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Why is the coffee at home so much better than the coffee at most hotels?

It is a funny thing but most times when I have my first cup of coffee of the day at an Indian hotel – no matter how fancy or super-deluxe the property is –

I find myself wishing that I was drinking my own coffee at my own home. Nine times out of 10, the coffee at home is better than the room service or breakfast buffet coffee at any hotel.


Only 10 years ago, the reverse was true. Most of us grew up on instant coffee. We thought Nescafe represented the perfect, international taste of coffee. In the South, they knew better and looked down on instant coffee. But South Indian coffee is in a league of its own. It has very little to do with the Western coffee tradition and usually, filter coffee from the South needs milk to taste right.


   So most of us drank Nescafe or some other popular brand of instant coffee. When we wanted a more glamorous coffee – a strong espresso or a foamy cappuccino – we went to a restaurant or a deluxe hotel. And then, by the 1990s, we discovered the coffee chains (Barista was the pioneer) and began to learn about fancier coffees.


   At home, however, we were content to drink second-rate coffee. Oddly enough, for most middle-class Indians, good coffee remained the sort of drink that you ordered only when you went out.


   All that is changing now. And, it is because of the coffee machine. There are many coffee machines in the market now (prices start at around Rs 14,000 and go all the way up to Rs 80,000) and many of them use a system created by Nestle in 1976. This involves the use of hermetically-sealed small capsules of coffee which are pierced inside the machine and give us a cup of coffee that is of consistent (and usually) good quality, time after time. The machines really took off in the 1990s and now, there is an explosion of coffee machines.


   When I got my first coffee machine a decade ago, it used Lavazza capsules and the design was such that only Lavazza capsules would fit into it. The advantage was that Lavazza capsules were imported legally and were available in India. Nespresso did not sell its capsules (though Nestle, Nespresso’s owner, is huge in India) through official channels. You could get them in the gray market but I was never sure of their freshness and the prices were far higher than Lavazza – up to Rs 95 per capsule.


   Then, a few years ago, I went to the famous coffee shop, Sant’Eustachio in Rome. The coffee was fine but what intrigued me was that they were also selling capsules for coffee machines. I asked at the counter if they had their own machines. Otherwise how could one use these capsules? They said it was easy. The capsules fit into all coffee machines. I knew it could not be that simple. If a Lavazza machine used capsules that were incompatible with Nespresso machines, then it was clear that there was no standard capsule size.


   Eventually, the people at Sant’Eustachio explained that when they said “all machines” what they really meant were Nespresso machines. And indeed I soon discovered that Nespresso had become the industry standard. Nestle had allowed other manufactures to make Nespresso-compatible machines in the hope of boosting sales of their own capsules. But this had led to a flood of other competitors entering the market and making their own Nespresso machine-compatible capsules. Nestle was not pleased. It did not do much about the smaller competitors but took legal action against such giants as Sara Lee who, it believed, were trying to intrude on a space they had created and nurtured.


   All this was well and good but I was hardly going to get a regular supply of capsules from Sant’Eustachio in Rome and I was reluctant to scour the Indian gray market looking for high-priced Nespresso capsules. So, I stuck to my Lavazza machine.


   Then, I bumped into Karan and Chandni Tibrawalla at an event. Karan Tibrawalla’s family are in the infrastructure business but coffee is his passion. So, he started Fresh Brew Coffee as a sideline. The idea, originally, was to make Nespresso-compatible capsules in India using the best Indian coffees. The capsules would be available on the net and at select stores and they would be much cheaper than Nespresso.


"My guess is that as good coffee becomes accessible to all of us at home, the hotels will have to up their game."

   At first, I am ashamed to say, I was sceptical of the ability of a husband and wife team of coffee geeks to compete with the world’s greatest coffee companies. But then, I tried their coffee. And almost from the first sip, I was hooked. I got myself a Nespresso-compatible machine and now I drink many cups of the Tibrawalla’s Fresh Brew coffee at home every single day. It beats the hell out of the coffee you get at most hotels.


   Because the Tibrawallas take their coffee seriously, their coffees do not have the generic distinctions that you find in many multinational coffees where the capsules are simply described as “Espresso”, “Ristretto”, “Decaff” or whatever. Instead they offer detailed information about the 12 coffees they sell.


   The more I tasted their coffees, the more I came to terms with two determinants of coffee flavour. The first is the roast. Good coffee is like good wine. You need great terroir to produce top quality beans but just as great grapes can be ruined by an untalented wine-maker, the flavour of coffee depends on the way the beans are roasted and the skill of the people doing the roasting.


   The Tibrawallas offer three basic roasts. An Italian roast is a longer duration roast that gives you a significantly darker, slightly bitter, less acidic coffee. A French roast, where the coffee is not roasted at such high temperatures, is lighter, contains more of the bean flavour, has higher acidity and less bitterness. A medium roast is an extremely light roast with higher acidity.


   Then, there are beans themselves. As we all know, there are two basic kinds of coffee beans, the cheaper Robusta which is grown at lower altitudes and the superior Arabica which has a subtler flavour. Many companies blend both varieties together but Fresh Brew uses only Arabica. It sources its beans from carefully selected local estates and prides itself on single-estate coffees. So ideally, you can find an estate whose coffee you like and a roast that suits your taste buds. There are also three international coffees – Ethiopian, Columbian and Sumatra. Soon there will be vanilla-flavoured coffee too.


   Which brings us back to where we started. Why is the coffee at my home (and potentially at your home and at the home of anyone who can afford Rs 14,000 for a coffee machine) so much better than the coffee at most hotels?


   Well, basically because most hotels can’t be bothered to get it right. They buy cheap beans in bulk. When they use large industrial coffee machines, they don’t train their staff to fix the settings. And many still use French press devices which leave huge room for human error. My guess is that as good coffee becomes accessible to all of us at home, the hotels will have to up their game.


   One coffee they won’t make though is the currently trendy Cold Brew coffee. We all know of cold coffee or iced coffee. This is just normally brewed coffee poured over ice. It is hot when it is brewed and you need the ice to cool it down. Cold Brew, on the other hand, uses no hot water. It uses cold water to extract the flavour from the beans, a process that takes over 21 hours. A cold extraction leaves behind the bitterness in the bean and yields a smooth but strong dark brew.


   Fresh Brew makes Cold Brew coffee but it is a small part of the business. The real pioneers of Cold Brew in India are a team of young entrepreneurs who run Sleepy Owl, the best regarded company in the sector. I asked Ajai Thandi, one of the company’s founders, why his coffee was so special. His answer was that Sleepy Owl ignores the middlemen and goes directly to estates in Chikmagalur. It buys Arabica beans, grown at altitudes of over 4,000 feet and then pulls out all the flavour from them through cold extraction.


   You can do many things with Cold Brew coffee, one of which perversely enough, is to heat it. A hot coffee from one of Sleepy Owl’s packs of Cold Brew, tastes significantly different from a normal hot coffee because the cold extraction has produced a much smoother and elegant brew.


   So, after decades of drinking instant coffee, India is on the cusp of a coffee revolution. And oddly enough, this revolution has little to do with the fancy coffee chains.


   It is a revolution that starts at home.



  • Renuka 11 Dec 2017

    That's quite an insightful post on coffee. I also think that the coffee we make at home is far better than most of the cafes or hotels. But recently, I enjoyed coffee at Indian Coffee House (Jabalpur and Raipur), and filter coffee in Chennai.

Posted On: 09 Dec 2017 04:00 PM
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