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Learning from the origin of specialty coffee roasters in the Subcontinent

Hello, Roots Radicals community!

How did you wake up today? I’m sure that most of our morning routines include a cup of coffee or a bite of pastry (if not, is ok this article is also for you!). These beverages and food are either a cherished morning moment or a delicious pause in the working day, and even a to-go snack. But coffee is also a huge industry and a large (and quite unsustainable) production chain that involves trade with several coffee farmers across the globe -mostly from the global south to the global north. According to Conservation International, the “world consumes up to 600 billion cups of coffee every year” and the number keeps on increasing, compromising agricultural labor and the heavy exploitation of coffee land -of which 60% is found in tropical forests. 

So what do we do about this? Well, one great step is focusing on supporting local coffee brands and circular roasteries (where the processes are inhouse), but it is also important to trace back into the origin of this coffee – when it was nothing more than a berry in a tree. For example, in Berlin, we have Isla Coffee, the circular cafe shop from the chef, author, and environmental activist Sofia Hoffman. They get their coffee from Vote, a transparent roastery that sources green coffee beans from Finca Los Laureles, in Huila Colombia. This is what artisanal coffee is all about, traceability and origin awareness. Both factors are not only crucial for conscious coffee consumption, but actually, it helps us differentiate and stop supporting unsustainable and anonymous production chains.

Like Colombia, many countries in the global south (Latin America, Africa, and Asia) have beautiful biodiversity and geographical conditions to produce the best coffee species. Although most of the consumption and recognized value of local artisanal coffee still exists outside southern economies, so the coffee beans are imported to other countries (mostly Europe and North America) for its consumption. Acknowledging this unbalanced relationship between production and consumption communities across the coffee value chain is a good example to figure out new paths into sustainability and local food systems. As we explored in our previous post with Monica, sustainable gastronomy involves the production, transport, and sourcing of the food served on our plates. Furthermore, we discussed the importance of value locally grown produce as ecologically conscious options for both high cuisine and everyday kitchens.

Indian farmers' hands holding Kalledevarapura Cherries, production partners of Subko coffee. Photo: Subko team

The same holistic approach that Moni manifested into the zero-waste kitchen of Roots Radicals, is what Rahul Reddy shared with us from his specialty coffee-roastery Subko, in Mumbai India. Last Friday 11th we invited him to our  Rooted Lives #12, for a conversation at the point of origin for artisanal Indian coffee. Rahul comes from California, but his family is originally from India and preserves its beautiful food culture. His taste buds decided to explore further artisanal coffee, and since he’s also a globetrotter, Rahul has tasted coffee at various points of origin, from Colombia to Australia. It was not surprising that in 2019, after living two years in Mumbai, he shared the idea of starting his very own coffee roastery. Subko (a world play for the subcontinent, which is another way of referring to India) takes his passion for coffee and transforms it into a cultural expression and a sustainable statement. More than a brand, this coffee Roastery in the traditional neighborhood of Bandra, is a place for exchanging knowledge about Indian coffee culture and food systems. 

“I grew up for the most part in the US, so for me to start this venture in the heart of Bombay (Mumbai) India, came with lots of challenges. But, I noticed that the current global conversation around specialty coffee occurs in ‘most-advanced economies contexts’ (global north) and therefore the roasteries and shops are also located in these contexts. So, I wanted to shift the point of view inside the artisanal coffee conversation and talk from what is happening at the orgining contexts -which are ‘developing economies’ countries (global south). Subko is committed to giving value to Indian specialty coffee, by sourcing, roasting, and developing a market for this coffee at the point of origin.

Rahul Reddy and Daniel Trulson co-founders of Subko cofee roastery and bakery. Photo: Subko Team

“I love talking about coffee and baking, seriously I can’t get enough. But the commitment that I made upon starting Subko was trying to create a holistic social enterprise at the core. I think specialty coffee is a vehicle that allows us to do that if you follow the principles of this artisan production to give back to farmers’ communities. Subko is a specialty coffee roastery and a craft bakehouse, in both of these food services – even from a technical point of view- we engage with direct-trade relationships with farmers’ plantations across different regions in India. We tell stories through coffee and sweet carbohydrates (hahaha) about the sourcing process of each ingredient. For example, we use our wheat that is grown by farms in the northern-Indian belt and also adds some beautiful flavor with some indigenous flowers.”

This close-up into the local production and consumption of artisanal coffee provides a palpable idea of how important are the farmer cooperatives work, the preservation of heirloom seeds, and artisanal growing processes of coffee. According to Rahul, the ethos of specialty coffee, locally and internationally, is built upon the notion of traceability. This is essentially the ability to trace back where your coffee was grown and who was it grown by -either a farmer, a plantation, a state, or a collective- since there are many agricultural ways of producing coffee. Traceability is an act of transparency and socio-economic justice with the coffee producers when the value chain of this crop has become heavily industrialized. This is also a recognition of the ecological context involved in the coffee systems, giving value not only to the product but to the living systems that have an input on the aroma and taste of the coffee beans. So for specialty coffee to be sustainable, it needs to be able to trace back to the point of origin, both ecological and cultural. 

“If you honor the path of seeking traceable coffee, you begin to understand and appreciate where these plantations are, who is running them, what kind of traditional processing methods they used on the coffee cherries (because coffee is essentially a fruit) so that roasting becomes a holistic experience of all these actions. Traceability at the level of artisanal specialty coffee can even become a way of ensuring that farmers, plantations, cooperatives, and producers receive a higher income for that coffee. So this factor is key not only to keep the high quality of the process along the production chain but to establish a fair and direct trade with the farmers, which is something Subko does. Applied to the local context, India has become the first producer of shade-bloom (or shade-grown) coffee. In comparison with bis-a-bis countries like Brasil, in which the coffee Industrie deforests much of the land that is utilized for coffee production, we’re betting on a slower and more sustainable production. This method consists of respecting the micro-ecosystem between canopy trees and coffee trees while harvesting the cherries. As each tree is left intact, this is also an organic and artisanal coffee production that safeguards biodiversity and wildlife in a regional context in India.”

From crop to cup: traditional values, and fair trade. Photos: Subko Team

It is fascinating the number of diverse stories, communities, and geographies that are contained inside one cup of coffee. So, it is important to differentiate between artisanal and specialty coffee to position our consumption inside this universe. Even if they are both very traceable ways of processing coffee, artisan preserves coffee terroir, traditional agricultural techniques, and roasting craft. Specialty one respects these artisanry production processes but takes holistic meticulous care from “crop to cup” to ensure the highest quality of coffee possible. This last one also includes technology to foster innovative roasting and brewing techniques. 

In the case of India, Rahul told us that most of the specialty coffee is produced and processed by the coffee states – which is still the highest capitalized and advanced form of production. But, what brands like Subko are betting on, is to achieve specialty coffee qualifications working together with small-holder farmers’ cooperatives, working in more remote coffee regions. Organic coffee is beyond certification. Traditional coffee farmers from India —and across coffee-origin countries— have put their labor and love into the preservation of biodiversity and harvesting techniques because it is their life craft and not necessary to achieve the industry standard. “Of course the specialty coffee industry helps ensure and improve the livability of many coffee farmers”, as Rahul told us “but it shouldn’t determine the value or the merit of an agriculture community -and this is an interesting and rather urgent conversation inside the market.”

“We operate in between two streams of origin awareness, both in the coffee and the bakery side. One is that we aim to create elevated roasting quality and flavor profiles that bring out the best of the coffee beans and their artisanal production. The other one is that our team at the coffeehouse is capable and happy to open up a conversation about any coffee-related facts. Starting from the basics that coffee is a fruit and not a freeze-dried powder that can last forever on your shelf. This is to get out of the ‘commodity culture’ and assess the artisan value of what we produce -and ultimately what the region/country has to offer. We are not just a sales-driven brand, we want to sell coffee in an ethical and educational way —and for this, I’m entirely grateful for my team!”

Coffee product and land at the point of origin. Photo: Subko team

“It is not easy to create this awareness and consumers demand at the point of origin. Not only for the coffee but also for the baked goods. When we offer our croissants or cookies, people assume that we either freeze them and bring them from France or that the wheat flour is imported from Italy. These are assumptions based on the reminiscent and preconceived ideas of how food is ‘supposed’ to taste in a foreign country. But when we have these reactions we share that our goal is to re-image and re-design the terroir of our products as a contribution to a global craft conversation: living, sourcing, producing, and consuming at the same land is possible -definitely with some ingredients limitations. When we have the opportunity to choose between products from the region we will gladly take a change from local, and make the best out of it.”

Indeed! This was for me the highlight of the conversation. Along different blog posts, we have touched upon that the value of good food starts with recognizing agricultural labor, in and outside the land we inhabit. This time by focusing on specialty coffee origin, we have learned that cultural appreciation and artisan techniques are a way to ensure, or at least aim, for a more sustainable and fair production chain. Subko provided a different perspective inside the current industrialized coffee panorama and raised the importance of establishing a conversation around the stories behind each food product. In Roots Radicals, we know that this storytelling through good food is crucial to empower our community through knowledge. Being aware of where your food comes from and who produced it, positions your consumption inside the food systems. While cherishing the flavor in each preserve you are also supporting brands to fairly retribute the artisanal farmers’ effort.

We certainly enjoyed this conversation and expanded our understanding of specialty coffee and how it relates to sustainable gastronomy practices across the globe. Different from other blog posts, this time we have focused on one crop/product to explore the manifold of local, regional, and global relationships inside food systems. Maybe a Mumbai coffee roastery and bakery seem a bit distant, but what is Berlin if not a beautiful mixture of multicultural diasporas. It’s time that we recognize and cherish our (food) origins to create stronger bonds as thriving communities, and also avoid racism or cultural appropriation in food commodities -which support monoculture land exploitation and unjust agriculture corporations. As Rahul showed us, the start can be as simple as a conversation and what best to accompany it with a cup of specialty or artisanal coffee. Next time you visit your favorite coffee shop in Berlin -or any part of the world- you can trigger some interesting talk just by asking where my coffee comes from? and which community produces it?

Let us know in the comments your artisanal-coffee experiences and any other question that you can think of.

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