Ancient trade routes, Sufi saints, and fondness for lounging around and jabbering is where India found its connection to Coffee. Ever since, with its intoxicating qualities, this common household ingredient has evolved with time. The new-gen brewers have a tough challenge of successfully infusing age-old learning with modern techniques to please coffee consumers with contrasting proclivities.
Geetu Mohnani – our very own coffee prodigy and a TEDx speaker – is a woman with a plan to revolutionize the specialty coffee experience in our country! On an endless journey to learn varieties of coffee profiles, one cup at a time, Geetu’s passion is undying and inspiring. A chat with Geetu gave us insightful learning about traditional and modern brewing methods and brewing at home too! Read on!
What is your advice to instant coffee addicts?
I would tell them not to drink instant anymore and give freshly brewed coffee a try. They are not instant coffee addicts; they are usually coffee addicts. If you are a coffee addict, you can brew your coffee anyway. If you are drinking instant coffee, you are not drinking coffee. They are old and processed coffees that go inside it. That’s why it might be delicious and convenient, but once you get the hang of freshly brewed coffee, you will never come back. So I would ask them to give it a try once and stick to drinking coffee however they like it. But at least provide freshly brewed coffee a shot.
Would you agree that the Indian coffee connoisseurs are mostly traditional? How would you blend your learning with their ways?
Indian coffees, I would say, were always traditional. I have lived in multiple parts of India, and I can promptly say that I know many people who live in Delhi or Mumbai drink South Indian filter coffee. If we talk about traditional, it happens only in the south. In the North, the only recognition of coffee for us would be the coffee served in the marriages, which was known as espresso or cold coffee back then. That was our definition until and unless we went to a South Indian restaurant. Many people post 2014 are getting into coffee territory with the opening of specialty coffee brands in India. People have now started understanding coffee much more than visiting their neighborhood coffee houses and brewing coffee themselves, especially after the pandemic hit. We are only growing. I wouldn’t say everyone is traditional because many people understand what is happening in countries like the USA in the coffee industry. Otherwise, of traditions, it’s primarily South India only. I think it’s pretty easy to blend traditional and modern methods of brewing. If you look at our traditional brewing like South Indian filter coffee, we are already brewing the decoction and blending according to our preferences by adding milk and sugar. Everyone has their preferences of strong, bold, or light. It is effortless as we are brewing black already.
There are so many South Indian filter coffee brands mixed with chicory and brands with no chicory. We are very health-conscious, and we want to cut off dairy or sugars, etc. We are moving towards the non-dairy, non-sugar lifestyle, especially us millennials and Gen Z’s. That way, decoctions are much easier to brew because it doesn’t require a considerable investment. You have to invest 150 – 200 rupees to buy filter coffee equipment. And you can buy coffee from any place. It can be out of specialty coffee shops, or it can be your neighborhood Darshini’s, and you can brew your coffee at home. So that’s the first step of getting into the whole coffee mixology theme. It’s easier because the investment is pretty low. It’s effortless, and you don’t need a lot of learning for it.
In a city like Bangalore, coffee outlets open and saturate quite quickly. What improvements or upgrades would you recommend to keep this office up and running?
What I’ve observed through the past year is that India, in particular, is not the beverage drinking nation. We might say that we drink tea or coffee, but we never order from outside. We order only when there is a group of people working together. We have never been country where we do order beverages from outside. We believe in ordering food, but for the cafes to survive now, we would ask and urge people to order in little more than they would and give the neighborhood cafes the revenue to keep still going even post the pandemic hit. A friend of mine told me about a survey wherein 2020, 117 companies were registered. They could be coffee shops or retail packaging companies, anything related to coffee or tea, but only 12 of them have survived 2021. I have seen my cafes being stagnant. Considering that, we need specific revenue to come up. So I would urge to invest in some way or the other. If the cafes provide takeaways, order from them. Some restaurants offer workshops or provide a learning platform. Invest in that. If you are getting your income, then definitely do invest in the cafes nearby. The cafes also need to come out with innovative ideas on how they can influence people. Now that everybody is at home, cafes need to also come up with plans. You will probably look into a favorite food item that you can combine because people order that particular food and beverage.
So what is Geetu’s favorite brew?
I usually drink pour-over. I like to keep my profile to light or medium. And since I drink at least two cups of coffee a day, I want to drink smaller cups. I like to drink 150 ml of coffee in one cup. I get bored by the time it reaches 200 ml. That’s also because whenever I’m drinking my coffee, I am judging it more than enjoying the coffee. It’s not a leisure activity for me. It’s more of an analyzing regime. Also, I can’t do repetitive thinking. I cannot choose the same coffee beans again and again. I need variety. Even if I mess it up, I learn and do it over.
We tend to pick up a lot of foreign countries’ trends or styles and call it hip. What do you think is that one wrong notion that we might have picked up from others?
We South Indians are used to extra hot coffee. At Caffeine Baar, everybody complains that their coffee is not too hot. Be it lattes, cappuccinos, or any other milk beverage are supposed to be had at a specific temperature so that their flavors are enhanced. They’re supposed to be had at 55 to 65 degrees Celsius instead of the 90 degrees Celsius filter coffee we’ve been having. That is what we all need to learn that when we go and drink coffee at a restaurant, a bar, or a café, that coffee would not be as hot. It should be enjoyed at that particular temperature instead of asking to reheat it. Otherwise, all the protein content in the milk is lost. It’s more harmful than being delicious. We fall into the league of the Specialty Coffee Association comes from the US. There are a set of guidelines for the entire industry over the world. There’s Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE). The guidelines coming to the specialty coffee industry can be tweaked to meet regional or local preferences. So there are no wrong or right things in coffee; they differ for every individual. One of the remarkable things about the coffee industry is people don’t question each other. So there’s always new learning rather than challenging it. That way, there are no standard recipes. Everybody has their recipes, and everybody says their coffee is the best. There’s nothing wrong there.
If you had to brew a cup of coffee for a stubborn, traditional elderly who only prefer age-old local hotels to modern cafes, what would it be?
I would either brew a Cortado or a Flat White, depending on the size they want. And if we’re talking about Indian uncle, if you’re going to brew filter coffee per se, Cortado comes pretty close to it because it is an equal portion of espresso with milk for a small quantity like 90 ml. If they want a larger cup, I will go for Flat White. Both of these drinks don’t have a lot of foam in them, unlike cappuccino or latte. I will not question him too much because it would be more about him enjoying the coffee experience with me rather than asking his preference.
What, according to you, is the next big thing in the world of coffee?
A lot of manual brews are already happening. People are more aware of how their coffee should taste rather than just gulping it down. So people are brewing their coffee and understanding what coffee should taste like, just like how wine tasting is done. Brewing at home is the next big thing. And just like how we invite people to our houses and gatherings and serve liquor in different ways, coffee brewing is also rising. And we’ve seen that the equipment sales are growing. During this pandemic, when people are at home, they want everything perfect for their home, like ergonomic chairs, etc.; people are also investing in good quality coffee and equipment. We are seeing that in India, a lot of farmers are experimenting. And as a caffeine bar, we are way ahead. Every year, we’re trying to test at the farm and then bring that experiment at the cafe level and make the customer understand what was done at the farm. In a way that it wouldn’t taste like your traditional coffee, but it would give you a much better flavor. Now, if we talk about Caffeine Baar mainly, our entire coffee comes from the estate called the ‘Baarbara Estate.’ As a layman, you see all the coffee on the menu and think that all the coffee is coming from one particular estate, so it should taste the same. But that’s not the case because this year we have five different types of coffee, which is called the processing methods of coffee. For next year, we’re going to have nine other processing methods. So a customer can always come in choose their preferred processing method. Like how the traditional elderly prefer boldness in his filter coffee, he can select that coffee processing method that enhances the courage in the cup rather than its acidity. Many farmers are doing this initiative where they experiment at their farm, but the consumer segment now understands much more about the coffee by manually brewing themselves.
So you have a long list of accolades and wins added to your kitty. What was your biggest hurdle to get here?
I don’t think there was a hurdle because I’m one of the persons who doesn’t plan many things and goes ahead with whatever I want for the next part of my journey. One of the hurdles was not working for an organization anymore and starting my own business as an entrepreneur. I had no idea about it, and not many people in my family are into business. Nobody was doing what they wanted to do. And there was nobody to look up to and ask them for a job description. So that was a challenging phase. And when things settled down, something worked, and I was doing things I wanted to, 2020 happened. So I lost a couple of projects. My work is majorly offline, and the coffee industry still works offline primarily and not online. I did work with a couple of cafes outside Bangalore also. So that was hard for some time. So it was a weird experience for me to sit at home and not understand what to do. Also, I’m a constant person. I still had a massive doubt within me, whether I would be able to do that or not.
What’s your next big move as a Barista?
I don’t know about the next big move. As I said, I’m a person who likes things to come as they come and enjoy them rather than planning. One of the recent things that excited me was TEDx. I was one of the TEDx speakers, which I was very excited. Yeah, so that was very shocking and exciting at the same time. One of the biggest things that I’m doing right now would be working on the consumer part in creating beverages, working with many farmers, and understanding what is happening at the farm level. I think my pandemic time would go like that in understanding and curating something that I have never done. My role in Caffeine Baar is also to work with Sreeraksha Purnesh, one of the co-founders. He is at the farm most time. He works together on experimenting and understanding what experiments we can work on next year. And then, we sample roast and profile roast them, cup them and analyze the coffee. One of the most significant moves is working with the farmers, not just the consumer segment.
Love for coffee is a given factor; hard work and dedication are mandatory qualities for becoming a successful Barista. What other qualities do you think are necessary to soar high like you?
I never have a “no” attitude because you always need to be ready and upfront about whatever is coming on your way. Second, never stop learning. I would personally say that I’m still learning. I’m not very good at Latte Art, but I do the practice. Never stop learning, even if it is the smallest of things. Third, never feel like you know everything even if you’ve achieved many things in that segment because the coffee world is continuously growing. And there are a lot of things which are changing by the hour. So you can never be a person who knows everything, honestly. Let me share one of my personal experiences. This was when I competed for the Barista Championship in 2016. I was working with Starbucks then. Since I was very confident and I was a great speaker, I thought I could nail it. I won the regional, and as soon as I completed the Nationals, I lost. And the contestant who wasn’t as good won. And that day was the day I realized that my overconfidence is not going to help. Since that day, one of my favorite quotes is ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’ Whenever I feel like I’m trying to be more a little confident, I should constantly remind myself of this.
What is your take on a coffee plantation at home?
It is still possible in cities like Bangalore. But if you’re talking about adjusting the microclimate and maybe build a greenhouse structure, it might work. I would say plantation is possible, but perhaps the flavor profiles or how close you can reach the particular coffee taste will be slightly tricky. India is one of the only countries majorly which falls under the shade farming concept. So it is classified with a lot of biodiversity around it. Again, it’s the combination of flora and fauna, etc.; it keeps changing. The temperature or the weather does not remain stagnant. So that’s what we call something a microclimate in coffee terminology. Coffee needs to have a microclimate and biodiversity around it to be able to grow efficiently. And if you try to control these factors, I think the coffee would end up being too expensive, and you wouldn’t have many consumers. But I’m sure it would be a fantastic idea. If consumers (me included) are willing to try and identify how it is different from the coffee grown randomly, it might work. So yeah, but it will be a tiny group of people. With all the technology that we have now, I think it is entirely possible. I’m waiting for somebody to do this.