A Brew that Counts

Standing under the comforting canopy of Bangalore’s beloved raintree, at the crossroad of a busy traffic zone, surrounded by a grand total of 3 cows, one particularly sleepy dog, four burly police officers, and three chatty middle-aged women, I sip on my filter coffee with deep satisfaction. I am acutely aware that this ‘satisfaction’ isn’t mine alone but shared by everyone around me as we collectively savour this brief but precious window of time. As I make my way back home, I pass our neighbourhood’s latest addition. A coffee-house with a glass panelled facade showcasing the brand’s patrons, typing away furiously, in between sips of carefully steeped single-origin brews. No milk, and perhaps no sugar.  

“My connection with coffee is as incidental as India’s connection with coffee. I have no memories of drinking coffee growing up. My family comes from Darjeeling, and much like the rest of India, we are tea drinkers. I did have the one-off ‘Nescafe cup’ to help me cram for exams, but that was it.” shares Arshiya Bose, founder of Black Baza Coffee. If you love coffee, the good stuff, this name isn’t unfamiliar. Black Baza Coffee isn’t just about good coffee -  it’s about ‘creating a local, participatory and meaningful movement for coffee.’ But we’ll get to that in a bit.

“Coffee came to me through academia, rather than a personal connection”, shares Arshiya as she thinks back to the time she was pursuing her PhD in neo-liberal conservation interventions. After a rather adventurous stint in the forests of Borneo, Arshiya returned to Bangalore, insect-bitten and allergies in tow, but undefeated. Committed to understanding fair market-based approaches to conservation, Arshiya looked around Bangalore, her home in the southern state of India, and realised that coffee fit that bill.

And so began Arshiya’s research in Coorg, a hill town in southern India, known for its sprawling coffee plantations. “The first thing I had to do while researching was to develop a taste for coffee!” she shares with a laugh. “But when I moved to Coorg, I realised that while I was talking to coffee farmers, I was being served tea through all those interviews and conversations! There was just this one shop in Kushal Nagar, set up by a dynamic farmer who had started a coffee shop with an espresso machine. I would travel 50kms by bus, drink that coffee and come back because I was so keen to develop this ‘taste’ for coffee. I started interviewing only those farmers who were more likely to serve a good cup of coffee than others who would serve me tea!”.


“Coffee came to them (the Soliga community) as a result of land taken from them. So growing coffee wasn’t a super romantic notion - it came with a violent history.’’

While being served tea in India may not be entirely out of place, it is interesting to realise that today, India is the sixth-largest producer of coffee. Whether it was the Arab trade or the mysterious Sufi saint Baba Budan who brought the bean to this land hidden in his belt, the western ghats of India today are lush with coffee farms. By and large, these farms are less than 10 acres and thus owned by smallholder farmers. Access to fair markets is often limited for these farmers, who largely depend on coffee for their main livelihood.“Our work with Black Baza Coffee began in the Biligirirangan Hills of Karnataka, with the Soligas, an indigenous community of small landowners. Coffee came to them as a result of land taken from them. So growing coffee wasn’t a super romantic notion - it came with a violent history.”, shares Arshiya.

The Soligas are historically a ‘hunter-gatherer” tribal community in Karnataka who incidentally took to coffee farming when the government curbed mobility and rice/millet farms were ravaged by surrounding wildlife. These coffee farms are often the result of civet excrement or 'borrowing' of seeds/sapling by daily wage earners who work in large farms. The Soligas have incomparable and intimate knowledge of the ecosystem and manage to grow the coveted coffee berry with just the very basic materials.“You know it still baffles me today that in a 600 member community, there was just one member who genuinely loved coffee. So much so that he was called “Kaapi-Basavegowda” to denote his preference for coffee! If you talk to others, they remember Nestle handing out coffee tablets that would dissolve in water, but even that didn’t stick. They all promptly went back to tea.”, Arshiya shares and thinks back to her early days working with the Soliga coffee farmers. To add to this context, coffee as fruit goes through many processing stages, and a lot of that happens outside the farm. Once the coffee berry leaves the farm, the farmer has no way of knowing where it goes, thus losing their connection to the fruit of their land and labour. But from what we gather, they’d much rather have people on the other end of the supply chain enjoy it!

Well, that’s us. So how do you see your cup of coffee today, I ask Arshiya. “As soon as you stick your nose into a production system, you are hit with everything - the power structures, political factions, environmental implications. It’s mind-bending to look at all the precision that surrounds an urban coffee drinking culture when you are privy to the inner workings of what it takes to make this cup of coffee. Coffee has become personal in the attempt to save it and uphold a different way to grow it. Small coffee land owners CAN produce high-quality coffee, and not everyone sees that as an important shift of power.” shares Arshiya. Today, Arshiya runs an all-women roastery in Bangalore, a mammoth task in itself, while patiently waiting for her team to embrace the bitter bean.


“Coffee has become personal in the attempt to save it and uphold a different way to grow it.”

While words like "fair trade", "organic", "single-origin", "fourth wave" occupy the rhetoric of sustainability, a lot of the meaning is lost in translation. The general understanding of sustainability is often set in an urban elite context. On the one hand, timers and precise instructions guide the brewing of a perfect cup of coffee. On the other hand, Achukkegowda, a coffee farmer of the Soliga community, “shakes the beans that are laid on the forest floor“ to know if they are dry enough.“This fractured, disconnected system makes coffee incredibly interesting. We want to be that bridge that connects these two disparate worlds of a perfectly brewed, high-quality cup of coffee and a fair, sustainable coffee growing process. We want to reconstruct marketplaces.”, shares Arshiya with definitive optimism.

As we wrap up the conversation, Arshiya and I make hurried plans of meeting for a cup of coffee in Cubbon Park in a post-pandemic world. We imagine that much like the rest of the world, the pandemic will leave a profound mark on the world of coffee-growing and coffee-drinking. As the bean-to-mug journey is subject to economic, political, and cultural scrutiny, it's helpful to remember that the bean itself belongs to no one but the land.

And while that cup of coffee may be an incidental detail to one’s daily routine, it acts as a reminder of our inherent connection to the land - much like the Black Baza raptor, perched patiently on a large ficus tree, reveals signs of a healthy and abundant ecosystem.