Coffee expert Sherri Johns, Head Mentor at Araku Coffee
Q. How were you introduced to coffee and what has your journey been like?
My mother brewed coffee at home on a percolator each morning. She would sip it from her favourite mug, while I had a bottle in my high chair, as we both watched I Love Lucy, a popular American television show. It was a real treat for me as a kid to go to coffee shops, even though I never drank any until I was a university student.
I began with cappuccinos in San Francisco's North Beach and brewing French press single-origin coffee for my study group, and eventually landed a job at the campus coffee bar, to my delight. The journey had just begun.
Early on, I was awarded "best cappuccino" in San Francisco in the world’s first barista competition. Through the years, I have opened my own café in San Francisco, and consulted on cafés in the US, Malaysia, Japan, Brazil and more. Currently, I’m posted with Araku Originals as a coffee mentor.
I have a simple goal—to help everyone achieve success with specialty coffee. This applies to farmers in identifying and improving quality to achieve better prices, coffee roasters and coffee ‘cuppers’ [those who evaluate quality] to make educated business decisions, retailers to create the quintessential café experience, baristas to understand their role in the chain of quality and consumers on how to brew a good cuppa at home.
Q. How are Indian coffee consumption habits different from other parts of the world?
Not so different, really. India consumers who love quality are on the rise, and they are interested in supporting sustainability and organic products. India is only slightly behind the global market on consumption per capita. Across the globe, coffee brings a sense of belonging and reflection. We have an opportunity to celebrate amazing coffee from India and raise our cups in national pride. Indians can drink good while doing good.
Q. How would you describe the current scenario for coffee production in India?
The south of India has always been the go-to place for Robusta coffee. Now, there is an increased interest in specialty Arabica and the vast improvements in quality of Araku [a valley region in Andhra Pradesh], a non-traditional growing area where coffee trees are cared for by adivasis. Naandi [Foundation] has focused efforts on improving the taste profile, organic production and livelihood of the farmers. In this instance, the rest of the world will catch up to India.
Q. How important do you think experimentation and innovation is for coffee?
Extremely important, however proof is ‘in the cup’. At the end of the day, (or beginning of the day) coffee must taste delicious, be sustainable and inspire customers to pay for quality. Innovation lately has been in processing, resulting in the creation of a variety of unique flavour profiles. The path of discovery is an exciting part of the journey.
Q. What views do you hold about the third wave of coffee and do you think a fourth wave is taking shape?
Years ago, I was asked if coffee was a fad. I knew coffee would continue to evolve as tastes and preferences would. I am not one to compartmentalise movements and see specialty coffee as a continuum with evolution for farmers, roasters, baristas and consumers. Each may be in their own ‘wave’. Let's just say coffee is an ocean with many waves, which continue to expand to the delight of coffee lovers everywhere.
Q. How has the pandemic affected coffee consumption worldwide or in India?
Cafés and roasteries were closed in lockdown and are barely managing to open now with many restrictions. Now, roasteries can operate under strict restrictions, and offer home delivery or retail in high-end grocery stores. While cafés lost business and struggled to stay alive, home consumption has thrived.
Working and schooling at home created a new need for coffee sales and brewing equipment. I have noted the positive growth of home brewing confidence and desire; before the pandemic, most people took their coffee out. Once we are able to move freely again, people will return to the cafés en masse—but home consumption will remain high with consumers’ newfound confidence.
Q. If there is one misconception or one thing you would like to tell Indians about coffee, what would that be?
Not all coffee is the same. India is a coffee producing nation. Consumers are becoming more sophisticated in their selection for fine foods, for certified organic products and to support social enterprises. Don't settle for mediocrity, chicory or instant granules in your coffee, for that is not coffee at all. Upgrade your coffee experience, celebrate unique taste profiles and be willing to pay for quality.
Q. What do you think the future for coffee is?
The future lies in specialty coffee—smaller, distinctive brews that fetch a higher price. We must continue to expand the consumption market at the same velocity with which farmers are increasing their knowledge and quality, to ensure the market for specialty coffee continues to grow. Farms are the economic livelihood of over 25 million people globally. Worldwide, we drink over 500 billion cups of coffee a year. We must recognise the opportunity for people and support it, celebrate it and share it, ideally over a cuppa. Make mine black.