Have you heard the one about the woman who walks into a coffee bar, eyes the barista and says, “Make me happy, Joe”? The barista looks at her with a smile, then says, “Give me a mo.” The woman seats herself at a table nearby. Within minutes, he’s by her side, a cup of steaming hot coffee in his hands. “Here you go”, he says cheerfully. “Here’s your happy Joe.”
OK, it didn’t quite happen that way. For the record, I walk into a new café called the Flying Squirrel, down Koramangala way in Bengaluru, go up to the counter, eye the scribbles on the blackboard behind the barista and place my order. The barista, who turns out to be the co-owner of the place, Ashish D’Abreo, isn’t going to let it go just like that. I seat myself at a table in the cosy café, where the heady fragrance of the drink is making my head swirl in the most delightful manner; soon, Ashish is at my table.
A brief interrogation follows, and I’m forced to divulge some personal details — like whether I prefer light bodies or heavy ones. Like how exactly do I like my pour-overs? Like will I go for the bold and deep or the fruity and light? Like is coffee my preference, prop or addiction? (I made that last one up.)
D’Abreo, an advertising professional-turned-coffee connoisseur, doesn’t take java lightly, which is why the USP is simple at the café he and partner Tej Thammaiah, a third-generation coffee estate owner, have set up: learn about coffee even as you savour it. This is not just a café, he informs me — it’s a micro-roastery and café, with the finest beans and the freshest roasts.
At this point, I confess that oftentimes, I prefer a well-made cup of instant coffee to a filter kaapi. D’Abreo`s expression doesn’t change. “Well,” he says, with nary a hint of patronisation, “we have coffees for people who like instant coffee… try our Cafe Chic.” So I do, and it does taste like my favourite brand of instant, overlaid with a deeper flavour, which I discover is peaberry. Also, the ‘chic’ could mean chicory, brewed in a south Indian stainless steel coffee filter; I’ve just had a cuppa that could well turn me into a filter kaapi drinker.
D’Abreo is now telling me about the 30-day window — as in, the freshly ground coffee you buy and store is best used within a month. Anything more and it doesn’t taste or smell like fresh coffee should, simply because both fragrance and flavour have lain down and died. People drink old roasts without knowing they are doing so, says D’Abreo. The stuff found on supermarket shelves could have been roasted anywhere between a month to a whopping six months ago. We mull over this even as I sip from a cup of Sattva, Arabica with a fruity note or two, which for some reason takes me back to the taste of espressos in Italy, with a desi twist.
D’Abreo is on the topic of coffee snobs. This lot generally goes for single brews, he informs me, ruing the fact that they are missing out on the wonderful world of blended brews. “In the hands of an expert, a blended brew tastes divine,” he says, signalling for a cup of Parama for me. It has the taste of chocolate and caramel, and of course I love it.
There are snacks on offer too. The salads, sandwiches, lasagne, burgers and potato fries all complement the main item beautifully, as do the cheesecake, cupcakes and crème brulee.
D’Abreo supervises the entire process, from the arrival of the beans from the Coorg estate, to the roasting (done in a sleek machine of German make) blending and packaging. The Flying Squirrel brand has a strong online presence at www.flyingsquirrel.in, and supplies coffee to artisanal and gourmet cafes and restaurants across India.
The sceptic in me awakes again. “Do customers really want the full dope on coffee, or just a good cuppa Joe?” I ask him. “There is a definite coffee culture brewing across India — people come in for a coffee and we make suggestions. Some listen, some question why. The former become repeat customers who on subsequent visits ask more about the artisanal coffees and the coffee process. The latter become repeat customers who start to build their opinions on particular coffees. Both of them become informed customers.” He’s right; I sip from my cup of Sun-Kissed and immediately want to know just why it has a faint but delicious buttery flavour.
D’Abreo and Thammiah are now planning workshops where coffee drinkers can acquire gyaan quite like wine drinkers do, debate light roasted versus dark roasted bean, discuss lining and flavour, deconstruct the strength and the vulnerability of the bean and argue if an aeropress really has an edge over a regular filter.
When I finally leave the Flying Squirrel, I’m reeling from a java OD, but it`s a heavenly reel. The coffee knowledge I have recently acquired sits smooth and pretty, like the foam atop a cappuccino. The nuances of artisanal coffee drinking have been explained to me. The next time I order a cup, I will inhale the fragrance, take a sip and murmur thoughtfully “Ah, I detect a floral flavour, overlaid with a peanutty infusion. Quite my happy Joe.”