Meet Akshay Vaidyanathan, Chennai’s musical coffee roaster

Chitravina player, Akshay Vaidyanathan, roasts beans in small batches in his kitchen, resulting in a delicate, nuanced brew

July 10, 2019 04:25 pm | Updated July 11, 2019 01:58 pm IST

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 02/07/2019: Akshay Vaidyanathan, a young successful classical musician, who has invented a new version of the Chitravina, has  started his new coffee company under the brand Kaapi Kottai, during an interview with The Hindu, in Chennai on July 02, 2019. 
Photo : R.Ravindran

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 02/07/2019: Akshay Vaidyanathan, a young successful classical musician, who has invented a new version of the Chitravina, has started his new coffee company under the brand Kaapi Kottai, during an interview with The Hindu, in Chennai on July 02, 2019. Photo : R.Ravindran

Akshay Vaidyanathan arrives 15 minutes late, in a dizzying whirlwind of coffee, energy and apologies. As he parks his car haphazardly and runs up the stairs to his home, he juggles a bag filled with the first sample coffee sachets from his start-up, Kaapi Kottai. His primary blend, it’s called ‘Kilpauk Standard’: 80% Yercaud, 20% Coorg and 100% Arabica.

Inside, dodging his dog Bumble who leaps to greet him with enthusiasm, Akshay puts down the coffee and grabs a set of Tupperware containers off a shelf. As he makes his way to the couch, he side steps two lovingly maintained Chitravinas, which occupy pride of place in the living room. A classical musician, Akshay made news last year when he fashioned a version of this instrument from carbon fibre, taking its weight down from 6.5 kilograms to 3.2 kilograms, even while making it more durable and amplifying the volume.

This year, the 28-year-old is roasting coffee in a dinky 52-litre convection oven, outfitted with a simple drum attachment he bought off Amazon. And, it’s delicious.

Discussing how an interest in coffee billowed into a business, he says, “I used to drink filter coffee, and I didn’t like how my coffee started tasting like dirt after five days. So I began to learn how to roast coffee, just for myself.” In the process, he discovered that with roasting, less is more. “Once you go beyond a certain level, you lose out on the unique characteristics of each estate.”

“Smell these beans from Mooleh Manay in Coorg, they are my favourite,” he says, pulling the lid off the first Tupperwear jar. The freshly roasted, still glossy beans, release a heady fruity fragrance, with an echo of dark chocolate. He grabs a handful of beans from another container. “This is from Glenfell Estate in Yercaud. It has a dense bean, since it grows higher up, which enables me to experiment with eight different types of roasts,” he says, before springing up and walking towards the kitchen. “Want to see my equipment? You have to promise not to laugh.”

Inside his compact kitchen, he pats a beat up oven. “I can roast about 200 grams at a time,” he says. An automatic roaster will undoubtedly make the process much easier. “I don’t want to be one of those guys selling you okay or bad coffee, but with great equipment. I’d rather celebrate great coffee than equipment. The equipment is incidental,” he says, adding, “Once I have enough of a customer base, let’s say 30-40 people buying regularly from me, then I can buy a roaster.”

As Akshay measures out coffee, using a kitchen scale, he says, “I am not normally a precise person. But with coffee, you need to be precise.” Bumble sticks his nose into the kitchen and barks at this point, so Akshay abandons the coffee and pulls open the freezer. “He only drinks iced water... Uh oh. I am out of ice.” As he pours the dog a bowl of regular water, he apologises: “I’m sorry bro. Don’t judge me.” Nevertheless, Bumble walks away, nose in the air.

He’s not the only finicky person in the house. “I am so fussy now, my mom refuses to make coffee for me,” Akshay grins, pouring hot water into an inverted Aeropress. He waits for a minute before turning it around and firmly pressing the rich brew into a mug. He adds hot milk, fresh off the stove and then stirs in sugar. The resulting concoction is a pleasing balance between flavour and strength.

“My grandfather owned an estate in Kodai. The running family joke was that he probably took the earth from the estate and gave it to us as coffee. It was so bad,” he chuckles, walking back into the living room, balancing his coffee and narrowly avoiding tripping over Bumble, who is lying in wait. “The thing with coffee is there is potential to ruin it at every point of the chain. Indian coffee has a reputation for being muddy, for being too earthy... but that is only when it is not harvested well, or when it is over-roasted.”

At the estates he works with, there are five to six rounds of picking, so each berry is plucked at optimum ripeness. “Once you pick it will start to dry.” Once he gets the green beans, then the roasting has to be done carefully as well. “I ruined my first batch by over roasting it,” he says.

Beans demand patience. Luckily, that’s a quality he has honed for years, playing the chitravina. He sits behind the instrument to show how he’s adapted it. The fibreglass version is at the workshop. In this instrument, he has reworked the bridge. Forgetting his rapidly cooling coffee, he begins to play. “Can you tell the difference between this and a regular Chitravina? This has a deeper sound because of the adjustment,” he says.

Akshay adds that he started learning to play when he was 14. “Which is not early by Carnatic music standards,” he shrugs. “I began with the fretted Veena, and switched to this when I was 16.” He still practises six hours a day, and performs at concerts, though he’s quick to add, with a self deprecatory grin, “Well, it is not like I am playing prime slot at The Music Academy.”

His coffee is cold now, but he still finishes it appreciatively, then heads back to the kitchen to put away the cup. It is time to fire up his oven. Pointing at a jar on the counter he says, “For that much coffee, I had to do four batches of roasting. Each batch for 12.5 minutes, and towards the end I open the oven door a crack for 30 seconds every few minutes.”

That must take a lot of patience. He rolls his eyes, “What it takes, quite frankly, is obsessiveness.”

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