You may not believe us now, but Nagaland coffee is going to be the next big thing. Just remember you read it here first.
Last September, something remarkable happened. Nagaland Coffee ‘Tribal Blend’ bagged a Silver Plaque (fourth place) at the 3rd Aurora International Taste Challenge 2021 at Stellenbosch, South Africa. In a region known for tea, where the coffee industry is only seven years old, this was astonishing. The man behind it is coffee taster and roaster Dr Pieter Vermeulen, MD of Naga Coffee India and Director of Noble Cause Coffee Company, Cape Town.
Unlike India’s other coffee-growing regions, Nagaland is a newbie. Coffee was first introduced here in the 1980s when the Coffee Board of India planted a few thousand saplings in Mokokchung, because of its ideal climate and proximity to Assam. However, it met with little success due to a host of reasons — political instability, years of conflict and no direct access to markets since Nagaland was closed to outsiders. Naga farmers couldn’t find buyers, and had to go through third parties, suffering lesser margins and long waiting periods. Nagaland coffee was nipped in the bud…
Enter Pieter Vermeulen, from a family of South African planters with Belgian-Germanic roots. After the Second World War, his grandfather grew coffee and grapes near Orange River. In 1997 Pieter joined his father, then a missionary in Nagaland. They travelled to Nepal, where they introduced coffee in villages around Pokhra. However, local cows ate up the coffee plants — it was a losing battle as the villagers considered them holy! In 2010, Pieter chanced upon an ad about an abandoned coffee farm in Nagaland. But local laws did not permit outsiders to buy land. In 2015, he met Renben Lotha of the Department of Land Resources and proposed that if he brought in access to the market and global promotion, and the local government could scale up coffee production, an economy could be created!
In 2016, an MoU was signed and a unique public-private partnership called Naga Coffee was formed. Local villagers provided the land, the Department of Land Resources and the Coffee Board gave the seeds and Pieter processed the green beans and sold them. “It’s been an interesting journey,” says Pieter, “Seeds from South India were suited for different climatic conditions and could withstand high rainfall, but not Nagaland’s cold winters. So, we started afresh with well-acclimatised seeds from Coffee Board and Nepal. The first batch of 600,000 seeds planted in dense forests, will come into production this year and has taken seven years!” A man in Naga attire spotted at the Hornbill Festival became the logo for Nagaland Coffee.
So how did the award come about? “It was a lockdown project!” Pieter confessed. International competitions are a different cuppa. Awards are given for milk-based coffee and black coffee, which can be single estate from one farmer/micro-lot or a blend — a bit like Single Malt and Blended Scotch! Blends are a mix of various coffees that have different body, acidities and flavour. Sitting at home, Pieter roasted different coffees. “With my 200 g roaster, I could do 4-5 roasts for every kg, so I tried out a hundred different coffees. One can manipulate the ingredients and roasts — a short roast for lower acidity, long roast for higher acidity. I took the sweetest coffee from Mon and Zunheboto as base (about 15 percent), blended it with natural washed beans from Khar with molasses flavour, mixed other varieties and blended and blended, till I found the perfect mix — medium acidity, full body, berry flavour, strong nutty, sweet aftertaste.” It wasn’t up there for an espresso but it was great for black coffee. The award-winning ‘Tribal Blend’ had notes of black berries, pecan nuts, cashew and spices like cardamom.
The international recognition means a lot to the Department and Nagaland Coffee. The tipping point is production and the next few years are critical. Pieter concedes, “It’s a difficult mindset for farmers to grow a product they don’t drink. Certification ensures fair price but to get the price, quality control is important. Just how ripe, raw and rotten apples have different prices, so it is with coffee. If you grow rice, you can feed your family, but if you grow coffee, you can feed your children and their children… The young generation and Naga entrepreneurs must realise that money doesn’t grow on trees, but you can turn trees into money. Pay for the tree with sweat and toil, and it will pay you back.” Like his missionary father, Pieter already sounded like a coffee evangelist!
It’s imperative to follow the right post-harvesting process from farm to washing station to coffee mill, he stressed. The cherries need to be harvested when they are ripe and reddish purple. They are dried for two weeks in the dry plains of Dimapur and 4-5 weeks in higher areas till the moisture content is 12 percent. “If you don’t have a moisture meter, check the bean between your fingers — if it breaks, it’s dry!” In an African huller, foreign objects like stone, twigs and leaves are removed. In the catador or vertical blower, hollow insect-damaged beans get blown out and only high-density coffee falls down. They are graded on density, weight of the bean, size and colour.
But what sets Nagaland Coffee apart? Planted in forests where soil is fortified with nitrogen and nutrients, the coffee tastes richer. Nagaland is blessed with amazing climatic conditions and terroir where the micro-climate plays a big role. Each district has a different picking season — Kohima in November, Mokokchung in Dec/Jan, Wokha and Kiphire in April/May, with a 6-7-month window. The summer-winter differential is ideal at 15-30 degrees. Earlier coffee wouldn’t grow here because it was too cold but now with global warming, it’s got ideal conditions. Even a five-degree change in summer is enough to affect coffee. Experts predict that in a few years Africa will struggle to produce coffee, as it will get too hot. Nagaland, meanwhile, is poised for growth!
It was Dili Khekho who pioneered the café boom in Nagaland. A teacher of environmental sciences and a biker, Dili fuelled his love for coffee by opening the eponymous D Café in Kohima in September 2016. His hospitality has boosted the café’s success as much as the homely vibe and coffee itself. The Department of Land Resources became a beehive for coffee activity. In 2016, Lichan Humtsoe, a department employee with a background in photography, started the first speciality coffee-roasting company in the Northeast. He called it ‘Eté’ Coffee; ete means ‘ours’ in the Lotha dialect as tribute to Nagaland’s multi-tribal society. Lichan uses beans from Wokha and Mon, locally roasted on the lighter side. He started a coffee school in Jan 2021 and trained over a dozen batches and plans to get into e-commerce. At the quaint Eté Coffee in Kohima, barista Eyilo N Ovung whipped up a Latte and an Americano. The space was earlier a sooty restaurant kitchen until Lichan encouraged guests to scrawl their names on the windowpanes, adding to its industrial style. The soft board is full of praise.
When Pieter first approached the Department of Land Resources, Hoto Yeptho was its Director. His son Vivito worked at Amazon in Pune at that time, before deciding to take the plunge into coffee. Vivito says, “Pieter mentored me and I learnt how coffee is grown and processed. Nagaland Coffee made its debut with a tiny stall at Hornbill Festival in 2017, which gave wider exposure to the product. I did a SCA-certified barista course from Kathmandu in 2018, followed it up with a course in coffee roasting and have been SCA member since 2019. Pieter ran a café in Dimapur for a year, but it was tough handling things remotely from South Africa, so I took over the coffee shop.”
Initially, it was a challenge to educate people about coffee as they treated it as a substitute, sometimes adding it to tea, jokingly called ‘Naga Chai’! But now, Nagas are beginning to understand coffee. Tea has been the dominant beverage, but the number of people drinking filter coffee has shot up thanks to a booming coffee scene and the emergence of Nagaland coffee. Having been exposed to café culture in other cities, the youth appreciate it more. “Yet, theoretical knowledge is not enough — it’s 20% theory, 80% practical. We do internships and have trained people for different cafés — Room 03, Eté Patisserie, Bistro 29 and B’ Café in Dimapur and Symphony Café in Kohima.”
Vivito is optimistic that Nagaland coffee has the potential to be globally known and rank among the best in the world. “The flavour of coffee grown here is unlike any other. If you do a blind taste between Blue Tokai, Third Wave and Koinonia coffee from Chikmagalur, they will all have a similar profile, but Nagaland coffee will stand out! The coffee gives those distinct notes because of terroir. Khar in Mokokchung district is the biggest and oldest farm in Nagaland, accounting for 8-9 tonnes annually. The cupping profile is a nutty, chocolatey caramel that lends itself well for darker roasts and espresso machines. Coffee from Mon, Wokha and Zunheboto is fruity, acidic and light, hence manual brews like French press are ideal to bring out the flavour. We have house specials like the almond-flavoured Queen’s Americano, Pumpkin Spiced Latte with special organic spice blend and Barrel Cold Brew, where the beans are alcohol-fermented in scotch whisky.”
The latest entrant among Third Wave coffee shops is Shiro Roastery, run by 29-year-old Rowang. “I tasted real coffee for the first time in 2016 at The Roastery in Bengaluru. I was working at Amazon Prime as a photographer and had to commute an hour each day to the World Trade Centre,” says Rowang. Plagued by thoughts of being a corporate slave all his life, he frequented the coffee shop every week, to relax. “I loved the coffee ambience and aroma. The owner was Korean and I travelled to South Korea in 2018 and fell in love with Seoul’s coffee scene with hundreds of cafés packed with people. I returned to Dimapur to help dad with his water filtration business and did intensive research into coffee between 2019-21. Nagaland coffee was good but not consistent so I sourced single origin Arabica from Chikmagalur, specifically roasted to 165 degrees, based on customer trials. I begged for a bank loan and there were times when I almost gave up! Eight months later, I sold my car and with a five-lakh loan from North East Development Finance Corporation, opened Shiro Roastery in February 2022.”
Literally ‘white’ or ‘pure’, Shiro’s interiors are stark. People love the personal attention and service. Initially, his father was skeptical and asked, “Who will pay 100 bucks for a coffee?” Now he drops by after work to see how the café is doing. Rowang dreams of starting a franchise in Kohima, Shillong and Guwahati, followed by Delhi and Bengaluru.
We drove from Dimapur to Medziphema to meet Zakietsono or ‘Atsi’ Jamir, hailed as the ‘Coffee Lady of Nagaland’. As distributor of Lavazza coffee beans for years, she was the only woman independently linked to the coffee industry in Nagaland. In 2016, she attended a coffee workshop in Guwahati and after a barista skill and manual brewing course from Araku Coffee in Bengaluru, opened a coffee shop in her hometown in November 2019. She painted and decorated it herself and called it Farmer’s Square because of her focus on the environment, nature and organic produce. A purist, she serves no food, except cookies. “It’s a coffee shop,” she insists, “not a café”.
With Dimapur and Kohima doing well with their niche of local coffee, Atsi wanted the community to explore other speciality coffees from outside Nagaland. She uses 100% Arabica from Beanrove in Bengaluru, run by 5th-gen coffee grower and roaster Shravan DS of Kalledevarapura Estate. Another coffee is ‘Boss’s Wife’ from Savorworks in Delhi, run by Baninder Singh, ‘India’s first Specialty Sardar Coffee Roaster’! It’s a house blend of Riverdale and Stanmore Estate coffees and Baninder’s wife had a hand in it, hence the name. We order a cappuccino. “The real test of a cappuccino is to remove the cream on top and you should see bubbles. The correct serving temperature is 85 degrees, because when you heat it beyond that, it goes bitter and you have to add sugar,” says Atsi. She plans to make her coffee shop an educational centre to generate employment for youngsters.
A revolution is brewing in Nagaland… Earlier coffee was grown in border areas because of proximity to markets in Assam, but sample roasts from other districts like Kiphire, Phek and Longleng show promise. Currently, 18,000 acres in Kohima, Wokha, Mokokchung, Phek, Kiphire and Tuensang districts are under coffee plantation; the plan is to add another 20,000 acres. Over 11 lakh coffee saplings have been planted across Nagaland in the last seven years and 2,000 families are already part of the community. With Assam being synonymous with tea, the day is not far when Nagaland will be famous for coffee! Be warned, it’s gonna be a storm in a coffee cup.
Getting there: Fly via Kolkata to Dimapur and drive 74 km to Kohima.
Nagaland Coffee Shop
Circular Road, Next to Domino’s Pizza, N.S.T. Colony, Dimapur
Timings: 10 am–7 pm
Dr. Belho’s Clinic, Walford Road, Bank Colony, Dimapur
Timings: 10 am–8 pm
Kuotsu Complex, Near Cooperative Bank, Medziphema
Timings: 9 am–7 pm
Ph: 70055 18714
Jail Colony, Kohima
Timings: 9:30 am–7 pm
Ph: 97742 85458
Opp Kohima Post Office, Kohima
Timings: 12 pm – 8 pm
Ph 87949 42181