When Mithilesh Vazalwar quit his job as a chartered accountant for a career in specialty coffee, he had not envisioned becoming the first Indian Aeropress Champion, one of the leading coffee roasters in India or the owner of a café. Five years down the line, he has achieved all of this and more.
Fuelled by his long-simmering passion for coffee, the Nagpur-based entrepreneur founded Corridor Seven Coffee Roasters. He refused to be bogged down by the juggernaut of commercial coffee brands and carved a space for himself by experimenting with the brewing techniques and flavor profiles.
We caught up with him to talk about the perfect brew for his coffee and success:
What sparked your interest in coffee roasting?
I have always loved coffee. I started playing badminton when I was ten, and I used to travel for the tournaments. Wherever I went, I always had coffee. I loved the taste, but back then I hadn’t envisioned a career in and around coffee.
When I was pursuing my chartered accountancy, I went to Australia on a work-related trip. Until then, I didn’t know anything about coffee. I hadn’t even seen a green bean before that. It was during that trip that I got introduced to coffee roasters and Q-Graders. I also attended a two-day coffee workshop there. That is where it all began. I came back to India, quit my job, and decided to pursue this instead.
You won the Indian Aeropress Championship in 2017 and also participated in the World Championship. Could you tell us about the experience?
Yes, I was the winner of the first Indian Aeropress Championship. That is how I got to participate in the World Aeropress Championship in Seoul, South Korea. Unfortunately, I couldn’t win that. However, I cherish that experience immensely.
I got to meet all the giants of the coffee business. It was amazing! I also cleared the Q-grading and the Specialty Coffee Association certification exams. I had been preparing for the tests for almost two years. I trained with Alexandru Niculae, the World Roasting Champion of the previous year, for ten days in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I spent three months in Melbourne with coffee roasters and Q-graders learning the ropes of the business from them. It was rigorous but fulfilling.
In 2017, you started Corridor Seven as a roastery. When did you decide to open up a café?
Honestly, starting a café was never on my mind. We started off as roasters. I was travelling a lot. So, I just wanted to roast coffee and ship it everywhere. I still say that we are a roastery first and then a café. The café just came about serendipitously. When we started the roastery, people used to come down just to chat with us. It soon started feeling like our own drawing room where friends and family came and spent time with us. They even started bringing lunch for us. Some of them got us some stools and chairs. That’s when the idea of a café started shaping up in my mind.
Corridor Seven is an interesting name. What's the story behind it?
The name Corridor Seven goes back to my first memory of coffee. There was a corridor in my school which used to smell of freshly-brewed coffee. There was a room along the corridor where coffee used to be brewed every day for the teachers. The students were not permitted to enter the room but my friend and I used to sneak up to that corridor and just smell the coffee. As far as I remember, that is my earliest and the most enduring memory of coffee. And the Seven in Corridor Seven represents the seven green coffee beans that were smuggled into India by a Sufi saint called Baba Budan. He planted those beans in Chikmagalur, Karnataka. That is how India started growing coffee. So, the name Corridor Seven speaks about my first memory of coffee as well as India’s first memory of it.
As a brand, Corridor Seven simply stands for a great coffee experience. I always tell my team that we are not in the coffee business but in the experience business. So, we strive to promote a culture where we can build connections with our customers, have stimulating interactions about coffee and provide a memorable experience.
How do you source your coffee beans?
We source our coffee green beans directly from farmers across various coffee estates in India. I visit the estates, talk to the farmers, look at their farming mechanism, see if they are open to experimentation and then decide if I want to source the beans. I visit the same estates after a year to see the consistency in quality and then place a bigger order. We then cup the coffee to see if it has the same taste and quality that we expected. Coffee cupping is the process in which coffees are scored on various aspects such as flavor, aroma, acidity, mouth-feel, aftertaste, etc. If it lives up to the quality standards, we then place an order for the whole batch.
Have your personal preferences for particular flavors of coffee ever been in conflict with the flavors that worked with your customers?
I believe that the customers aren’t always aware of what is out there. So it is on us as experience providers to give them the opportunity to explore various interesting options. But to answer your question, we did have a conflict of tastes initially. Our customers didn’t like some coffees that we absolutely loved, but we have got the hang of it now. We also tell all our customers that if they don’t like a coffee that we have brewed then it’s on the house. This is something I have strictly adhered to since the beginning.
What are some blends that are popular with your customers?
Milk chocolate, dark chocolate and caramel flavors, as well as coffees with zesty flavor notes are quite popular among our customers. I prefer the coffee from Riverdale Estate in Yercaud, Tamil Nadu. It has flavor notes of jackfruit, plum and honey. I believe that it is one of the finest coffees produced in India.
You also conduct coffee workshops at the café. Tell us more about that.
We have coffee brewing and cupping workshops. We also have a fun initiative called Brewer Of The Day. The idea behind all this is to involve the community in the process of coffee brewing and roasting and make them aware about what goes on behind the scenes. With initiatives like Brewer Of The Day, we give our customers a chance to work with us behind the bar.
Waiters, helpers and baristas are often looked down upon by society. It is our little attempt of reducing the stigma around these professions and giving our customers a glimpse into the life of a barista. So the brewer of the day assists us in brewing and serving coffee for one day. These workshops and initiatives are our attempt at promoting a culture of coffee aficionados and connoisseurs and making people aware about career prospects in this field.
Are there any specific courses, workshops or exams that you would recommend to the people interested in the coffee business?
There are exams conducted by the Specialty Coffee Association as well as the Q-Grading tests. But, you need intensive training and preparation to crack them. I am not really an advocate for courses because I believe that the only way to learn about coffee is to learn on the job. Get your hands dirty! It starts with brewing coffee at home every day.
No course can teach you what you would learn on the job. I cupped coffee every day for two years before I gave my exams. Beyond that, you can attend workshops for guidance. There are several coffee brewing and cupping workshops being conducted across the country. Work with professional roasters and Q-graders.
At Corridor Seven, we are in the process of designing a four-part module which entails different aspects of the coffee business- tasting, brewing, roasting and green bean management. There would be a five-day training program for each aspect.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
If you’re coming into the coffee business just because you think it’s cool, then you would never make it. I have seen a few people fizzle out because they came into the business with the wrong ideas and intentions. There is a lot of work that goes into this business. You have to talk to the investors and loaners as well as sweep the floors and clean the drains.
There is a lot more to it than just brewing a cup of latte. So, it’s a great job to have only if you are passionate about it, are aware of the potential pitfalls and are willing to toil ceaselessly.
Images by Corridor Seven.