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The arrival of global coffee house behemoths in the country proves that modern Indian café culture has reached a new level of maturity and competitive excitement. Thanks to the espresso machine – and all that comes with it – a generation of young people has been liberated, observes Jonathan Foreman

A micro-skirted, skinny, short-haired young woman with enormous eyes and a very small dog in the crook of her arm is asking the unflappable man behind the counter for an organic spelt loaf and a coffee to match her figure: a tall decaf skinny cappuccino.

Behind her in the high-ceilinged cool of the big dining room there is a long wooden communal table and a wall decorated with what look like iron farm implements. Everything about this airy wood-floored space proclaims a stylish superiority to your everyday coffee chain. We could be in Paris’ St Germaine, London’s Notting Hill or New York’s Greenwich Village, but we are not. The skinny woman with the tiny dog clicks on spindly heels out of this new branch of Le Pain Quotidien and into Mumbai’s heat, just up the street from the Gateway of India.

The arrival in India of ‘PQ’ as international devotees of the Belgian high end bakery-café chain call it, is an event of some significance, especially taken together with the recent announcement that Starbucks is finally coming to India. The global coffee house behemoth has made an agreement with Tata that should result in the first Starbucks branches coming to India later this year and also a major investment in the Indian company’s coffee plantations.

Starbucks was, of course, the original modern café chain. Beginning in the early 1980s it introduced a version of Italian coffee house life – with all the language, technology and rituals of espresso and cappuccino-making – to parts of America where the only alternative to instant was weak or bitter drip coffee. By the late 1990s, upper middle class suburbs around the US were being labelled ‘Latte towns’ and the term ‘barista’ had come into vogue to describe anyone who worked in a coffee shop. The taste for pukka espresso-based coffee eventually spread down to ordinary working class people – so that it became common to see burly construction workers asking for grande lattes at the chain. Starbucks now has more than 15,000 stores around the world and is in every major Middle Eastern and Asian country except India. (China has 500 branches.) Apparently the first Indian Starbucks will be inside Taj hotels.

The arrivals of both PQ and Starbucks – one chic and European, the other trendy and American – show that modern Indian café culture has reached a new level of maturity and competitive excitement. After all, an overtly foreign, up-market establishment like Le Pain Quotidien would never have even considered opening its first branch in India if existing café chains like Café Coffee Day, Barista and Costa Coffee had not already been so successful in discovering and fostering a new market. But that is actually to underplay the significance of coffee in India today, because it is very much more than a business story.

The coming of hundreds of foreign-style cafés to India’s metros arguably represents a huge cultural revolution – a radical change in the way that millions of people, especially women, live their lives. As the Café Coffee Day tag line goes, ‘A lot can happen over coffee’. And it’s true. Thanks to the espresso machine and all that comes with it, a generation of young people has been liberated.

It is easy to forget how different things were before the cafés started to open in colonies and malls across the country: how the social interactions of young or unmarried people of the opposite sex, were confined and limited by restrictive social rules – and by the fact that there were so few appropriate places to go. For girls and women who wanted to meet each other outside the home there were even fewer places outside the beauty parlour. But a café, unlike a bar or a nightclub, is a kind of chaperoned space. A girl or a woman can sit in one all day, alone or with her friends and not be seen or treated as less than respectable.

The old Indian coffee houses – wonderful though they were – represented a different kind of social institution. Like the British 18th century coffee houses where the likes of Dr Johnson gossiped with the playwright Sheridan, they were very definitely male establishments. Chai stalls are not much better.

The coming of the Western style café to every colony and shopping mall means that boys and girls whose freedom to meet, chat and flirt in person outside their parents’ home had been limited to the university campus, five-star hotels (for some) or to stolen moments in some corner of a public park, can now do so in a neutral, public, respectable and comfortable place.

Of course, it is not entirely clear why middle and upper middle class parents should assume their little darlings are having an entirely innocent time in a Barista or Coffee Day. While you rarely see much physical contact between the sexes in brightly lit, often noisy, air-conditioned emporia, if you sit and pay attention it soon becomes obvious that the young couples whispering or fondling their mobile phones are making arrangements to do things of which their parents would definitely disapprove.

It is a chicken and egg question as to which came first – the cafés or the café-going classes, but it is hard to imagine Barista and the others spreading so fast if there had not already been a big middle class of people willing to spend vastly more on a cup of coffee than they ever did on cups of chai at a pavement stall. There is also a theory that younger people liked the idea of cafés as places to hang out because so many of them had been exposed to the idea through the US TV series Friends – where the characters spend much of their time in a cool café called Central Perk.

But unlike many cafés in America or Europe, ours in India tend to be open late at night, long after the time when Westerners traditionally take anything caffeinated. Which is a sign that café going in India is already developing its own distinct flavour – and that if Starbucks is going to succeed it will have to adjust to that.

Traditionally, Italians drink cappuccino only in the morning – in the afternoons and evenings they drink espresso or macchiato (an espresso stained with a drop of milk). Flavours, syrups and even cinnamon are considered ridiculous, and lattes, like café au lait in France, are drunk only by children and the elderly, and at home. Tall decaf-skim no-whip mochas are not drunk at all.

But that’s fine for the Italians. If Indian yuppies want to buy cappuccinos at 10 o’clock in a café where videos are playing and music is pounding, it is because they have more important things to think about than a sleepless night. And also because they have something to celebrate – the freedom promised by a roasted bean.

Making much of the coffee bean

  • All coffee plants on earth have their ancestors in Ethiopia.
  • Coffee drinking made its way to Europe from Arabia in the 17th Century.
  • Coffee Houses became centres of conversation, politics, the arts and business: Lloyds the great international insurance company started life as Edward Lloyd’s Coffee House.
  • The Arabs had a monopoly on coffee cultivation until the end of the 17th century when the Dutch took plants to Sumatra and the French took some to the Caribbean.

 

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