Like many others, Neeraj Sheoran too likes to start his mornings with a cup of tea. For the rest of the day though, it’s the heady aromas and flavours of coffee that keep him fixated. It’s all a part of his day job as the founder of Jaipur’s Curious Life Coffee Roasters. Long before the café took shape, 45-year-old Sheoran was hooked on specialty coffee. And over time, he wanted to introduce others to his world when there were few options in his favorite city. “Specialty coffee is very new in India. A lot of roasters want to make it fashionable, rather than focus on making coffee drinking a simpler and better experience. That’s where we come in,” Sheoran says.
“Other roasters go overboard in trying to please the customer. Things like coffee processed with pineapple are all gimmicks in the market. We want to honor the hard work of a farmer—good farming and post-harvest practices—and then work at our end to bring out the best in the coffee,” he adds. It took a while for him to get people to understand his offering. But the loyal tribe that flocks to the café today is testimony to his efforts over the years.
Coffee and Sheoran happened quite by chance. A little over two decades ago, he had a successful career in the Indian Army, where he rose to be a Lieutenant Colonel. In 2009, he was picked to be an independent military observer by the United Nations, which took him to Congo. That’s where he had his first fix of real coffee. “I had friends from Latin America and Europe who would bring coffee with them. It was all very different from what we were drinking in India. For starters, I never thought black coffee could taste so good. Back home, it was always associated with something you drank to stay awake or for dietary needs. I was exposed to a whole new world,” he says.
By the time his stint in Africa was coming to an end, Sheoran suffered a severe spinal injury. Once home, he was operated on and bound to his bed for weeks. Though back on his feet, he realized that active duty was behind him. There were desk jobs on offer, but having served in combat roles, it was evident that things wouldn’t quite be the same. “The army and sports both teach you to take on challenges. It wasn’t a logical thing to leave without pension, especially at a time when I wasn’t fully fit. I had insecurities as the sole breadwinner for the family. But the drive to figure something out for myself was the right motivation to leave and there was no looking back,” he says.
Before he arrived at this clarity of thought, he joined the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad in September 2012. The course was for army men like him who were looking to switch careers. This was where he first got interested in understanding coffee. He started reading about it, and then reached out to roasters to have small batches customized as per his needs. Pretty soon, the aromas wafting through the dormitory brought batchmates at his doorstep, awaiting their fix of caffeine. It got so popular that they insisted he charge a small fee for each cup. “You can say that I had already run my first coffee shop by that time,” he says, smiling.
In January 2013, he was released by the army and he set up a base in Jaipur, charmed by its easy pace of life. The initial entrepreneurship venture involved adventure, setting up a motorcycle tour company for riding around Rajasthan and Uttarakhand. But when his injury relapsed, he realized it wasn’t a sustainable idea. Somewhere during the recovery period that lasted three months, the wheels made way for the beans. Sheoran transformed his home into a laboratory. He invested hours reading about coffee. He bought a basic roaster, and sourced raw beans to gain a deeper understanding of the art of roasting. His wife, Meenakshi, who worked as a teacher at the time to support the family of three, often returned home to the acrid smell of burnt coffee.
“Burning and learning, burning and learning — that’s all I did for close to two years,” Sheoran recalls. After gaining some confidence, he started making small batches of roasted coffee, supplying them to local coffee shops. He would hop from one establishment to another, enlightening them with all that he had grasped through his experiments and learning. A bigger roaster was soon procured to meet the demands. But he realised that a lot of coffee shops were cutting corners while brewing coffee. Besides, as a new product in the market, he couldn’t negotiate the right price either.
The initial idea to start a roastery was scrapped. By September 2015, he had raised enough funds to open a café. “Coffee must be weighed and brewed in a certain way. A lot of people wouldn’t pay attention to details. Through the café, I wanted to do things my way, and give people a good experience of coffee,” he says. By his own admission, the café started prematurely. One fine day, a few women on their evening walk stormed in, curious about the new place that was still to open its doors. Sheoran served them coffee and the first cup was so satisfying, that they told him he was underselling his product and redesigned the menu. A few days later, the first partner onboard was his sister in-law, Manu Singh, equipped with ace culinary skills. At the time, she had just finished a doctorate in biotechnology and was in a teaching job. She now started spending the mornings at college, while the rest of the day was dedicated to the café.
Though budget was a constraint at the time, Sheoran invested in the best equipment to fine tune his product. The army precision was on point, even customising the cups to ensure the right servings. All along, he focused on crafting a brew that he enjoyed most.
“Coffee tastes best at a particular roast level, which is something I have spent a lot of time on. Other roasters try to make different versions of the same coffee — slightly lighter or darker or very dark roast. But I believe that every coffee shines at a particular roast, and anything otherwise won’t do justice to it. I don’t roast coffee for a typical customer, so I don’t blame someone if they don’t like it,” Sheoran says.
The milky servings of cappuccino made way for a concoction that highlighted the flavours of the coffee. More popular offerings such as the vanilla frappes were pushed to the back of the menu. “Specialty coffee needs more coffee in your cup and less milk. What I’ve been serving since the first day has almost double the amount of coffee, of course, depending on how strong you like it. We want to convert your tastes, which may not make sense financially for me, but is certainly better for you,” he says.
There was one additional job that ran beyond closing time—that of online feedback. While on one hand they were cultivating a dedicated bunch of followers, there were also criticisms to be addressed. And Sheoran would respond to each one of them personally, which at times, didn’t go down very well with the customer. “I had put in too much work to deliver that cup. If the customer didn’t like it, I couldn’t be sorry about it. Maybe this coffee wasn’t for them and I was quite blunt about it. I didn’t go all out to please anybody, since that was a job I wanted to do through my coffee,” he says.
“Jaipur, which has a tradition of hospitality, was now witnessing a crazy fauji officer. It created an online storm — free publicity and complete entertainment, if you were to go back and read the comments. I even remember telling a celebrity foodie that they may not be knowing much about coffee,” he says, laughing. Just six months in, the café started rolling, and they had broken even. But for two years, the duo continued to look after things from behind the counter. Only once they had a team on board, who were in sync with Sheoran’s philosophy, could they finally take a vacation. The demand was such that in December 2018, they opened their second café nearby that could seat more people. The online business also grew after other cafés started sourcing beans from them.
Sheoran connected with farmers from Chikmagalur in Karnataka, Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh, and the Shevaroy and Palani hills in Tamil Nadu to source the beans he was looking for, besides also importing batches from Rwanda and Kenya. A school friend, Jacob Sannuel, joined the team to help with the scouting process, and is today an aspiring farmer, trying to grow his own coffee near Kodaikanal. “Specialty coffee is a result of a long chain — from the farmer, to the pickers who select beans, then the people who process, dry and cure the beans, followed by the roaster and brewer. Anyone can kill coffee and break the chain, so each one must complement the other person’s efforts,” he says. The family of 40 workers at Curious Life follows the same ethics that they’ve picked up from Sheoran. Nobody will go out of their way to please the customer. No job is considered menial, with equal opportunities presented to everyone as long as there’s a willingness to learn. For instance, a few servers have gone on to become baristas over time. Interns drop in every few months to learn the art of brewing coffee and the process of running a café. “One of the things I’ve learnt for the army is to take care of the troops. It’s why a lot of the team remains the same after all these years,” he says.
Curious Life has an annual turnover of Rs 6 crore. Coffee continues to be Sheoran’s obsession that drives him each morning. On an average day, he can be found engrossed in his workspace that houses an automated, state-of-the-art roaster, right behind the café counter. He squints through his thick frames at the graphs on his computer screen, sips the latest brew through the day, and doesn’t refrain from tossing a batch away if he finds something amiss. For after all these years, he’s clear on what his coffee should taste like. It’s why he prefers to carry his own coffee on his travels.
Sheroan rarely enters another café, unless it’s for some filter kaapi with his dosa down south, nor has he tried to keep tabs on what other roasters are doing. Only on a few occasions does he source coffee from roasters such as Tim Wendelboe, whose work he’s admired since the start of his own coffee journey.
A lot of his current efforts are towards preserving the flavours of coffee, given that the crop is harvested once a year, and consistency with the roasting process. He also wants to get into designing indigenous machinery, since most of it is currently imported across the country. There are no immediate plans of expansion, unless he finds someone who loves his coffee as much as he does. “And that’s a very remote possibility, given how I feel about my coffee. For now, we would just like to send our products everywhere,” he says. Sheoran dreams of having a little cottage in the hills of southern India at some point in the future, from where he can regularly work with farmers to make coffee better at the grassroot level. Living on the slopes will also hand him the opportunity to pursue cycling, which he and his son, Shaurya, are equally passionate about. And in the long run, he wants Curious Life to be associated with sports, given his background as a sportsperson. “Passion is about wanting to do something well with whatever you’ve got. It’s a habit and not restricted to one product. I could do the same thing for beer, bicycles or motorcycles tomorrow if I jumped into it,” he says.
“By the time my army career had ended, time was at a premium, since I was in my late 30s. I didn’t have the luxury of money either. I had to do two things simultaneously — create a place that would earn me my bread and where I would love to work. That balance was important,” he says.