Not only is Dope one of the finest purveyors of coffee in India, it is also one of the most offbeat. Its founder Rizwan Amlani is on a mission to transform India’s coffee-drinking culture, one coffee cup at a time.
The tall man sitting across the table from me looks worried. “Coffee may not exist in the next 20 years.” he announces. “Climate change is the biggest factor. The elevations of Arabica plantations have been going up in the last five years. And nobody’s talking about it.” Rizwan Amlani, founder of Dope Coffee Roasters, sees the future as Robusta. “It’s a sturdier plant with a flavour profile that hasn’t been appreciated enough,” he says, “And maybe even lab-grown coffee.”
Coffee is in Rizwan’s DNA. The first brand that the Amlanis—Rizwan and his elder brother Riyaaz, MD and CEO of Impresario Restaurants—created was the café-lounge chain Mocha, born in the terrace area of Berry’s, a restaurant their father owned in Mumbai’s Churchgate.
Rizwan, who grew up in Mumbai (“I went to a strict Jesuit school”) trained as a chef at the Culinary Institute of America. Then he worked in New York for some time, with some of the best chefs in the business. Specialising in classic French cuisine, it was a period of great learning for him. He worked with the likes of Daniel Boulud, José Andrés and Jacques Pépin. “I was a saucier,” he recalls, “first person to get in, last person to get out. I used to get in with the bakers and leave with the dessert guys.” As a saucier in a prep kitchen in New York, you live your life in a poky basement. “That’s why I have these drooping shoulders,” jokes Rizwan, “But Daniel Boulud always treated his chefs well and ensured each had a large work station.” The parents were not well, so Rizwan came back to Mumbai eventually and headed The Tasting Room for a while.
“When I was at my peak level of frustration with how we treat our produce in India, Nitu Pohoomul, a de-caffeinator by profession [and soon to be one of Dope’s co-founders] came to the rescue,” says Rizwan. Nitu would extract caffeine from coffee and sell it to energy drink companies. Dope Coffee Roasters started life as Roasted Today, to sell the decaf coffee that was left over after the extraction.
The Amlanis had been trying to do something with coffee ever since the Mocha days. Every time, they faced a roadblock since good coffee was in short supply. “The best coffee was being exported because in those markets they don’t mind paying the top dollar. Coffee is most drunk where it is not grown,” says Rizwan.
He realised that roasting coffee is very similar to cooking. That’s how Roasted Today was born. Two years of R&D followed as they did not want to start a new venture until they had established a direct connection with the farmers. “We didn’t want any middlemen,” says Rizwan, “so we built a relationship with the farmers. Now six coffee estates are our regular suppliers and there are more are on a rotation basis. Two of our coffees are an ode to the Indian coffee tradition: Monsoon Malabar and Mysore Nuggets. We work closely with the farmers on the processing after cherry picking, to control the sugar content in the coffee, and so on.”
Some ‘dope’ branding gave Roasted Today a cool, new avatar: Dope Coffee Roasters. “The rebranding was a statement. Why should coffee be looked at only one way?” asks Rizwan, “You can either make fun of the branding or you can take the art super seriously. Either way, it’s a conversation starter.” Certainly the colourful street art gracing the packaging is a far cry from the staid browns and oranges one usually associates with coffee packaging. They sell about 16 varieties at a time. A lot of limited editions were launched in the lockdown. Dope has also done India’s first barrel-aged whisky robusta with Amrut casks.
At their main outlet in the Mathuradas Mill Compound in Lower Parel, the showpiece is a 35 lakh-rupee Probat coffee machine from Germany, which can roast 12-kilo batches of coffee beans at a time with great precision and finesse. This is where all of Dope’s coffee is roasted, eventually making its way as far afield as Japan.
As a conscious brand, Dope is very particular about traceability. Their single-origin coffees are traceable to the block or acre where the coffee was picked. The single-estate coffees are 99.99 per cent traceable up to the person who picked the coffee, who roasted it and who brewed it. “If you want to be a geek, we can be as geeky as you want. But we keep it very simple,” says Rizwan, “We see Dope as a first-contact brand. We are the brand that tells you, if you don’t know about coffee, no worries, I’ll show you.”
I ask to be shown. Once I’ve sheepishly admitted to a preference for Americanos (but nothing too acidic), Rizwan nudges me towards a Kaladevapura Estate, pour-over style. That’s a style developed by the Japanese, who are, of course, all about refinement. “The Japanese replaced temperature with time. Cold brewing is a very forgiving method. You can’t f*** it up,” says Rizwan. Indeed, the coffee that arrives is smooth as silk and easy to drink. It’s served with some delicious but not overpowering naankhatai-style cookies. Dope Coffee seems to have arrived on the scene at the right time, when the Indian coffee market is maturing and needs a nudge in the right direction.
The coffee evangelist continues to hold forth. “We have a huge legacy issue with coffee in India,” he says, “We got cheated of our best produce, by every colonisation. The best stuff got exported and we were left with the bottom-of-the-pyramid stuff. Then chicory was added for volume. People couldn’t afford it otherwise. Indians were not drinking the best coffee. Dope is our answer to all those legacy issues. We are saying we need to present Indian coffee to the world, not just to India.”
“The way Dope has been presented as a brand, we have kept an American market in mind, a European market, a Japanese market…,” says Rizwan. “This is the international avatar of Indian coffee,” he concludes.