Young entrepreneurs in Meghalaya and Nagaland are trying to bring locally grown speciality coffee to the forefront
These include the Smoky Falls Tribes Coffee, Naga Coffee Private Limited and Ete Coffee
The speciality coffee movement in the North-East is aided by the growth of home-grown cafés. Teiskhem Lynrah, who co-founded Meraki in Mumbai to highlight India’s biodiversity and culinary traditions, grew up in Laitumkhrah, the part of Shillong where all schools, colleges and churches were located. During her childhood, she only had the choice of visiting old authentic Chinese restaurants and a popular hospital canteen called “Cafeteria", which served hotdogs, burgers, milkshakes, and more. It was the closest to a café back then. “Then came Swish in the mid-2000s, which was the first place to serve continental meals. It brought the café culture to town. Fast forward to 2019, and there are innumerable cafés in town. I am sure there is one opening as we speak," she says. Each is trying hard to sustain itself with a differentiated offering, constant innovation and great service. Locally-inspired dishes are becoming the norm, which is why home-grown coffees are becoming part of the menu. “Smoky Falls café has been a pioneer in this as it introduced Meghalaya to its own coffee for the first time in history," says Lynrah.
Coffee was first introduced in the North-East, in the mist-laden hills of Meghalaya and Assam’s Cachar district, in the 1850s. It’s a fact mentioned in Coffee Cultivation In Khasi Hills, a book published in 1908 by B.C. Basu, then director of the agriculture department in undivided Assam. In 1954, coffee plantations were established by Meghalaya’s soil and water conservation department in parts of Ri-Bhoi, East Jaintia Hills and West Garo Hills districts. But labour-intensive cultivation and the absence of processing methods resulted in coffee losing out to tea. Arabica plants were left to grow wild and the North-East forgot its tryst with coffee.
In the 1980s, Nagaland tried to revive coffee cultivation. But the presence of middlemen meant the farmers didn’t get a fair price. Political unrest added to their woes and coffee plantations were abandoned.
Now, a set of young entrepreneurs is trying to boost locally grown coffee. For instance, Dasumarlin Majaw, 37, has started Smoky Falls Tribe Coffee—the first such effort in Meghalaya—with her father. Nagaland has a host of such initiatives, among them is Naga Coffee Private Limited, a public-private partnership between the department of land resources and Noble Cause, a South African venture by Pieter Vermeulen, a certified coffee taster and roaster. Managed by two enterprising Dimapur-based men, Kajiikho Arücho and Vivito Yeptho, the mission of the partnership’s brand, Nagaland Coffee, is to instil pride in locally grown coffee and generate employment by training the millennials as baristas.
In Kohima, 33-year-old Lichan Humtsoe runs the state’s first roasting company and brewery, Ete Coffee. A former wedding photographer and a government employee, Humtsoe stumbled upon small pockets of coffee plantations in 2015 in the Kohima and Mon districts. “I started by roasting the coffee for myself. But after savouring the unique flavour profiles, a friend goaded me into taking this up on a larger scale," he says. In July 2016, Humtsoe quit his day job and entered the coffee business. “I shifted my focus to coffee as it allowed me to work with a diverse set of people—from farmers and processors to packagers, baristas and roasters," he adds.
While he sources coffee from seven plantations, Nagaland Coffee taps into the plantations in five districts—Mon, Wokha, Mokokchung, Zunheboto and Kohima. In fact, Nagaland Coffee has the distinction of offering niche forest-grown coffee from Zunheboto.
The initiative for Nagaland Coffee took shape when the state government, chuffed by its success in growing rubber—another crop alien to the region—decided to give coffee another try. It drew up a five-year plan, with the aim of covering 5,000 hectares by 2020 through public-private partnership, using seed varieties such as Cauvery, SL9 and Batian procured from the Coffee Board of India.
Roasted and ground in Dimapur, the coffee makes its way to cafés across the North-East as well as a café each in Mussoorie and Delhi, while the green beans are exported to South Africa, Dubai and Bahrain. “This year, the harvest has increased to 15 tonnes. Next year, we intend to target more places," says Yeptho.
In Meghalaya too, the Coffee Board of India has been supporting enterprises such as Smoky Falls. The board has also identified areas suitable for growing coffee in other parts of the North-East. According to a report by the Meghalaya Basin Development Authority, coffee is now grown in six of 11 districts across the state, covering 300 hectares, with an estimated yield of 200 metric tonnes in 2016-17.
Eliminating middlemen, Smoky Falls procures the beans directly from farmers in villages such as Syltham, Mawlatang and Marngar and takes the coffee directly to consumers.
The coffee is packaged and sold through the brand’s website and its café in Tyrna in the East Khasi Hills. “I grew up listening to stories of missionaries who got coffee seeds from down south and settled in the southern slopes of Cherrapunji. In our village, my great grandmother and grandmother would have coffee instead of tea. I too developed a taste for it," says Majaw, a graduate in biochemistry who named her brand Smoky Falls after the waterfalls in her area, which gushed water with such intensity that it would seem like smoke.
Initially, she would follow the traditional method of pan-roasting the beans. But her father, who attended training sessions organized by the Coffee Board of India in Bengaluru, introduced her to modern methods. Today, all the coffee at Smoky Falls is organic, without chicory. It is supplied to stores and cafés in Manipur, Assam and Mizoram, and talks are on with stores in Delhi and Mumbai.
The focus at each of these enterprises is on educating the customer about details such as grind size. For instance, at Ete Coffee, many consumers initially liked the flavours but didn’t know how to replicate the brew at home. “That’s when we decided to turn the roastery into an educational centre in 2017," says Humtsoe. The decision to call it a ‘Roastery and Breweries’, and not a café, was also deliberate. In Nagaland, the term café is usually used for restaurants and fast-food outlets serving momos and noodles. “We didn’t want to associate ours with that notion. Also, we wanted to push the coffee culture," he says.
Today, Humtsoe gets coffee from varietals such as Selection 9, Cauvery and Chandragiri, each of which has an amazing acidity to it. “The ones from the Wokha district have undertones of wild berries, peaches and green apples, while the Mokokchung one has citrusy tones," says Humtsoe , who is a registered member of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) of Europe. “Though the farmers here do dry processing, we try to introduce fermented processes wherever we get to be a part of the harvesting. The idea is to aid the coffee movement in the state by helping the farmers and baristas keep up with the evolving technology and SCA protocols," he says.