Coupling gripping road-trips laden with the aroma that breathes life into every morning, coffee connoisseur Suhas Dwarakanath’s bubbling curiosity and love for the piping hot beverage paved his way to four coffee landscapes across South India. Following coffee probes in Chikkamagaluru, the birthplace of coffee in India, spice-infused baubles in Wayanad and human-nature harmony lessons with every sip of Coorgi coffee, he set foot in the North Eastern limb of the country for the concluding leg of India coffee stories. On a two-day road trip across Nagaland, Suhas conquered an ambitious ascent mapped across Dimapur, Khonoma and Kohima to draw the curtains to the story of an up-and-coming coffee culture brewing amidst the state’s pristine hilly holds. Unending slopes carpeted by lush greenery kiss the clouds while keeping Suhas company on a particularly lengthy drive. Supporting his passion journey, the Hyundai TUCSON’s futuristic navigation system unfurls a map on the screen on cue to Suhas’ “Show map.” voice command.
A latest addition to the ancient Indian coffee heritage, the story of Nagaland’s specialty coffee is one of undying determination and dedication of the Nagas who refuted coffee pandits’ claims that its rugged terrains could not bear coffee. Nagaland’s appearance in the global coffee map is indeed an extraordinary one. Out of the ambits of the global coffee belt, Nagaland is perched in the Temperate belt, over the Tropic of Cancer. However, similar to the coffee slopes of the Western Ghats, the elevated forests of Nagaland where coffee is grown are blessed with ideal climatic and micro-climatic conditions that pivot the beans to thrive. Coffee is highly sensitive to climatic changes and as minute as five degree changes during the summer months can completely alter their health and composition.
The non-traditional coffee-growing region is a peculiar beneficiary of global warming. “Non-traditional areas are becoming more and more lucrative to grow coffee because of global warming. The weather patterns are changing in these high-altitude regions where it is becoming more conducive to grow coffee and the local flora and fauna are suffering because of the global climate change. So, it is becoming conducive for coffee. The traditional areas are becoming non-conducive and the non-traditional areas are becoming slowly conducive,” Suhas explains the growing popularity of coffee cultivation in Nagaland.
At 6,500 feet above sea level, Suhas steers through the foothills of the Himalayas to the Nagaland capital from Dimapur to investigate the bubbling uprising of a coffee wave in the state. While on the road, the all-new Hyundai TUCSON prioritises user safety with features like the High Beam Assist that is designed to automatically dim high beams when it senses a vehicle approaching from the opposite direction.
At the epicentre of an advancing coffee revolution is Été Coffee in Kohima. Founder Lichan Humtsoe is among the homegrown coffee enthusiasts behind the growing acknowledgement of the importance of artistic and scientific expertise of coffee brewing at cafés across the state. Humtsoe’s coffee journey started out as a college student when he halted at a roadside motel for a curious sip of the black beverage. However, his love story found a vision when he started working a government job and was witness to the shortcomings of the employment sector. “Initially how I started was because of the given situation in my state, especially with 99% of our people dependent on the government economy. I personally had a vision to do away with the dependency of our people on the government economy,” Lichan tells Suhas. Having discerned the potential rippling benefits of the bean-to-cup experience to different structures of society, from the farms to the cafés and everything in between, Lichan bid adieu to his mainstream profession to start a company of his own.
A profit organisation driven by the determination to build a self-sustained community, Été Coffee School is an initiative that trains baristas at the forefront of the coffee experience instead of igniting the training process at the farm level. A special mission to make people behind the coffee a ‘brand’ is at the core of Été Coffee. “If you make Indian coffee the brand, any foreigner can make use of this coffee bill. But when you make Indian professionals the brand, that is something hardly anyone will exploit.” Lichan explains. Été Coffee School currently offers eight courses and has trained fifteen batches in the art of performing coffee since its inception.
“It is counterintuitive to think that you are training your competitors in your own industry. But I thought that if you want to make people the brand itself, you need to make sure that every single café in Nagaland, or for that matter in India, run by the people do excellent coffee with proper technical know-how. We will have to work together to build that ecosystem,” Lichan elucidates his mission. The process is centred around roasters in this approach with the guiding belief that no amount of effort in the primary and secondary process chain would be fruitful in lieu of the roaster’s mastery at the cafes.
The Specialty Coffee Association guidebook informs that a span of 8-13 minutes inside the roasting chamber spews innumerable chemical reactions between dehydration of the coffee cherries and colouration of the beans that demand special attention from the roasters and affect the composition of the coffee. The beans are packed with different acids that represent varied flavours and characters when developed. “The presence of citric acid will mean that your coffee contains notes of a citrus fruit. Likewise, if it’s ascorbic acid then it will taste like gooseberry,” Lichan explains. Their variations are full of surprises as each acid exudes diverse fruity flavours. The process of roasting is crucial as a roaster’s knowledge is detrimental in enhancing the unique characters of the beans.
Inside the roasting chamber, it is a game of precision and time. The heat arrested at different levels of the roasting process determines its resultant gradation, from mild roasts to medium and dark roasts. The first crack is when most of the acid is developed. Those in pursuit of fruity and floral flavours can stop at this stage. However, if you are looking for something bold, nutty and on the fuller mouthfeel, you could pursue a darker roast. “That’s when more oil development happens.” Lichan explains. With darker roasts comes bigger bitterness from its brisk extraction.
The finale to accomplishing an enticing cup of coffee is the brewing process. Perhaps the most imperative in the chain of processes, the brewing method greatly alters the concoction’s viscosity and flavour. The most familiar method is the French Press. The addictive bold body and heavy character of the deep golden liquid is specially treasured by home-brewers. Many mistake the French Press’ mesh to be a filter when in reality, it is devised to push down residue and allow the oils to flow freely into the cup. Alternatively, a concoction is forced down a thin paper filter in AeroPress. The latter method removes all oils and sediments for a clearer brew. The sizzling sounds engulfing cafes in the backdrop of chitter chatter is that of an espresso machine’s. A barista’s best friend, the espresso machine relies on pressure to extract a well-balanced brew with an ideal density to marry components such as milk, water and ice cubes.
Behind the scenes, coffee farms line the Naga districts of Kohima, Mokokchung, Wokha and Kiphire. A jaunt from the capital, Suhas drives to Khonoma village, a hilly hamlet at 5,320 feet renowned for being India’s first ‘green’ village. Hair pin turns revealing rolling vistas and mesmerising foliage drenched in frequent rains stir a sight to be savoured. “The Hyundai TUCSON’s Rain Sensing Wipers helped a lot as it kept raining on and off all the time,” says Suhas. Home to first generation coffee growers, Suhas visits Nagaland’s coffee estates in Khonoma. Cultivated under the natural shade of high-altitude forests, coffee is intercropped with a myriad of local fruits and vegetables. Today, 10,000 hectares of coffee estates lounge in Nagaland and the number is expected to go up to 50,000 hectares by 2030. “The estates are very small now and are owner managed but in the next five years there is a prediction that the farms would be consolidated and bigger entities would be created,” Suhas says.
To close the final chapter of his coffee expedition, Suhas brews himself a fruity cup of Naga coffee bursting with muskmelon overtones and jaggery aftertaste. His eyes scan the vivid green hills, a touch of surreality in every sip at the 6000ers. He reminisces about acquainting with fragrant cups of coffee and inspiring people who are authoring the story of Indian coffee. From spine-tingling panoramas on rugged terrains smoothened by the Hyundai TUCSON to passion stories shared over steaming cuppas, India coffee stories will remain as a treasure trove of effervescent memories.
Sudrisha Goswami hopes to connect people with engaging stories from spectrums of art, culture, design and communities. She can be spotted sipping a cup of hot chocolate on any given day with a book in her hand and her eyes scanning crowds for different journeys.