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A Third-Generation Indian Coffee Roaster Carves Her Own Path in Berkeley

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the owner of Kaveri Coffee works stands in front of the roasting machine she uses in Berkeley
Tanya Rao, owner of Kaveri Coffee Works, stands in front of a roasting machine at CoRo in Berkeley. (Alan Chazaro)

W

hen many Americans think of Indian food, they probably conjure up the buttery scent of tikka masala — those grilled chunks of yogurt-marinated chicken drowned in red sauce. Or they might recall the earthy, kaleidoscopic aromas of cumin, coriander and turmeric from inside an Indian spice aisle. Maybe they imagine the sugary perfume of a hot cup of masala chai.

What I’d bet they don’t think of is coffee.

But for Tanya Rao, owner of Kaveri Coffee Works — a small-scale, independent roasting business in Berkeley — coffee has been a family tradition for more than half a century. The Raos’ connection to coffee dates back to 1941, when Tanya’s grandfather, M.V. Rao, opened India Coffee Kiosk in Bangalore, India, in the Karnataka region — known for being the country’s largest coffee producer. When M.V. could no longer run the family trade, he passed it on to Tanya’s father, Mohan Rao. Ever since then, coffee has defined a sense of home and purpose for the men in Rao’s family.

No one, however, expected or groomed Tanya, the youngest daughter, to take up the mantle. Yet here she is.

“I was next in line to get married,” Rao says. “But instead I broke barriers and challenged the status quo by leaving my [former] career to travel and own my business.”

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Today, Rao is leading a new wave of Bay Area coffee makers with a focus on empowering women of color in the coffee industry, which can often feel male-centric and white-dominant. Even at Berkeley’s CoRo, the beautifully collaborative space where Rao roasts her coffee, there was a visible lack of women during the busy morning I visited. That’s not to say women roasters don’t exist, but to see an Indian woman in a room full of male coffee roasters was scorchingly noticeable to me. Data reveals a gender gap in the coffee industry, with men accumulating a far greater share of the profits. According to a report from the International Coffee Organization, 70% of coffee labor worldwide is provided by women, while only 20% of coffee farms are women-owned. Similarly, the American coffee roasting industry is heavily male-dominated.

two bags of "specialty coffee of India" sit inside a coffee roasting warehouse in Berkeley
Kaveri Coffee Works owner Tanya Rao gets her coffee beans imported directly from growers in her native India. (Alan Chazaro)

For Rao, however, those disparities are all a part of what fuels her mission to stand out as a radical coffee entrepreneur — one who is introducing Bay Areans to the delectable, relatively little-known world of Indian coffee beans.

Though Americans are more likely to associate India with its tea rather than its coffee, South India — particularly the southwestern state of Karnataka — is known for having a rich coffee culture. Karnataka is where Rao’s grandfather founded his coffee business, and it’s also where a Sufi saint named Baba Budan is believed to have planted India’s first coffee seeds over 300 years ago. The region maintains a year-round high-altitude climate that is lush for coffee cultivation. In fact, it’s helped make India the eighth largest coffee producer in the world.

Yet in much of the Western world, Indian coffee is still largely unappreciated. British colonizers controlled India’s coffee industry for nearly 200 years until the Indian Independence Act was signed in 1947. As a result, most Indian coffee never made it to the Americas. Instead, it wound up being shipped to Europe, Australia and other parts of Asia, while a colonized Latin America developed its own coffee belt along the equator to supply the Western Hemisphere. Rao estimates that only 3% of coffee in the U.S. comes from India, while the majority of India’s coffee gets shipped to Italy.

But back in Karnataka? “Coffee is a part of our lives, a real luxury,” Rao says.

Indian Coffee Revolution in the Bay

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A woman from Bangalore who grew up in a patriarchal capitalist society leaves her native country and defies traditional gender expectations to create her own coffee business in Berkeley.

Having emigrated from India at age 17, Rao began her winding path with a degree in computer science from the University of Virginia in 2001. It’s what her parents wanted her to do. And for years, she did it. She worked as a finance engineer, trying to “build the perfect American dream.” But everything changed when Rao visited San Francisco for the first time and, after falling in love with the culture here, quit her job to relocate to the Bay Area in 2008.

a woman scoops a handful of Indian coffee beans with her hands inside a roasting warehouse
Tanya Rao holds up a handful of “monsooned” coffee beans, which originated along the southern coast of India. (Alan Chazaro)

Here, she hiked toward self-discovery, leaving the financial sector behind to study outdoor recreation and tourism at San Francisco State, with an emphasis on social justice and cultural representation. Afterward, she became a women’s backpacking guide, which is about as far as she could’ve veered away from her life as someone with a prestigious career meant to appease her Indian family.

“The Bay Area is where people who are curious and want to try something new are,” Rao says. “I wanted something different.”

When Rao’s father, who had moved to New Jersey, fell ill, she left everything to take care of him, reconnecting with her childhood memories of coffee. Before his passing, he offered his stake in the family coffee business, which had grown from a humble roadside stand pouring cups of joe during World War II to one of the nation’s first private coffee businesses, rebranding itself as New India Coffee Works in the early ’80s. Rao declined. As a result, the family business wound up shuttering.

Instead, Rao decided to carry on her family’s legacy by launching Kaveri Coffee Works — named after a major river in Karnataka — in 2019. With her firsthand knowledge of both India’s coffee riches and the gaps in the Bay Area market for Indian coffee, she wanted to create a business that would bring attention to her home country’s scandalously overlooked brewing culture. She flew out to India to develop partnerships with women-owned farms around the Chikmagalur expanse of South India that now export their beans directly to Rao’s facility in Berkeley.

“I attribute the Bay’s entrepreneurial environment to me being able to turn my idea into a business,” Rao says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this on the East Coast, and it would’ve looked very differently for me in India.”

a mural of an Indian woman making filter coffee in India
A mural of a woman making Indian filter coffee in Karnataka. Painted by Enoch Dheeraj Ebenezer. (Supriya Yelimeli)

With virtually no other Indian specialty coffee makers in the Bay Area, Kaveri is filling a tall order. Surprisingly, for a region where Indian immigrants comprise the second largest Asian American community (making the Bay Area the fifth largest Indian diaspora in the nation), it’s quite rare to find a coffee maker who is strictly dedicated to roasting Indian coffee beans. In fact, Rao might be the only one.

“I’m not aware of any Indian coffee makers like her in the Bay Area,” says Supriya Yelimeli, a first-generation Indian American who grew up in Fremont and is now a journalist at Berkeleyside. “My experience with Indian coffee is attached to the home. My parents would get an egregious amount of Colombian coffee from Costco and use a drip coffee machine to try to replicate Indian filter coffee here. When I was growing up, they complained that they couldn’t get the kind of Indian coffee they wanted.”

Yelimeli, who also has family roots in Karnataka, draws a distinction between “Indian-grown” coffee and “Indian-style” coffee, which doesn’t necessarily need to be made with Indian-grown coffee beans. Often, it involves some combination of chicory and milk, with a ritualistic preparation that relies on “bisi bisi” (or “piping hot”) temperatures. Brewed using a steel filter, the coffee comes out milky and frothy, and is wildly popular among Indian coffee drinkers.

 

Rao, for her part, mostly focuses on roasting Indian-grown coffee beans. But she also wants to use Kaveri as a platform to introduce customers to all different aspects of Indian coffee culture. In India, Rao explains, “pure coffee” is a drink largely reserved for the bourgeoisie. It’s expensive. But watered-down variations, like the chicory coffee, are still commonly consumed by the working classes of India. To make it, the coffee beans get diluted with ground chicory — a spice made from the root of a dandelion plant that was popular among French soldiers, and later adopted and brought to India by the British military.

In some households, mixing hot water with just the chicory by itself is considered coffee, despite lacking any actual coffee grounds. Along with tea, chicory coffee is the most common (and affordable) drink you’ll find in the region.

Selling a version of Indian chicory coffee is just one of the ways that Kaveri Coffee Works pays homage to Rao’s roots in India, where the chicory blend is still extremely common. Rao offers an 80/20 pre-ground mix that customers can brew at home.

“It’s a part of my cultural identity,” she says.

Monsooned Coffee and Espresso Liqueur

The chicory coffee is only one of the distinctive aspects of Indian coffee that Rao wants to bring to the Bay Area. She explains that in many countries, mass-produced coffee is grown as a “monocrop,” in fields dedicated only to growing coffee. Indian coffee, on the other hand, has maintained its organic essence through “intercropping.” In southern India, coffee is grown in a natural rainforest next to pepper vines, cardamon, citrus, jackfruit, mangoes and other companion crops that enrich the soil. This lends the coffee hints of earthy chocolate and nutty spices.

a woman scoops up chicory mix that she blends with her Indian coffee
Tanya Rao adds chicory to her ground coffee to make a special “chicory blend,” which is popular in India. (Alan Chazaro)

Because of Indian coffee’s high tolerance to extreme weather conditions, some farmers even expose their beans to monsoon storm conditions for weeks on end, allowing them to engorge and lose their natural acidity. The monsooned malabar is a centuries-old method that is uniquely specific to the coast of Karnataka — and one that’s become increasingly trendy in recent years. The result is a milder, mellower flavor than regular coffee, allowing for a laidback afternoon of sipping for pleasure rather than urgent morning functionality.

Though Kaveri doesn’t sell monsooned beans at the moment, Rao already has a supplier and is currently experimenting with a recipe for roasting these rare single-origin beans in a way that might translate successfully for Bay Area drinkers. Rao notes that since monsoon beans are typically used for espresso drinks, they don’t taste as good when served as a simple drip coffee. If all goes to plan, she’ll start offering batches of her monsoon beans later this month.

In addition to these traditional styles of Indian coffee, Rao embraces “the art as much as the science” of it all. She recently collaborated with Dissident Spirits Co., a new distillery in Richmond, to create an espresso liqueur made by infusing vodka with Kaveri’s espresso beans, then aging the boozy concoction in rum barrels. The liqueur might not be the sort of thing her family’s coffee company would have ever sold, but it’s yet another sign that Rao has developed her own personal relationship with coffee outside of what it would look and taste like back in India.

She credits Bay Area businesses like Dissident and CoRo for providing a pathway for her to creatively explore her ancestry through experimental coffee roasting. The Bay Area also has a strong ecosystem for start-ups and entrepreneurs, which Rao has utilized by attending master classes at CoRo and participating in coffee cupping classes at the Crown Royal Coffee Lab & Tasting Room in Oakland — “like wine tasting, but for coffee,” she explains.

“I’m allowed to put on a different cultural persona here than I would in India,” she says.

In spite of Rao’s efforts, for the time being, Indian coffee remains relatively obscure in the Bay Area. Berkeleyside writer Yelimeli believes the reason it hasn’t yet filtered its way into the Bay Area has to do with the geography of where Indian coffee is produced — and the cultural implications of that geography.

“As far as Indian influence in the West goes, it usually comes from North India: Bollywood, Hindi language and other known cultural exports including chai. That’s all from the North,” she says. “Northern Indians don’t grow coffee so they don’t drink it as much.”

a commercial coffee shop named Gayathri Coffee in India
Commercial coffee chains like Gayathri Coffee are becoming increasingly popular in Karnataka. (Supriya Yelimeli)

With the emergence of Kaveri Coffee, Yelimeli hopes people’s awareness will start to change. Rao certainly thinks so. She currently only sells her coffee online and at a fistful of Bay Area markets and coffee shops, including Albany’s Kitchenette and CoRo’s own onsite cafe. But she hopes to continue expanding her business without losing the hands-on intimacy of small-batch coffee roasting. Perhaps a brick-and-mortar is next.

“It’s my birthright and duty to serve Indian coffee in the Bay Area,” Rao says. “I’m thinking of ways to do it authentically. I don’t want anything to be lost in translation.”

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Kaveri Coffee can be found online and at select Bay Area locations, including CoRo (2322 Fifth St., Berkeley) and Rainbow Grocery Cooperative (1745 Folsom St., San Francisco). Rao will appear at this year’s San Francisco Coffee Festival (Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture Festival Pavilion, 2 Marina Blvd., SF) on Nov. 11 and 12 from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tickets are currently available at a discounted price.

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