One definition of “overly ambitious” is attempting to write an article about the relationship between coffee and a pluralistic nation of over 1.1 billion people. Compounding this is the nature of India itself — where not only can you find evidence of just about everything, but for everything you find to be true you will also find the exact opposite to also be true.

India is a mesmerizing country that can be quite a lot to take in at any given time or place. Life there seems so much more raw…and vibrant. Besides being a diverse country of contradictions, one seems to experience a 360-degree view of life there — in contrast with our much narrower perspectives of the world here. For example, destitute poverty lives side-by-side with optimistic, upwardly mobile hope for the future. But at either end of this wide spectrum, India is filled with people of great friendliness, joie de vivre, and spiritual centeredness. It boasts some of the best people-watching in the world, and we rapidly developed a great fondness for the country and the people who live there.

Taking a rickshaw back from market, south of New Delhi Woman climbing steps in the Jantar Mantar observatory, New Delhi

Arabic inscriptions in the Qutb Minar At Qutb Minar

Humayun's Tomb, New Delhi - inspiration for the Taj Mahal Khas Mahal, Agra Fort

Yet despite two weeks in a country that arguably changed us (is there such a thing as an Indiaphile?), we were much less successful at unraveling the mysteries of India’s historic, evolving coffee culture. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Daily 115-degree temperatures weren’t exactly conducive for drinking many shots of the stuff. Whoever coined the term “Indian summer” for those few warm weeks a year in SF obviously had no idea.
  • Urban mobility is a challenge. With coffeehouses being relatively few and far between in a city as large as New Delhi (by most counts, one of the ten most populous cities in the world), getting to them on foot isn’t very practical. (Blistering heat aside.) Then add India’s rather maniacal driving culture. Its extensive network of hired drivers helps a lot, but it often requires you to know where you want to go — instead of wandering aimlessly in search of coffee.
  • While there are a number of establishments with espresso machines in the region, few are dedicated to the craft. Those places that are focused primarily on coffee are overwhelmingly big chains. Despite a number of 24-hour coffee shops in hotels, their emphasis is on food service.
  • India lacks a quality-aware coffee culture that directs consumers to specific coffeehouses. Although India actually has a long and rich tradition of coffee growing and consumption, only until recently has it switched focus from quantity to quality. And India has no real history with espresso, which is more of a very recent phenomenon among the mobile middle classes.

Despite these obstacles, we always welcome flimsy excuses to publish more travel photos.

View down onto the courtyard of Jama Masjid, Old Delhi A break from the midday sun along the walls of the Jama Masjid, Old Delhi

Prayers inside the Jama Masjid, Old Delhi Old Delhi from the Jama Masjid

Game-winning celebration at a pickup cricket game, east end of the Rajpath, New Delhi Swimming in Children's Park, at the east end of the Rajpath, New Delhi

It’s a bit ironic that Westerner travelers feel the culture shock of India’s raw authenticity — far removed from the corporate sameness that afflicts every downtown in America — and yet dedicated retail coffeehouses in India are dominated by big chains. The independent, mom & pop places called “coffee houses” are typically old school diners, cafés, and restaurants. (Another strange irony: with the escalation of world food prices, there are questions of how middle America can continue to afford organic foods for their families — whereas in destitute India, that’s all they’ve ever eaten.)

Of course, India is a nation famous for its tea drinkers. Chai being the Hindi word for tea — and not that latte-styled spiced tea stuff Americans call “chai” either, which is closer to chai masala gone Starbucks. (Indian trains and train stations are filled with the “chai, chai!” calls of tea-vending children and adults.) As in other developing countries famous for their tea drinkers, such as China, many of the newly affluent are gradually eschewing their daily tea for the perceived cosmopolitan mystique of espresso drinks. And in most modern offices staffed by younger Indians, coffee seems to be the beverage of choice.

Local tourists inside Agra Fort Local tourists inside the Taj Mahal, Agra

Inside the Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Sahib, a historic Sikh temple in New Delhi Walking outside the Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Sahib, New Delhi

Washing feet before entering the Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Sahib, New Delhi Morning religious TV in India: their take on Pat Robertson would surely be labeled 'satanic' in the U.S.

Vishnu shrine in Old Delhi

However, coffee (kaufi in Hindi) is hardly new to the subcontinent. It’s generally believed that coffee was first brought to India in the 17th century through its historic Islamic ties to Yemen and the Middle East. Today India claims to be the fifth largest coffee producer in the world. Coffee is grown almost exclusively in South India, and most of it has been consumed in the domestic market — with an occasional bulk trade with the former USSR. But since the 1990s, India has developed some excellent coffees. They are also home to some excellent “oddities”, such as Monsooned Malabar and some of the highest quality robusta beans in the world. (Unfortunately we didn’t have the opportunity to visit coffee farms at origin.) Italy is currently the largest importer of Indian coffees.

At Agra Fort, where even Hindu Brahmin are tourists too

South India is also famous for what they call “filter coffee” — or what the rest of us call “South Indian” or “Madras” coffee. It’s a ritualistic combination of darkly roasted beans blended with chicory, a lot of warmed milk, and sugar. It all comes together through coffee mixologists who use metal cups and tumblers to form the frothy, sweet, milky drink. While available in Northern India, it was too sweet and milky for our tastes — though some Madrasi purists told us that the concoctions up north came up short to the real thing.

Morning prayers just past dawn at a mosque in Shah Jahan Park, Agra Cricket player, Shah Jahan Park, Agra

Approaching the Taj Mahal, Agra The almost unreal Taj Mahal, Agra

Taj Mahal, Agra Taj Mahal, Agra

We conclude with a pathetically token sampling of a few Delhi area espresso ratings:

Name Address City Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Barista Crème 33, 1st Floor, Khan Market New Delhi 6.60 6.80 6.700
Costa Coffee L8. Outer Circle, Connaught Place New Delhi 6.40 6.50 6.450
Café Coffee Day 14 Indira Gandhi International Airport New Delhi 7.10 4.20 5.650

Barista Coffee, Connaught Place, New Delhi Café Coffee Day, Connaught Place, New Delhi

Barista Coffee's Lavazza espresso, inside the Metro Mall, Gurgaon South Indian, or Madras, filter coffee, served in Gurgaon

Transporting bamboo along a Gurgaon highway A roadside morning shave, Sector 30, Gurgaon