Who doesn’t love a great cup of airport espresso? We sure do — but in extra measure because such a thing simply does not exist. Sure, things have improved since the era of $4 cups of rancid airport coffee, unburdened by quality concerns. But airport coffee today is still characterized by inflated prices, poor quality coffee, paper cups, superautomatic espresso machines, staff trained to do little more than collect money and give out change, lowest-common-denominator mega-chains, and worse still: mega-chains that license out their name to some airport-contracted food service organization who lumps coffee in with their sales of suduku puzzle magazines.

Not surprisingly, airport espresso is often a poor measure of what a chain’s non-airport cafés are capable of serving.

But there are exceptions. We discovered one of them at a Café Coffee Day in India, in one of the most unpleasant international airports we’ve ever had the displeasure of passing through. Not only that, but after taking a 15-hour flight from New Delhi that flew us directly over the North Pole to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport (ORD), we found that the espresso in the amenity-free Indira Gandhi International Airport (DEL) beat the pants off anything we could purchase at the prime drop-off point for Intelligentsia‘s international coffee buyers.

In the immortal words of Popeye, “Huhhh… how embaraskin’.”

Café Coffee Day kiosk at Indira Gandhi Airport, Terminal 2 The surprising Café Coffee Day espresso at Indira Gandhi Int'l, with rupees to spare

The India-based Café Coffee Day chain currently consists of some 585 locations in 96 cities (including Vienna, Austria of all places). And by some sources, as we reported last year, they can claim two-thirds of all chain coffeehouses in India. However, in terms of coffeehouses per person for a country of over a billion people, that puts Café Coffee Day’s market penetration in India at about 1/44th that of Starbucks’ U.S. penetration. Even so, Café Coffee Day is the heavyweight in India — even if airport kiosks are dominated more by Nescafé.

An office superautomatic espresso machine, courtesy of Café Coffee Day

This tiny kiosk of a café is in Terminal 2, the international terminal. A terminal that’s a lot better going (e.g., airport workers who casually offer free assistance) than coming (e.g., throngs of locals grabbing luggage for tips that would make the scugnizzi of Naples’ central train station blush). Past the extra-tight security detail, but before the full body cavity searches just prior to boarding the aircraft, you’ll find this kiosk next to a Subway stand (yes, as in “6-inch Paneer Tikka sub” Subway).

They use a shiny, silver, two-group Astoria to pull shots with some deliberate timing. The result has a decent medium brown crema with some richness and thin striping — something quite rare in India. And yet the barista often pre-grinds a lot of beans many minutes in advance.

The resulting shot has a good body and a smooth flavor of robust spices and cloves. Oddly enough, this is one of the better espressos we had in India — and it compares well with what they offer in their non-airport cafés. And it costs a mere Rs. 34. Their “Espresso Americano” will run you Rs. 35, meaning that extra hot water will set you back a whole rupee (or about 2½¢).

Read the review of Café Coffee Day at Indira Gandhi International Airport.

Indian military holds the chaos at bay as best they can upon arrival Nescafé stand outside Indira Gandhi Int'l Terminal 2

UPDATE: May 28, 2008
According to the India Times today, Café Coffee Day is planning to expand their number of stores in India by 50% within the next fiscal year: Cafe Coffee Day to have 900 outlets by year end- Retailing-Services-News By Industry-News-The Economic Times.