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The Battle of the Chai vs the Kapi
India’s flirtation with tea began as a British Raj gambit to break China’s monopoly over its production by developing local plants discovered in the Assam hills. Today, we are the second largest producer of tea in the world, and drink 70 per cent of what we produce, mainly consuming it as chai — a thick milky brew infused with cardamom, ginger and spices and sweetened with large spoons of sugar.

Compare that to coffee, which until recently, has been a South Indian phenomenon that owes its popularity to it being the home of the country’s first locally produced plants — a Muslim cleric is said to have illegally smuggled seven beans home from Mecca and grown them in the hills close to Mysore, Karnataka. Today, it is grown and drunk in vast quantities in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Typical South Indian coffee, or kapi, is made with boiled milk and plenty of sugar, and is served in stainless steel tumblers. Many families drink more coffee than tea.

Domestic consumption of coffee is rising at about 5%-6% every year, while tea consumption is increasing only at about 2% annually, according to government data released in 2012.

With more than half of the country’s population under 25, and a rising middle-class that is well aware of Western trends, there’s little wonder Indian coffee consumption has doubled in the past 15 years since the first cafes were opened. In the past ten years alone, per capita consumption of coffee in India has increased 40%.

India’s coffee culture has changed the way young Indians socialise.

Yes, roadside “chaiwallahs” or tea vendors are still ever-present. And it’s difficult to escape the complementary cup of tea in shops and homes. But it’s coffee that young Indians are after in this tea-drinking heartland.

Just as Indian chai has become a staple in cafés in the West under the redundant name “chai tea latte,” European style cafés are now popping up all over urban India. Well before the Starbucks and Costa Coffees of the world made it to India, Café Coffee Day and Barista took on the mantle of promoting a coffee-drinking culture among young Indians and made
coffee uber cool. The relatively steeper price of a cappuccino or espresso makes the coffee shop culture mainly a preserve of the upper middle classes in India.

This café culture has introduced vast varieties of coffee to many Indians for the first time, whilst also bringing more variety to the drink even in traditional coffee-drinking regions.

Baristas now routinely serve up espresso, cappuccino, filter coffee and latte to people who had far fewer options before. In fact, traditionally, if you ordered coffee in a restaurant, you would have been more likely to be served a sad cup of Nescafé than “real coffee.”

If the ultra-trendy, super hip cafés of today were to be pitted against the traditional coffee bars still found in South India, there would be takers for both. The traditional coffee bars offer standing room only, and the idea is to drink up and make room for the next customer. Interestingly, traditional Italian coffee bars followed a similar model. The cafés, on the other hand, consider space as important a product as the coffee itself, and this is likely a key factor in their success. Cafés are significantly more expensive than kapi bars, but for the price you also get a valuable “living” space where you can meet with friends and colleagues. The price takes into account not just the product, but also the experience. Traditional coffee bars should take a page out of their book and find a way to adapt their delicious product to this style of venue, offering the best of both worlds.

To try some traditional, homegrown, single-origin coffee, head to
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