Can He Tempt India With Fancy Coffee?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Roast master Mithilesh Vazalwar wants India to drink coffee the right way.
To say that Mithilesh Vazalwar has done coffee to death is no understatement. The 30-year-old roaster and India’s first AeroPress champion lost enough weight to ring alarm bells and eventually coughed up blood as he cooked in the unbearable heat of a roasting machine for 18-20 hours a day honing his roasting skills. It was all in preparation to launch his brand, Corridor Seven Coffee, in his hometown in June — and push the boundaries of India’s burgeoning coffee culture.
The city of Nagpur seems an odd choice for a specialty roastery. At 2.5 million people, it’s only the third-largest in India’s central state of Maharashtra. But Vazalwar is more concerned with quality than market size, and would rather self-finance than cede control to investors. “I am painfully picky and particular, but at least I love the furniture in my café,” Vazalwar laughs. His easy amusement stands in contrast to a persistent anxiety about most everything, a byproduct of his extreme ambition.
Entrepreneurial blood runs in Vazalwar’s veins. His father, a chartered accountant, runs a banquet hall; his mother runs a Tupperware business; and his sister is a writer and Pranic healer. Vazalwar was a national-level badminton champion until a spate of injuries and an intestinal surgery forced him to quit. He then started an accounting firm, but there was always a lingering passion. “I’ve been obsessed with coffee since I was 12,” Vazalwar says. “I’d go up to the sixth floor of my school to smell fresh coffee being brewed for teachers from the corridor. That’s why we call ourselves Corridor Seven.”
Knowledge is at the core of my brand. Everyone in my team must attend tasting and brewing sessions; they must be connected to the product.
In 2015, Vazalwar was in Australia to develop his accounting business when his sister suggested he check out its coffee scene. Soon he was taking barista and latte art classes. “I remember feeling like a kid in Disneyland around the roasting machine and coffee! All I wondered was, why doesn’t this kind of seriousness about coffee exist in India?” he says.
India is the seventh-largest coffee producer in the world, growing 4 percent of the world’s supply — but more than four-fifths is exported, according to government data. When it comes to consumption, India has long thrived on tea — Vazalwar is deeply attached to his morning cup of masala chai — or cheap filter or instant coffee. But a high-end coffee craze is cresting among the well-traveled Indian middle class, opening numerous avenues for roasters, café owners, farmers and plantations alike. According to research by Mintel published last year, India’s 15.1 percent growth makes it Asia’s third-fastest-growing retail coffee market.
At first, nobody around Vazalwar understood what he was doing, often mocking him for being a glorified waiter. That is, until he passed a rigorous exam to become one of just 25 coffee-quality graders in the country in May 2017. He began to seriously consider leaving accounting to open his own roastery. “But I was wracked with doubt,” Vazalwar says. “Was it going to work? Will people appreciate my coffee?” Then came the competition.
India hosted its first AeroPress coffee brewing championship in Mumbai, Bangalore and New Delhi last year, and Vazalwar’s brews swept each round as three judges blind-tasted the coffees. He was in a daze when he heard someone declare him “India’s first AeroPress champion.” “Sounds like all my hard work was worth it,” he says. It earned him a ticket to the prestigious World AeroPress Championship in Seoul, to compete against professionals from 60 nations. (A roaster from England won the crown.)
To launch Corridor Seven, Vazalwar brought in longtime friend and restaurateur Ketan Mahajan to handle everything but the coffee — so Vazalwar can maintain his zealous approach to the product. “Knowledge is at the core of my brand,” he says. “Everyone in my team must attend tasting and brewing sessions; they must be connected to the product.”
That means going to the source. Indian coffee often is accused of resembling little more than hot water for its uniformity, particularly in comparison to good quality Latin American and African coffees. With Vazalwar’s guidance, farmers are processing the beans differently, so the sugars are more complex and acidity is higher. Four years ago, Vazalwar showed up at Sreeraksha Poornesh’s farm eager to learn. The fourth-generation cultivator runs the Baarbara Estate in Chikmagalur under the MG Plantations banner, and is responsible for some of India’s best single-origin beans today. “Mithilesh is firm on quality, as opposed to other players, and he knows what the world wants tomorrow,” Poornesh says. “But with increasing competitiveness in this niche industry already, I wonder how he plans to keep going.” And mass appeal is still a long way off for a $4 cup of joe, when people are used to paying a quarter.
Idealism does seem to be Vazalwar’s weakness. Mahajan says that he often puts his foot down when Vazalwar becomes overly obsessive about quality control. “I gently remind Mithilesh I understand money better,” he says. But for consumers like Major Vishal Raut, Vazalwar’s fanaticism guarantees a brew to die for. “Corridor Seven is definitely the best medium roast coffee in India today,” he says. “Some roasters overdo it, some underdo the beans, but Vazalwar hits the sweet spot.” Word of mouth has been so great that Vazalwar was sold out in January, and he’s already exporting to Australia and South Korea. The shop did bustling business in its opening weeks, even raising money to build a kids’ shelter.
Sourcing micro-lot coffee from Baarbara and Badra estates, Corridor Seven offers a rotating house blend, which consumers choose through blind tasting sessions, filter and espresso coffee. Apart from presenting the best versions of Indian coffee he can, Vazalwar’s chief aim is to build the next generation of coffee junkies, through championships and workshops with experts from countries like Iran and Australia. He wants to coach at least 20 coffee quality-graders in India. “It’s all about setting the right tone first,” he says, worried, as ever, about making sure those around him are true believers. “But will people understand it’s about quality and not a brand?”
5 Questions for Mithilesh Vazalwar
What’s the last book you finished? I’ve been trying to finish Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff, but coffee takes up too much time!
What do you worry about? Everything.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without? I know the answer seems like coffee, but good conversation and good vibes.
Who’s your hero? [Cricket champion] Sachin Tendulkar, because of what he has achieved and how he still remains so humble.
What’s one item on your bucket list? To win the coffee world championship.