Geetu Mohnani’s favourite drink is a glass of milk. This could be dismissed as an odd but forgettable quirk in any 24 year old, but Mohnani is the first woman to win the National Barista Championships. She will be representing not just India’s but Bengaluru’s distinct coffee culture at the World Barista Championships in Amsterdam this summer.

With roots in the primarily chai-drinking north, Mohnani – who works at Third Wave Coffee Roasters in Bengaluru – never imagined representing this quintessentially South Indian beverage. She started off as a management trainee at Starbucks in Delhi, where she first began to develop her palate for coffee. In 2017, Mohnani placed third in the in-house competition for Starbucks baristas from across the world, winning a trip to the headquarters in Seattle. The barista bug had bitten her and her timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

Bengaluru is currently seeing a wave of specialty coffee shops opening up – from Coffee Mechanics in HBR Layout to The Roastery in Kalyan Nagar to Karma Kaapi (formerly Benki Coffee) in Jayanagar, these establishments are focused on serving specialty coffee that would please Portland-returned hipsters and finicky filter coffee fans alike.

This might not seem like a big deal to your average self-respecting South Indian armed with a steel filter and a local coffee connect, but the National Barista Championships might just be out of the enthusiast’s purview. As Mohnani explains the intricacies of pulling the perfect espresso and presenting it in an engaging fashion under the pressure of a competition, it becomes apparent that these championships are a reflection of a renaissance coffee culture that has been brewing in Bengaluru over the last few years.

Geetu Mohnani at the National Barista Championships. Photo credit: Third Wave Coffee India/Facebook

The beginning

Surrounded by some of the best coffee-producing estates in India, Bengaluru has long been the forerunner in not just producing this beverage, but also the culture around it. Since the first Cafe Coffee Day opened on Brigade Road in 1996, coffee shops became a ubiquitous fixture in India. Less massive, but equally significant, are Bengaluru stalwarts like India Coffee House and Koshy’s, that have fed and watered generations of the city’s artists, activists and everyone in between.

So how are these new independent cafes any different? Is this just dressed-up filter coffee that costs ten times as much? Patrons disagree. Unlike previous avatars that focused on providing fresh, affordable filter coffee on demand, these cafes cater to a market that seeks sophistication rather than just fuel for the day. It isn’t just the coffee being given careful consideration – attention is also paid to aesthetics.

The industrial-chic decor of Coffee Mechanics reflects their commitment to the “mechanics of coffee”. The honeyed wood interiors of Alchemy Coffee Roasters are a bright spot in the leafy lanes of otherwise staid Banshankari.

Photo credit: Coffee Mechanics/Facebook

Bengaluru is the perfect city for this endeavour. The return of prodigal sons and daughters from foreign shores ready to recreate the lifestyle they just left behind, coupled with a steady influx of migrants with tech-fuelled disposable incomes, has resulted in a market that is eager to embrace a meld of local favourites and innovative ideas.

And specialty cafes like Third Wave Coffee Roasters in Koramangala are ready to give them just that. Even to someone who drinks chicory made in a filter, it is clear that this coffee – as the soothing blue tones of the tile art in the cafe signal – is meant to not just be enjoyed, but experienced. The baristas are trained to pay almost a manic level of attention to every step of the process. What results is a cup that comforts in the face of endless Excel sheets and screeching rush hour traffic at Maharaja signal.

Niche with potential

Like any middle-class Indian child who grew up on a steady diet of American sitcoms, Third Wave’s co-founder Ayush Bhatwal was a Starbucks fan as an international student in Chicago. But the novelty soon wore off and he began patronising local roasteries. One day, a barista had him try a local house blend, claiming he would taste notes of guava. “It changed my life,” Bhatwal said. His obsession continued to grow as he visited roasteries across the US and became familiar with how complex coffee could be.

A few years later, he returned to India to set up a specialty coffee chain with his partners and offer Bengaluru residents the same experience. He began by working directly with farmers to responsibly source beans from nearby coffee estates, developed roasting profiles after repeated trial and error, and then commissioned a state-of-the-art machine designed to extract the most from each bean.

Photo credit: Flying Squirrel

While coffee nerds will enjoy this history and the consequent cupping notes that elaborate on the flavours of the blends on offer, even a caramel latte-swilling Starbucks addict will find comfort in the range of coffees inspired by everything from a Mexican Horchata to granny’s gingersnap cookies.

“People have become more discerning, including those already in the industry,” said Ashish D’Abreo, co-founder of independent cafe The Flying Squirrel. “They have discovered new ways of making coffee and are building new blends. It’s aspirational – people may not have a lot of exposure but they are reading about it.” He has observed a taste trajectory in his customers – many start by thinking that their way of drinking coffee is great, but as they start trying out newer coffees, they get excited by the process of discovery.

He believes that coffee has evolved from being an excuse for a meeting, to being the entire reason for one. Perhaps, this is why even when faced with Starbucks and Costa outlets at every turn, independent coffee chains stand out. The numbers reflect this trend too. Specialty coffee has primarily been exported from India. In 2015-’16, the Coffee Board estimated that 35% of all exported coffee fell under the category of value-added or specialty coffees but there has been an uptick in local buyers keen on working with estates.

Photo credit: Third Wave Coffee India/Facebook

Dr Ashwini Kumar, Research Chair at the Coffee Board, says that while no validated domestic data is currently available on specialty coffee (it is difficult to track the journey from bean to roaster), “the consumption of single estate and gourmet coffees is on the rise. Many cafes and online coffee retailers are sourcing fine coffees from select estates and offering the value added products to niche segments through online and offline channels”.

The growth of the coffee shop industry (including specialty coffee) looks bright. Data from market research provider, Euromonitor International, shows that the industry has exploded in the last five years, growing at 12% compound annual growth rate between 2012 and 2017 and a 6.9% CAGR is predicted from 2017 to 2022.

Serving up an experience

For Monika Manchanda, Bengaluru-based food consultant and writer, it’s a chance to return to something she loved. She had to stop drinking filter coffee after discovering an allergy to chicory, but the widening availability of specialty coffee means that she is able to enjoy a cup once again. “Specialty coffee won’t take over filter coffee any time soon, but it has so much going on around it,” she said. “You’re experiencing new flavours, new techniques that you can’t replicate – one can’t just make a nitro brew at home, for example. And it goes beyond the taste – it has its own vibe and lifestyle attached. You can’t hang around very long in a darshini [quick-service South Indian cafes], but these cafes are a quiet place to work, drink, and eat.”

Photo credit: Coffee Mechanics/Facebook

The creative direction and sense of community of a specialty cafe like Third Wave or The Flying Squirrel are also what make them attractive to its patrons. And it is in this landscape that Mohnani shines. Now a lead trainer at Third Wave, Mohnani is more enthusiastic than ever before about brewing a perfect cup. As she describes the ideation process for her signature Championship drink or how competitors came together to help their fellow baristas familiarise themselves with equipment just before they were being judged on their skills, her love for the product and the people who make it shines through.

While her technical skills are unquestionable – she beat experienced baristas from established coffee chains to win the championship title this year – it is clear that her imaginative approach to coffee has found a home in Bengaluru’s coffee culture. Along with her colleagues at Third Wave – roaster Carina Fernandes and co-founder/curator Anirudh Sharma – Mohnani devised an imaginative take on the classic cortado coffee, infused with flavours of dates and cardamom. It was a nod to the traditions of where coffee originated and the salons inspired by jabenas (pots) full of coffee heated by the sands of the desert in Ethiopia.

Mohnani, however, feels that it is her people skills that stood her in good stead during the championship. Baristas are scored on presentation skills and the ability to form a connect with their customer. This is where Mohnani truly seems to shine. She is instinctively hospitable (one of her first questions is to ask what your favourite coffee is) and coupled with her an innate ability to make one feel instantly comfortable, she is not just capable of brewing a life-affirming cup of coffee, but someone who creates memorable dining relationships with her customers.

Photo credit: Third Wave Coffee India/Facebook

Bringing people together

It is this sense of community that accompanies the great coffee that has Bengaluru residents coming back for more, week after week. With Third Wave opening up its third cafe in HSR Layout soon and twelve roasteries at last count in the city, the wave is spreading. But this is unlikely to just be a South Indian Starbucks any time soon.

Walk into any of these cafes and their engagement with the community that bolsters them is immediate – from stand-up comedy acts to presentations by artist-activists. On any evening, you will find Third Wave populated by loyal patrons making quick sketches in their Moleskine diaries or striking a business deal with someone they just met at the next table. Baristas will patiently explain the ins and outs of the coffees on offer so you can make your perfect selection. Freelancers will talk about changing their schedule to match that of the cafes.

Photo credit: Flying Squirrel

Its charm seems to work on sceptics, too. A chai and egg puff from a local bakery is more Shankar Chugani’s speed, but the stand-up comic has been won over by the sense of community Third Wave offers. “There is something about being in there and seeing everyone around you working,” he said. “There’s a sense that you can create your own space in there. The design helps – it’s well lit, there’s interesting art to look at, there’s enough distance between tables. Plus, you see different types of people coming there and not feeling out of place. It’s calming.”

These spaces are hubs for creatives, something that Mohnani points out is uniquely necessary for Bengaluru, whose start-up culture has resulted in non-traditional work systems. The coffee revolution is a reflection of a new kind of community that gives its people the fuel and the room – sometimes literally – to grow.