Delhi-based couple, Matt Chitharanjan and Namrata Asthana, are hoping to convert a fraction of India’s massive tea drinking population into coffee connoisseurs.
What started as a hobby has turned into a thriving online coffee business, Blue Tokai. Named after an ancient South Indian term for the tail of a peacock -- tokai, the coffee startup wants to popularize India’s vast coffee growing plantations, which have been largely unknown abroad and within the country itself.
In India, Chitharanjan estimates the average person may have 70 grams of coffee a year; compare that to 7 kilos per person a year in Scandinavia. “India’s never going to be a 7 kilo country,” he says, but they might get a few more coffee lovers if they can educate the public on the country’s coffee belt and its gems.
While India is the fifth largest coffee grower in the world, the bulk of the coffee is exported, especially the premium Arabica beans, Chitharanjan says. The state of Karnataka produces nearly 80 percent of India’s coffee. Yet, north Indians know little about these farms.
A former economist, Chitharanjan and his wife lived in Chennai where his offices were located before moving to Delhi. There local coffee houses offered freshly ground coffee. There was still an element of interaction with coffee growers, he says. That changed when they shifted north where national and international chains like Cafe Coffee Day and Starbucks dominate the market -- and neither showcase single-estate Arabica coffees. Rather, they depend on Robusta beans as fillers in their blends.
Chitharanjan, a coffee hobbyist who enjoys collecting different devices for brewing and even experimented with homemade roasts, decided to jump in and see if they could connect Indians to their own coffee farmers. The company’s official t-shirt reads: “We love Indian coffee farmers.”
Using their savings and support from friends and family, the two invested in a roaster. Blue Tokai roasts twice a week and ships out coffee immediately after the roast to ensure freshness.
People think coffee is a staple. Rather, it’s a perishable good, he says. Hence, the coffee is ground to a customer’s liking and sent via Fedex for delivery. The company processes one-time orders and monthly subscriptions. Their packaging showcases Indian artwork, a description of where the coffee is from, and of course, their signature label, a peacock.
The beans have caught on in the capital and are offered at trendy coffee shops around the city. What they thought might be a niche market, designed for foreigners living in the city or NRIs (non-resident Indians), has connected with a broader coffee-drinking crowd in Delhi.
Though it wasn’t simple. Indian households stock instant coffee, not ground beans. That meant they got calls from customers and first time brewers, asking how to brew with grinds. Given that coffee equipment is not readily available in India, Tokai has started offering a selection of devices to brew coffee as well (including Aeropress, french press, and more elaborate Japanese filters).
Awareness, however, is growing. Blue Tokai estimates that the domestic coffee consumption has increased over 5% every year, in the last 10 years. That’s more than tea. Coffee, popular mostly in developed nations, is a more expensive drink, they argue, requiring more beans (than tea leaves) to produce a single cup.
India’s foodie culture is booming -- and along with it an appetite for good coffee, not the traditional South Indian coffee, prepared with a heavy hand of sugar and milk.
“The response has far exceeded our expectations,” says Chitharanjan.