How Women Entrepreneurs Are Brewing India’s Coffee Culture

women coffee entrepreneurs
Women coffee entrepreneurs are roasting an aroma of change in a predominantly tea-drinking nation. Taking forth the impulse of India’s cafe revolution, women leading the front of the ‘bean business’ in the country are treading exciting roads in exploration of just how much plurality homegrown coffee has to offer.

“The full spectrum of the tones and flavours that a human palate could possibly perceive and identify in the world of coffee is infinite,” Sadhavi Ashwani, who co-founded store and cafe Baba’s Beans with friend Mrinal Sharma, tells SheThePeople in an interview.

Coffee is a complex and intriguing biological being… With coffee you hit the motherland of flavours; a whole world of culinary flavours can be discovered in the tones of different roasts and regions. So a trained palate can understand, indulge and enjoy what the crop has to offer.”

Ashwani and Sharma are friends from college who, after meandering through different trades, landed on coffee – a common passion shared over multiple cups that forged a relationship, as they often do. A trip to Coorg in 2013 transformed their vision of coffee and pulled them deeper into research and contact with plantation workers. Out of that bean, their venture was born that year.

Coffee is like music, Ashwani says, with the dopamine-seeking drinker finding themself attuned to the familiar notes of the drink with every cup. Data shows that more and more of the youth consumer market are familiarising themselves with the drink.

“The Indian coffee consumer no longer views coffee as a black bitter drink which effectively wakes you up in the morning”: Ashwani, Baba’s Beans 

YouGov numbers from 2019 showed a vivid distinction in attitudes towards coffee in India between two generations. Where 67 percent of Gen X respondents agreed that India was a tea-drinking nation, among Gen Z only 49 percent did. The belief that the coffee culture was gaining on tea traditions was recorded at 33 percent in the Gen Z category, the highest among all respondent sets.

Cha drinkers, don’t feel down. In an empowering display of appreciation for co-existence, a preference for both beverages was a popular choice across age groups.

Third Roast’s Poornima Katyal traces this changing culture through the recent era of coffee’s surging fame in India. “The first-generation drinkers in North India started with instant coffee, while in the South, where coffee was grown, filter coffee was popular. With the second generation, cafes like Cafe Coffee Day came in. These were more than the coffee but about the culture of meeting friends, hanging out, going for dates – a melting pot of young people,” she tells SheThePeople in an interview.

“The third-generation coffee population has started producing high-quality beans in their own cafes. Thanks to the internet, people are also experimenting with brewing coffee at home.”

Women Coffee Entrepreneurs Are Blending Cultures In Cups. Come, Sip?

Coffeehouses have historically always held status as the ultimate locus where food and social cultures blend. As per Britannica, the first coffeehouse dates back to 16th century Constantinople (now Istanbul). Thrumming with the energy of revolution and intellect, cafes became spaces of important thought exchange over the years. Since Wi-Fi has replaced books, cafes today are crowded with laptop-wielding youth hard at work or fashionable display.

Consumer knowledge around coffee here is now greater, helped by internationally known Indian stores like Blue Tokai and Araku Coffee putting artisanal cuppas on the table. But does the larger chunk of the coffee-drinking population understand or have interest in that kind of investment towards specialty coffee?

Mordor Intelligence estimates that India’s ‘Ready-to-Drink Coffee Market’ (which includes ready products from Amul, Nestle and Starbucks) is set to grow at a CAGR of 3.3 percent between 2020 and 2025; the high demand is fuelled by busy, on-the-go lives of consumers needing quick fixes of caffeine.

“There are a wide variety of consumers who want instant products – something that is convenient,” Katyal says. “Not everyone will buy beans and a grinder to brew fresh coffee at home. At the same time, there are businesses moving towards a discerning coffee drinking culture that allows people to experiment with their brews. But the two will always co-exist.”

“Metros have more access to cafes and brands. Though tier 2 and 3 cities don’t have that access, there is a consumer base there. Brands are delivering cold brew sachets, micro cans or coffee beans through orders placed online,” Katyal adds. Her own venture in 2018 was founded upon small bottle-sized batches of cold brew she was experimenting with at home, sent out to friends who were hooked to her creations.

“We started as just a cold brew company but moved on to making a wider product portfolio that included pantry items that go with coffee – granola, fudge, plant-based milk,” she says. There’s also an exciting ‘shmeese’ (plant-based cheese) offering on the tray.

Baba’s Beans, on the other hand, is still a pure coffee setup that is forever experimenting with flavours and aromas on their Lab Menu at the bar. Their focus is on “bringing the Indian coffee farmer closer to the domestic consumer.”

Since incepting their business in 2013, Ashwani and Sharma have worked closely with plantation farmers they source their coffee from – in Coorg, Chikmagalur, Araku Valley and Tripura. Their business starts at the very grassroots, honouring its earliest origins in the “soul of the soil.” The company name stands as an ode to Baba Budan, a 16th-century Sufi saint credited with introducing the first beans of coffee to India.

“The internet has made coffee more accessible than ever before”: Katyal, Third Roast 

Batting for the best, however, is not so easy at present, these coffee entrepreneurs say. Organic, for instance, is a lifestyle shift many industries are witnessing. And for good. That change in the coffee industry is coming at a price not comprehensively accounted for, Sharma says.

“While organic growing practices are less expensive than conventional practices, the premium charged for organic produce is often not enough to sustain the lower yield and the longer cultivation time in order to be able to sustain the livelihood of the farmer.”

Though organic is a good path to walk in view of eco-friendliness against climate change, “the current capacities, challenges and potential for this shift” has to be understood in the context of Indian coffee farmers with limited land holdings. “With climate change, the pandemic and the coffee price crisis in the world the pressure on the Indian coffee farmer has been intense,” Sharma says. Financially and infrastructurally equipping the average plantation worker is a requisite.

The movement has to be community-centred if the coffee industry is to grow, and grow with command, in India. The interests of all who trace love back to the bean – right from the farmer tending to the saplings in their plantation to the cafe drinker basking in the glory of that first whiff of fresh coffee.

Does that really come as a surprise though? Coffee has, after all, always been for the people.

Pictured: Sadhavi & Mrinal (Baba’s Beans) + Poornima (Third Roast)

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