When K Muthuswamy walks into Geetha Coffee in Mylapore, the shop’s owner S Chakravarthy has already passed on his order.
“Half a kilogram. Peaberry. Rough ah arai (Grind it coarsely),” he yells.
As the shop’s 38-year-old engine whirs to a start, the two men exchange pleasantries and Chakravarthy explains that he is sitting down to give an interview about his coffee roasting business. “Customers like Muthuswamy have been coming to us for over a decade. He prefers a coarse grind so as to disallow the powder to seep through the coffee filter. It also helps the flavour profile sometimes,” says Chakravarthy.
“Nothing has changed here in the last 15 years since I began purchasing my coffee,” Muthuswamy says.
Except for a little paint spruce, every detail including the machines, the colour of the walls, the sacks of coffee, the bright signboards and the heady aroma has remained the same in shops like Geetha Coffee. Words like peaberry, plantation A, robusta (types of coffee bean) and chicory (roasted root of the chicory plant which is a common additive to coffee), are all mentioned casually.
Customers come in seeking direction about how to make ideal coffee, while others come with directives. Everybody however, leaves with a warm, freshly ground pouch of the coffee powder that they would best like. This connection to a customer is what sets legacy coffee roasters apart from the fancy and well-packaged brands making their mark in India now.
Most small-scale coffee roasters like Geetha Coffee usually buy and store between one and two tonnes of green coffee beans each month. The amount reduces during the summer months as the demand for coffee goes down. “The December season and monsoon months is the time when we have the most demand for coffee,” Chakravarthy says. They sell between 40 and 70 packets of ground coffee a day all through the year.
Four prominent brands from Chennai sit down to talk about why they continue being in the business. They also share their coffee recipes.
Vimala Coffee, RA Puram
S Sundararajan, the proprietor of Vimala Coffee opens up a dusty diary showing his list of high-profile clients including actors, sportspersons and judges. For someone who sometimes seem jaded about being in the coffee business, Sundararajan is full of pride while speaking about the fact that his coffee powder often finds itself in airplanes being flown to the US , Australia and the UAE.
This second-generation businessman says that his establishment was started in 1964 when his father left Karaikudi and jumped into the world of coffee when a relative offered him the opportunity to work at his shop.
The coffee beans at Vimala continue to be purchased from Chikmagaluru like all the other coffee roasters in Chennai. “Ask your grandmother how she used to roast coffee beans for your grandfather’s first cup. We make our coffee the exact same way,” he says.
Customers from all over the city have now begun getting their coffee powder delivered from the place but this entrepreneur can still prattle all their names and addresses off the top of his head. Parcels for countries all over the world are usually double-packed and placed in cardboard boxes upon request from customers.
“Most people prefer the peaberry and plantation A (types of coffee) mix best. We add chicory only for those who ask,” he says.
Sundararajan says that he has been able to continue only because he takes good quality coffee beans, stores it for very little time and eventually sells it for small margins. “The younger generation is not drinking as much coffee. Most people do not know how to use a filter or do not want to go through the hassle. However, I have been repeatedly asked by clients not to close the shop down,” he says. “We will make roast coffee for as long as we can.”
Address: 5/3, 3rd Cross Road, RAPuram Tel: 24936508, Price: ₹140/250gm.
Everest Coffee, Parrys
The drive to Everest Coffee is chaotic. Lorries with men taking down massive loads of cargo, a thriving vegetable market, a barrage of angry tricycle bells and very kind strangers who will point you in the direction of the shop jostle for space.
Once you reach , VK Chandrasekar will greet you to his calm space, turn on his new LED board and share interesting titbits of its legacy. The shop was started in 1950. The board, the massive coffee roasting machine and sacks of coffee beans — nearly 300 kilograms of it — is evidence that Chandrasekar knows and means business. For 73 years now, this coffee establishment has supplied wholesale coffee beans and coffee powder to various parts of the city.
His equipment is just as old as his shop with an ancient-looking roasting and grind machine that was purchased for ₹150 back in the day. “The coffee roasters as old as me have the same old equipment. The new stuff is more efficient since it is at the touch of a button. Big brands roast a kg in minutes while it takes us at least half an hour. However, many people feel a difference in taste. That is why we stick to our original method,” he says.
Over time the shop has begun stocking up various products including ghee, nuts and spices, but the brand is loyal to its original coffee customer base and attempts to bring only the best quality to the shop.
“We have been here in this same spot since the time the Indian Government controlled the coffee board till now — in this post liberalised world. We have established connections with wholesalers who give us the best seeds including robusta, plantation A and peaberry. We do not ever add chicory unless asked. I am sure that our business will continue for at least two more generations. Where else will my son go?” he asks.
Address: 7, Varadha Muthiyappan Street, Kothwal Chawadi. George TownTel: 09884033355, Price: ₹150/250gm
Geetha Coffee, Mylapore
Chakravarty decided to begin his own brand after work at his relative’s coffee roasting business as he wanted to learn the ins and outs of the trade. “Geetha is the name of my Mrs so, naturally, the brand was called that,” he says.
The shop decided to sell small pouches of their coffee everyday at nearby mom and pop stores in Mylapore to popularise their brand. “People liked the taste and began seeking us out,” he says.
An evening interview at Geetha Coffee is punctuated with customers walking in after their shopping for the day, visitors who have prayed at the nearby Kapaleeshwara temple and regulars who know exactly how they want their coffee. Everyone wants to put in a good word about the shop’s quality.
The two wooden benches placed outside the roasting and grinding area usually have at least one customer chatting with Chakravarthy about current affairs. It is likely that besides the coffee aroma, his affable personality plays a role in keeping his clients happy.
He adds that the inflow of NRIs who visit the city during the end of the year helps boost their sales. “They expect a little additional packaging sometimes and request a box and we are happy to comply,” he says.
“We have a 90 to 10 ratio of coffee to chicory because most people prefer it. It helps in quickening the process of creating the coffee decoction. We are happy to make the mix you want,” he says.
Address: Sundareshwarar Street, Girija Garden, Mylapor Tel: 24640470, Price: 150/250gm
Sundaram Coffee, T Nagar and Mylapore
Rajakani Selvaraj, manager of Sundaram Coffee lets us in on a secret. He says that although the South Indian palate is used to liking the taste of peaberry, it is plantation A that is more flavourful. “Why don’t you try that blend next time and tell us?” he asks.
Founded in 1946 by TN Somasundaram, Sundaram Coffee with two branches in the city once supplied coffee powder to small stores, tea shops and hotels besides selling at their store. However, when business became tedious, Selvaraj decided to focus solely on selling to clients who come to his store to directly purchase coffee powder.
Here, quality is given utmost priority. “Unless the seed quality is good, your decoction will not be thick. That is fundamental to a good cup of coffee,” he says.
Selvaraj adds that the kind of coffee made across Tamil Nadu is predominantly the same. The reason the taste differs is because of the amount of time spent in roasting the bean.
Over the years, Sundaram Coffee has attained a wider customer base. People are now asking the establishment to roast and grind for black coffee, he says. “Many people are also buying coffee beans, soaking it in water and drinking this concoction to lose weight. Our market is now varied from the crowds that initially used to come,” he claims.
Although business is not as great as it once was, he says that the new-age brands selling different varieties of roasts are not serious competition to these coffee roasters. “People in the area who have bought from us and their children, all like the taste of our coffee. They know that for a perfect filter coffee, our blends work best,” he says. He adds that original filter coffee will never go out of style.
Address: 91, South Usman Road, Postal Colony, T. Nagar Tel: 24341984, Price: ₹155/250gm