Matt Chitharanjan, co-founder, Blue Tokai, talks about the artisanal coffee wave, the importance of package design, and ordering Americanos on food delivery apps
Blue Tokai has now grown from a single roastery-cafe and e-commerce venture in 2016 to 21 cafes in Delhi and the National Capital Region, Jaipur, Mumbai and Bengaluru
It was in January 2016 that I first visited Blue Tokai, tucked away in the by-lanes of Said-ul-Ajaib in south Delhi. For a coffee junkie like me, it was an exciting prospect to visit a new roastery—the first in Delhi at the time—that focused on single-estate beans from India. It was after several wrong turns that I found Blue Tokai, located a stone throw’s from car workshops and cramped houses.
The urban chaos dissipated the minute I entered the roastery-café, where I was greeted by the whirring of grinders and the warm enveloping aroma of coffee. The co-founder, Matt Chitharanjan, 37, could be seen working with a team of roasters, controlling the temperature and humidity to extract the best flavour possible from the coffee bean. It was a process called profile roasting, something Blue Tokai was the first to offer in the Capital.
It has been three years since that first visit and much has changed. Artisanal coffee has become a part of hipster culture, and many more coffee entrepreneurs have joined Blue Tokai in offering Indian consumers A-grade beans straight from plantations located in Chikmagalur, Kodaikanal, Coorg, even Nagaland. The average millennial is now aware of the complex notes and flavour profiles underlying coffee—incidentally, while wine has 200-400 notes, coffee has 1,200—and even has a favourite estate from which his or her beans are sourced.
As I head to Blue Tokai again, these changes are even more palpable. For one, it is no longer the sole occupant of the lane in Said-ul-Ajaib. Now called Champa Gali, the little alley is teeming with eateries such as Jugmug Thela and Studio Thali, dedicated to the quaint and the artisanal. Meanwhile, Blue Tokai has grown from a single roastery-café and e-commerce venture in 2016 to 21 cafés in Delhi and the National Capital Region, Jaipur, Mumbai and Bengaluru, with plans to open more in the next four months in the these three metro cities. Chitharanjan and I settle down at a table overlooking the roastery with a couple of Americanos—mine being from Karnataka’s Attikan Estate, a medium dark brew with notes of dark chocolate, figs and roasted almonds—and look back at how the company and the coffee culture in India have grown in tandem.
The roots of Blue Tokai lie in Chitharanjan’s personal quest for good coffee. “I grew up in the US, and my father is from Chennai. While growing up, my parents would drink a lot of filter coffee," he says. When he moved to San Francisco after completing his master’s degree in economics from the University of British Columbia, the third wave of coffee (the speciality coffee movement) was sweeping across the US. “Blue Bottle Coffee had opened a café close to my apartment and a lot of local roasteries were nearby. I got exposed to better-sourced and better-roasted beans," says Chitharanjan, who started roasting beans as a hobby. Some years later, his work as an economist brought him to Chennai, and it was while working at the Institute for Financial Management and Research that he met his wife, Namrata Asthana.
In 2012, the couple was hoping to start an entrepreneurial venture and coffee was a common point of interest. “We moved to Delhi and it was very difficult to find good coffee here. There were either Cafe Coffee Day (CCD) outlets or very expensive imported coffee. So, Namrata said why not try doing coffee on our own," says Chitharanjan. The couple reached out to growers who were producing high-quality beans and tried to convince them to sell a part of the produce to them. In early 2016, Blue Tokai received seed funding from Snow Leopard Ventures and Bold Ventures. “We have also raised subsequent rounds of funds after the initial seed funding," he says.
Slowly and steadily, they started getting green coffee beans from single estates in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, which would then be profile-roasted fresh on order, ground to a perfect grain according to the customer’s requirement, and shipped within 24 hours.
According to Chitharanjan, coffee should be consumed within three-four weeks of being roasted. One of the reasons that the brew served in coffee chains or bought off the shelves sometimes tastes stale is because it takes a long time for the coffee to make its way through the supply chain, thereby leading to a breakdown in flavour compounds. Which is why now even restaurants and hotels such as the Roseate House in Delhi and the Oberoi Patisserie in Gurugram order roasted beans directly from Blue Tokai and serve them fresh to diners.
Was it difficult initially to convince farmers to part with their A-grade beans to an Indian coffee startup? “It was. They felt it was a waste of their time, as until then no one in India had been willing to pay a premium for high-quality beans. When we approached them, there was reluctance and also a sense of wariness about who we were and what we were doing," says Chitharanjan.
The couple was upfront with plantation owners about the fact that the packages would feature the name of the estate the coffee was sourced from. This was crucial both to maintain transparency and educate the consumer. “Each estate has its own terroir, which impacts the flavour profile. And that needed to get highlighted," he says. For instance, the organic coffee from M S Estate in Chikmagalur. which is grown at an altitude of 1,100-1,400m, is wash-processed and has notes of berries, molasses and milk chocolate. The Bibi Plantation AAA coffee from Coorg, on the other hand, is grown at a lower altitude, and has warm notes of toffee, almond and caramel. “It was a risk for the plantations too. If we did a bad job, they would get a bad name. Luckily, they took a chance on us," he says.
Once Blue Tokai started selling artisanal coffee online, it began to get word-of-mouth publicity. “One of the good things about coffee is that it is very community driven. People who like coffee are very vocal about their favourite brands and they tell everyone about it. We were lucky in the beginning as there was this unmet demand for what we were offering. So, appreciation for Blue Tokai grew organically," says Chitharanjan.
Initially, he participated in farmers’ markets and embassy events. It was a time when e-commerce ventures were taking off and people were slowly getting used to finding coffee online, but “the online market wasn’t very crowded at that time", he says.
One of the striking things about Blue Tokai coffee is not just the quality of the roast but also the packaging, with artwork by folk and tribal artists such as Sukhandi Vyam at the back, and information about the estate, type of processing and date of roast in the front.
“That was all Namrata. I was worried about the price and wanted to do basic simple packaging. But she has a background in design and communications, and it was she who came up with the logo and the idea to customize the pack with the name of the consumer and to put artwork as well. All this connects with our ethos of sustainability, transparency and education," says Chitharanjan.
In fact, consumer education is always on top of Chitharanjan’s list. There are classes every month at Said-ul-Ajaib and the café in Mumbai for customers on how to make coffee on machines, and even manual brewing sessions for those interested. There are sessions on roasting and cupping. Last year, he roped in two experts from Australia to put together a barista and roaster training school in Said-ul-Ajaib and Mumbai. “We train baristas at other restaurants that stock Blue Tokai as well so that they are able to tell our story better," he says. Of late, he has been noticing demand for artisanal coffee from smaller cities and towns such as Thane and Jodhpur. “People are opening up cafés in some of the tier 2 cities. They have been exposed to good-quality coffee through some channel and are interested in bringing it back to wherever they live," says Chitharanjan.
At a time when the gourmet coffee market is growing, with names such as The Flying Squirrel, Koinonia, Black Baza, Halli Berri and Third Wave innovating with high-quality Indian beans, what is it that differentiates Blue Tokai from the rest? “I think we are all complementing each other in this ecosystem. Everyone is catering to their own customer base and helping the market grow in its own unique way. All our coffees are different, sourced from different estates. Even when we source from the same estate, the way we roast the coffee is different from others," says Chitharanjan.
At the end, the customer is the winner, with a variety of styles and options at his disposal. “We want to be known as the coffee company and not as a café company. Even though we have 20-plus cafés at the moment, we don’t want to be the next CCD or Starbucks," he says. The idea is for the coffee to be accessible and for the Blue Tokai cafés to act as customer engagement points, with a team of baristas guiding them.
“Putting together a coffee culture is important to us. Some entrepreneurs feel their coffee should taste good simply because they have bought a machine worth lakhs and good-quality beans. Anyone can press buttons on a machine, but an untrained person can easily ruin your coffee," Chitharanjan says.
For most of us, coffee is a way to de-stress. But I wonder if this holds true for Chitharanjan, who is surrounded by the whiffs and smell of coffee all day. “I still have four-five cups a day. But for me, the best way to de-stress is spending time with family in the evening," he says.
Having said that, his palate has changed over the years. He used to drink instant coffee while growing up, but after being exposed to the third wave of coffee, he moved to lighter roasted ones. “I used to make pour-overs at home all the time. But I have become so lazy now that I order Americanos from Zomato all the time. It is interesting to see delivery aggregators change my own consumption behaviour," says Chitharanjan, who is now working on packaging techniques to help coffee transport better.
Notes that you enjoy in a cup of coffee
I enjoy fruity and floral notes in a coffee, as well as depth of flavour. You end up finding new notes as the coffee cools down.
How do you unwind?
By spending time with my family and exploring new destinations. One country on my bucket list is Japan.
Your favourite book
‘The Asian Saga’, a series of six books by James Clavell, which traces the lives of Europeans living in Asia.
Your favourite café
Father Carpenter in Berlin has great coffee, good food, and, most importantly, knowledgeable staff, which has none of the pretensions that you encounter in speciailty cafés.
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