How a thirst for good coffee and competiton has transformed Bangalore’s cafes

Superb article by Sandhya Soman in TOI, Bangalore. There is an interview of Mr. V Siddhartha of Cafe Coffee Day in the print edition. He narrates the story of how the idea of Cafe Coffee Day germinated may years ago in 1870 when his family agreed to plant coffee crop apart from others in 1870. He discusses this briefly in Soman article as well.

Coming to Soman article, she looks at the way coffee came to Bangalore. How today it has become interesting competition between old and new cafes:

Some like it hot, while some like it standing up. A group of Lalbagh walkers prefer both at one go. Every morning they gulp down their filter coffees without too long a pause in their daily constitutional. “They come to MTR, drink their coffee standing and run off. It’s quite funny ,” laughs writer and coffee chronicler Aparna Datta. Elsewhere, especially on food blogs, paeans are sung about the joy of downing double shots of espresso on a breezy afternoon.

Bengaluru has a brew for everyone but age and migration seem to determine the choice of beverage. More often, it is the young and the restless newcomer who seems to be sipping lattes in eerily similar-looking modern cafes while the older residents stick to Koshy’s, MTR, Brahmins, Vidyarthi Bhavan and other nostalgia-filled haunts of old Bengaluru.

It is this mixture of old and new, propelled by migration, that has repeatedly redefined the city’s vibrant cafe culture since the 16th century.

Coffee came to Konkan and Malabar coasts from Yemen in 16th century. The early British arrivals noticed that locals boiled a black seed and preferred to drink this dark ‘coffee’ liquid than wine, writes Datta quoting colonial accounts. Once the coffee wave reached Europe, the East India Company opened coffee houses in Calcutta and Madras for its officers. It also smelt a great business opportunity in cultivating the beans in the pleasant Western Ghats and bought huge tracts of land dirt-cheap.

“Our family used to cultivate paddy , arecanut and cardamom. Then one of the British planters near by t o l d my great-grandfa ther that he should also grow coffee and that’s how my family got into coffee plantation in 1870,” recalls V G Siddhartha, chairman of Amalgamated Bean Coffee Trading Company , which owns Bengaluru’s homegrown Cafe Coffee Day chain that completes 20 years on July 11. This is true of most Indian planters who copied their British counterparts and started commercial coffee cultivation for export.

Most households continued to drink tea but some beans eventually found their way to elite clubs, roadside stalls and Tamil homes, says Datta. When export blockades came up in the 1900s, domestic consumption was encouraged.Even then, it was revolutionary of Mavalli Tiffin Room or MTR to offer coffee outside homes in 1924. “In those days, you had very little eating out, especially among the upper castes,” says Datta, editor of ‘The Connoisseur’s Book of Indian Coffee’.

Indian Coffee House (ICH), the earlier avatar of Coffee Board, took the MTR experiment to the next level. “They started the first coffee house in Mumbai in 1936 and later, in other parts of India that drank only tea,” says Datta. They served quick eats unlike in a European cafe but the culture around ICH outlets was deeply political, especially in Lucknow and Delhi. By the time ICH opened on MG Road in 1959, another home brand had created loyalists for its ‘Koshy’s Koffee’ to the accompaniment of languid conversations or heated discussions. Koshy’s or Parade Cafe also spawned similar outlets like Thom’s Cafe and Fatima Cafe and Caterers.

“We were one of the first places with a jukebox,” recalls VT Francis, son of Fatima Cafe founder VP Thomas. Collegians of a certain vintage remember heading to these places to spend whatever little money they had on jukeboxes and catching the eyes of young women collegians in the 60s and 70s. For the AngloIndian community around these cafes, Sunday ritual consisted of going for mass and a South Indian breakfast with coffee.

But the winds of change came soon enough. “It was migration and television. This need for burgers and cold coffee came from TV ,” shrugs Francis. While increasing western influence brought in the pub culture in the 1980s, a new wave of migrants in the 1990s changed traffic and residential patterns. Once the Anglo-Indian community moved out to far-flung suburbs, Fatima Cafe became a restaurant and bar, and now a hotel.

Superb stuff. Bit of everything there. History, geography, economics..


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