It’s no longer just an Udipi restaurant in the South where you go to enjoy a classic cup of strong, frothy filter coffee. Although still strongly associated with the beverage culture of that side of the country, the artisanal lineage of coffee in the country — after educating their customers about grind sizes, equipment, brewing methods, you-name-it — is slowly bringing back the big daddy of all coffee culture in India: filter coffee.
I must confess, as a ‘voracious’ coffee drinker, I can almost hardly get my filter coffee right. It feels like a personal failure, it does. It’s not difficult, it’s just more intrinsic a method, in my opinion. But now that artisanal coffee brands like Third Wave Coffee Roasters do a good filter kaapi in their cafes, I probably don’t even have to attempt making it on my own.
While filter coffee’s initial popularity came from Indian Coffee House, a cafe set up by the Coffee Board of India in 1940, there was a bit of a gap when the initial supposed premium coffee shops that kickstarted the coffee shop culture of metropolitan cities took over with their extensive menus, introducing a budding generation of millennials to the wonders of cappuccinos and other kinds of coffees from around the world. As we slowly move forward with our own artisanal wave, there has been a kind of going back to filter coffee in more innovative ways.
But do we need filter coffee to be consumed in a different, less familiar way? Barista Geetu Mohnani makes a point. “Millenials are volatile, and always flexible to make a shift. With filter coffee, they’re not only looking for nostalgia, but for better packaging, sustainability, storytelling, etc. There’s certainly a new market for filter coffee with artisanal brands. To prove a point, Tata Starbucks launched filter coffee and masala chai in their 200+ cafes,” she says.
Sleepy Owl, a brand that introduced us to the wonder that is cold brew, last year introduced filter kaapi to their product portfolio, starting with a Classic Filter Kaapi, and then expanding to a Madras Blend Filter Kaapi and Deccan Express Filter Kaapi — that too, in pour over filter coffee bags. According to Armaan Sood, co-founder of the brand, many people shy away from brewing a smooth Filter Kaapi for themselves since the brewing process might seem daunting. “Our vision is to make a person’s coffee brewing experience convenient, with no fancy equipment, just some simply great coffee that is ready in minutes. When we launched our Hot Brew Bags and introduced the market to a new coffee dip bag, we knew it was time to bring the delectable, velvety-smooth filter kaapi to life,” he says. The average contribution of filter coffee in their portfolio is about 15 percent, and the brand sees a market for it. Sood explains that while consumers are more experimental in their choices, they are also at different junctions in their coffee brewing journey. “Some are just starting out with instant coffee; some are at an intermediate stage and are comfortable with the hot brew bags. And then there are experienced brewers, who prepare their coffee using the traditional Dabara Tumbler set. There is something for every junction,” he adds.
Bengaluru-based Maverick & Farmer, foundered by the same guys that founded The Flying Squirrel, one of India’s first bean-to-cup artisanal coffee brands, have had a filter blend called Café Chic in their portfolio since the brand started out, in 2018. They also often conduct coffee brewing workshops online or at their cafes, and “one of our best-attended workshops has been the one called Making South Indian Filter Coffee Sexy,” says Ashish D’Ábreo, founder-partner of the brand.
Yahvi Mariwala of Nandan Coffee shares that while filter coffee is often overlooked in comparison to international brewing methods due to the brewing time or the excitement that comes in with newer technology, it’s by far the most underrated piece of coffee equipment to exist.
When Blue Tokai, on the other hand, started, it had a filter coffee grind as one of the options for people who prefer brewing their coffee the traditional way. But it was only last year that they introduced robusta specialty coffee and with that, created a special blend of arabica and robusta, calling it the South Indian Filter Blend. “We had always wanted to do a specialty twist on filter coffee but for a long time, it was difficult to find a robusta that met our requirements. When we got our hands on one such lot from Kerehaklu in 2021, we decided to go bring this special blend for filter coffee lovers,” shares Matt Chitharanjan, Co-Founder and CEO, Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters.
Explaining why we are seeing specialty coffee brands adding filter coffee to their portfolios, Mohnani explains that part of the reason is also that it works for business. “The highest consumption in the retail market still belongs to instant coffee first, and then filter coffee. Brands are only now realizing where the money is. Hence, most new players in the market want to reach this audience,” she adds.
But it’s not only this inclusivity that is bringing filter coffee back on the map in a different light. While specialty coffee brands add the beverage or blend to their shelves and menus, filter coffee-specific brands like VS Mani and Co. and Bhava Coffee are doing their bit to retain tradition, but with a new age twist. On a trip abroad in 2019, Bharath Balakrishna felt the absence of filter coffee on the global level, and decided to start his own journey with Bhava, a brand he started this year, specializing in artisanal filter coffee. Bhava has five blends: Anandam, which can be an option to try without milk as well, has an aroma of roasted nuts and is a balanced cuppa. Then there’s Yug, inspired by our ancestors who drank cups full of peaberry coffee, followed by Asmita, a traditional blend that is a combination of all Indian specialty coffees (Monsoon Malabar, Robusta Kaapi Royale, Mysore Nuggets), Dainika, meant for a strong body and syrup brew, and then the flavored option — the vanilla filter kaapi — created to evoke your love for coffee paired with bakes.
As a startup, Bharath is seeing a growth of 30% in sales. “The way people perceive filter coffee is changing. Filter coffee can decoction can be used in many different ways. We, at Bhava, have experimented with using filter coffee decoction for desserts, drinks, and even savory recipes, which we will share soon,” he adds.
VS Mani launched in 2020 with an aim to bring authentic South Indian specialties to the world, and have instant filter coffee in their portfolio when they realized that a significant portion of consumers values convenience and ease of preparation. Their format is offering decoction in an easy-to-consume format by making specific tweaks to the beans and the roasting levels to achieve the same flavor of the fresh filter coffee decoction that is made at home.
GD Prasad, the founder of VS Mani, echoes Mohnani’s sentiment and shares, “The market for artisanal is not big, so at some point, you will have to offer the traditional version. Even Starbucks has introduced the filter coffee recently — you just can’t avoid it. These brands focused on other aspects like the brewing experience, the beans, and the flavors for some time before coming to the original — it was their business decision to focus on a niche. Pourover bags and other such innovations are good for this category — more and more people want this flavor in an instant format without the hassle of prep and this is going to help make this version only even more popular.”
Given that filter coffee is now more accessible to those who are intimated by the traditional filter or are short on time to prepare a decoction, the OG of coffee in India is clearly making its place in the current coffee scene. Sip, slurp, enjoy.