue stream. Happily, ABC discovered that it was good coffee that got people to come back for more, and decided to concentrate on the ‘café’ end of the business. By March 2003, the company had some 85 outlets all over the country, with more on the anvil.

To two software engineers from Silicon Valley, USA the word ‘java’ was naturally laden with meaning! Inspired by the specialty coffee bar scene in the US, Shashi Chimala and Shyam set up Qwiky’s Corporation with a vision to set up coffee pubs around the globe, and homed in on Chennai to establish the first Qwiky’s Coffee Pub in October 1999. Managed by Chimayo Chains, the company operates outlets in three formats – Qwiky’s Coffee Pubs which are stand-alone coffee bars, Qwiky’s Coffee Islands which are store-in-store units within large stores, movie theatres and multiplexes, and Qwiky’s Coffee Xpress, which are essentially coffee kiosks.

As coffee goes upmarket, the Indian consumer is learning a whole new language and lifestyle. And Barista looms large on the horizon!

The word ‘Barista’ means ‘a bartender / expert in the brewing and making of coffee’, and is Italian in origin. It’s also the name for a chain of espresso bars that are being set up at a scorching pace in Indian metros and mini-metros. The first outlet came up in March 2000 in New Delhi; currently, the company operates 110 espresso bars in 18 urban centres. The number of Barista outlets is slated to reach 250 by March 2003 in 25 cities – that’s a lot of coffee swirling around! In July 2001, Tata Coffee Limited acquired a stake in Barista Coffee Company – together these companies represent a formidable presence in the retail coffee segment, including institutional catering.

With a national presence, all these contemporary coffee chains have one thing in common – they all unabashedly go for young throats! The outlets are designed for young people in the age group of 15 – 29 to hang out – preferably for hours, no sweat. With air-conditioning and music, message boards full of wise-cracks, indoor games such as chess, scrabble and Pictionary, these pubs are virtually an extension of the college canteen, but thoroughly upscale versions.

What’s happening here? What we’re witnessing is the evolution of a coffee house that served one standard house blend to a trendy bar that serves a variety of beverages and snacks. The espresso counter is a focal element, with the full range of gourmet coffees on order. Urban youth of every new generation always tend to stake out a certain public space as their own; certainly the coffee pubs in the Indian metros are the social milieu where the bold and the beautiful get together today. Further, an Indian twist – the accent is on conviviality, on group activity – way different from the coffee pubs in the western world which are designed for the individual wanting a quick, quiet cuppa.

For young people these days, chilling out at a coffee pub is more of a lifestyle thing, and has more “added value” than simply sipping a cola or a lemon drink. The contemporary coffee bar scene in India today spells non-stop excitement! As each chain expands, each new store opening becomes a frothy celebration of India’s own brand of coffee culture.

© Aparna Datta, 2003



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