Subko - a truly Indian specialty coffee in the making
Shravan from Beanrove has been illuminating in terms of who are the upcoming roasters, what are they doing and how the entire supply chain is organised. His background compliments his experience. And he is an amazing sounding board for any weird ideas that I want to run by. While working on my recently launched coffee ratings guide, he recommended trying out Subko, a specialty coffee brand based out of Mumbai. I had never heard of them. And if I hadn't heard of them, I was sure that nobody else would have.
I looked up Subko on Instagram and came across this uber cool looking page. First thought that came to my mind was that they have spent a lot of money on creating this experience for their customers. I had to see if their coffees packed the punch which Shravan expressed so enthusiastically about. I dropped them a DM inquiring about their coffees. I prefer messaging a roaster first before placing an order to see if I can get 100-150 gm samplers instead of the regular 250 gm packs - can call it a commitment issue. I got a reply shortly that it would be possible for them to work something out. I placed an order for all 4 of their coffees and then started a relatively short wait. The package got delivered in about 4 days.
Cut to the drink. I tried all 4 coffees. But in this post, I am going to talk specifically about Ampthill Downs. This was the first coffee I brewed from the lot using a V60 and a recipe that the team had sent across. The beans looked medium to dark roasted and had a distinct malted chocolaty roastiness to it. Naturally, I was inclined to assume the worst. I took the first sip. It was horrible. But then something happened. The coffee flipped on its head. Suddenly, there was a rush of milk chocolate, floral notes and a rich caramel texture that took over. I took a moment to myself. My parents asked me if everything was okay (my expressions gave way). I tried the coffee again. The same experience. I tried finding the right word to explain what I felt. Then I found it. "Weird". But then I had never tasted a coffee so intricate, so complex, so different, yet so Indian. And I'll tell you why.
There are predominantly 2 schools of thought in the Indian specialty coffee industry. There is one dominated by the incumbents who have cultivated and consumed coffee for generations. This school of thought is predominant in South India. Here, coffees are expected to have that distinct bitterness which is cut and complemented by adding milk, sugar and at times chicory. The nature of grading coffee is deep-rooted in these biases formed over decades. Hence, the natural liking for a more bitter balance in the coffee. The second school of thought and a fairly recent one is the found in the West and North of India. This is a derived notion of what specialty coffee is. The specialty roasters and Q-graders from these parts of the country are somewhat mimic-ing the coffee culture from either America, Australia or the Nordic countries. There is a distinct affinity towards acidic and sweeter coffees depending on well they are able to source the coffees from within the country. So, coffee culturists from this new school of thought are always at loggerheads with the incumbents, leading to politics, power plays and what not. Now that you know about how these two schools of thought are placed, a reductive way to look at it is:
Old School - Bitter coffees
New School - Acidic or Sweet coffees
Their coffee is an alchemy of sorts. It is difficult to get the roast profile right and do justice to the entire value chain - the farmers, the pickers, the processors and the customers. Expectations are high, and it's easier and logical to fit in than to stand out. So certain roasting styles become standards. It takes a lot of courage (and stupidity) to experiment with something radical. Sometimes it doesn't work. But sometimes it does. What Subko has done here is to marry these schools of thought to bring forth a coffee which represents a union of the two. A bitter yet complex coffee. A specialty coffee which retains a distinct Indian-ness to it.
Is Subko a genius accident or the result of an intentional play? I don't know. But coffees like Ampthill Downs need to be examined further by Indian specialty roasters as it presents an interesting use case. Personally, this coffee has expanded my horizon of thinking. A future with infinite possibilities. And this is just the beginning.
Subko has been a revelation. While the tasting reports for this coffee will be releasing soon, I couldn't help but write a focus piece on what they've created. This is one coffee roaster to look out for. Safe to say, truly my first Indian specialty coffee.
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