Sherri Johns isn’t sure if coffee found her or vice-versa, but she fell in love with the beverage many moons ago and the affair has only grown stronger over the years. Ask her the hallmark of a good coffee and the head judge and mentor, Araku Coffee, a luxury coffee brand, immediately remarks, “One that tastes as good as it smells; is neither instant nor contains chicory”. In an email interaction with indianexpress.com, the coffee specialist talks about India’s coffee culture, flavoured coffee concoctions and her most memorable cup.
How and when did your love affair with coffee begin?
As a child, my mom brewed fresh percolator coffee for every meal. I loved the smell of freshly brewed coffee and that’s where it all began. When I started university in San Francisco and lived on my own, I would frequent the Italian cafes in North Beach to enjoy a cappuccino. I brewed coffee for friends in French presses, landed a job as a barista (before the term “barista” was popular) and truly “fell in love”. Without hesitation, I am not sure if I found coffee or coffee found me but it has been a love affair ever since.
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India is usually identified as a chai drinking country, but this is being slowly taken over by coffee as the choice of beverage in some urban centres. What, according to you, may have brought about this shift?
I believe South India was always known for its coffee. In that sense, coffee isn’t new to India. But the rise of the cafe-culture made coffee trendy and exciting. India has a fast-growing middle class which has more leisure time and more disposable income and the fact that in India it is now possible to grow amazing coffee is a bonus! Local cafes are a place to be and be seen. Good quality coffee is now being appreciated by those with a discerning palate.
There are various coffee shops/outlets mushrooming in the country. Do you think they do justice to the brew?
If they are serving high-quality coffee and consistent service to match, there is a place for all. Customers will find their favourites. It all comes down to what you offer. At our upcoming experiential cafe in Bangalore, we are trying to create a coffee experience that’s unparalleled and champions coffee.
How would you describe India’s coffee culture?
It’s an exciting time for coffee in India. It’s growing and lively. It’s an incredible opportunity for a country which has the potential to grow amazing coffee. This is a reason to celebrate with a sense of national pride. At the Gems of Araku competition this year, our coffee was rated as high as 95/100 by a credible international jury and some judges even went on to compare it with coffee from Panama. It was incredible to witness how India is on its way to being the next “big thing” in the specialty coffee world.
What is the hallmark of a good cup of coffee?
Short answer: One which tastes as good as it smells, does not need cream or sugar to mask coffee’s natural sweetness and has a lingering pleasant taste. NOT instant and NOT with chicory.
Longer answer: Freshly roasted (not over-roasted to mask coffee’s natural flavour nuances), freshly ground just before brewing, brewed with a good ratio of filtered clear water to coffee (1:15), served in preheated cups and shared with friends.
There are a lot of coffee varieties available in the market — ranging from pumpkin latte, unicorn latte to turmeric latte. What is your take on these innovations?
Frappuccino started it all by marketing to early teens and growing a generation of young coffee drinkers who enjoyed mildly sweet flavoured coffee concoctions. I’m not complaining, the teens grow up to drink cappuccinos perhaps. Or if their penchant is a unicorn latte, well, let them enjoy it brewed with a high-quality coffee at least. Black coffee is not for everyone. This key here is coffee quality.
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What is your secret mantra to brewing the perfect cup of coffee?
Each day for me begins with a cup of coffee. I like to keep things simple, just fresh roasted coffee which I grind just before brewing. I use fresh filtered water, heat it at 195 F and follow simple steps for brewing. Some days I use a french press, on others, a pour-over Chemex. Brewing and enjoying delicious coffee is not difficult, it is almost therapeutic.
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Coffee has undergone a lot of makeovers over the years — perhaps to suit the evolving taste buds. What is your take on the same as a coffee expert?
People like to talk about waves, while I like to call them advancements in coffee. Coffee drinkers in markets across the world continue to become more sophisticated with time as new developments fuel the coffee world too. It is a journey of discovery. New trends like Turmeric Latte may hit the market and be the “new thing” for a while, but on the farm level, quality and processing is leading the change.
Where have you had the best coffee so far and what according to you makes it the best on your list?
Let’s rephrase it to a most “memorable cup”. In my 40+ professional years in coffee, I have enjoyed a few. Of late, I will say Araku’s Micro Climate, freshly brewed in a french press shared with friends on an outdoor deck.
If there is one misconception or one thing you would like to tell Indians about coffee, what would that be?
That all coffee does not taste the same and that high-quality coffee is neither instant nor contains chicory. India has amazing food with complexity and multiple dimensions. Indian coffee has that as well. Try it at cafes which have professionally trained baristas, and those that do not over roast coffee. Enjoy the journey of discovering coffee like never before.
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